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  • Cartographical Quandaries: The Limits of Knowledge Production in Burton’s and Speke’s Search for the Source of the Nile
  • Adrian S. Wisnicki


When he sighted the southern end of Lake Victoria on 3 August 1858, John Hanning Speke (1859b:397) realized that he had discovered the “source” of the White Nile, the most important tributary of the Nile proper, and so had “almost, if not entirely, solved a problem which it has been the first geographical desideratum of many thousand years to ascertain, and the ambition of the first monarchs of the world to unravel.” That Speke was an unknown explorer and that he had made his discovery on a solo “flying trip” during the East African Expedition of 1856–59, which, under the command of the renowned explorer Richard Francis Burton, had already also discovered Lake Tanganyika, made Speke’s accomplishment all the more remarkable.

As contemporaries soon asserted, Speke’s discovery culminated a historical series of excursions, real and imagined, into the interior of Africa and placed Speke at the pinnacle of a line of explorers and geographers that ran from Herodotus, Julius Caesar, and Ptolemy to, in more recent times, James Bruce (the Scotsman who “discovered” the source of the Blue Nile, the second most important tributary of the Nile, in 1770), the German missionaries Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann (who “discovered,” respectively, the snow-capped mountains of Kilimanjaro in 1848 and Kenya in 1849), and noted “armchair geographers” like W.D. Cooley, Charles Beke, and James M’Queen.

Speke’s achievement thus secured a prominent place for the East African Expedition (EAE) in the annals of mid-Victorian exploration in Africa. In his address to the Royal Geographical Society in 1852, President [End Page 455] Roderick Murchison (1852:cxxiii–cxxiv), anticipating an explorer like Speke, asserted that whoever located “the true sources of the White Nile” would “be justly considered among the greatest benefactors of this age to geographical science,”1 while the RGS President in 1856, Frederick William Beechey (1856:ccxiii), linked the work of the EAE both to individual fame and substantial British economic benefit: “[t]he thickly-inhabited towns and large rivers mentioned by the Arabs—the vast inland sea of Niassa mentioned by Erhardt—alone would immortalize the discoverer who should undertake the task; while the existence of mines of copper and other precious metals in that direction, if true, would bid fair to repay the toil.” Periodical writers, in turn, framed the accomplishments of the EAE, and Speke in particular, in broader national terms: “[i]n our Arctic, Australian, and African explorers, we have all those qualities which we consider typical of the race brought out in strongest relief. They are, in fact, our representative men” (Oliphant 1863:265).

From a more immediate contemporary perspective, Speke’s discovery ensured that the EAE could rival David Livingstone’s famous transcontinental African journey of 1852–56, and, further, suggested that a new era of British colonial achievement in Africa had begun. The EAE, some argued, had “confirmed in a striking manner the anticipations of science,” had “invested a long-neglected continent with fresh interest and attraction,” had revealed that the lakes were “doubtless destined to figure conspicuously in the future of civilized Africa,” and, finally, had shown that the Nile—like the Zambezi in Livingstone’s imperial game plan—could be “another great practicable highway into the very centre” of the continent (Tremenheere 1861:513ff).

However, despite Britain’s failure to realize these early colonial aspirations, twenty years after the fact praise of the EAE had still not abated. Writing in 1877, Rutherford Alcock (1877:85), one-time President of the RGS, reviewed the “muster-roll” of African explorers and affirmed that “in the foremost rank Burton, Speke, and Grant, by whom the great lakes and ‘the mystic fountains of the Nile’ were unveiled,” while Andrew Wilson (1877:688) used terms even more emphatic: “[t]he great era of modern African travel commenced with the discovery of the lake region of Central Africa by Captain Richard Burton and Captain Hanning Speke.”

Yet Speke’s discovery, whatever its splendor, also brought the deteriorating relations between himself and Richard Burton to a crisis...


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