Source of the Nile

Source of the Nile

During the 19th century, the lake became the focus of much European attention as explorers struggled to solve the great riddle of the Nile. From the writings of Ptolemy, the ancient explorer, they knew of the existence of a large body of water at the Nile’s beginning, but countless expedition, including Livingstone’s to Lake Tanganyika, proved fruitless.

Success finally came with an expedition in 1858 by the renowned Anglo-Irish explorer Richard Burton. Burton was determined to find the Source of the Nile and mounted a major expedition. He was accompanied by John Hanning Speke, an inexperienced officer from a wealthy and influential family. The men made an epic journey across East Africa, suffering terrible injuries along the way.

Speke’s eardrum was almost destroyed when a beetle burrowed into his ear, and Burton was crippled by an infection of both of his legs. While Burton was recovering with some Arab traders and planning to return to the coast, Speke made a last ditch effort to explore further north, and came upon the waters of the Nyanza.

Speke was dyslexic and unable to properly use geographical instruments, and failed to take any conclusive measurements. Regardless, he christened the lake, Victoria, in honour of his Queen, and then returned to the coast. Upon reaching Zanzibar, Burton, not fully recovered, stayed on to recuperate.

He was later horrified to learn that Speke has returned to London and publicly declared that he had discovered the Source of the Nile. Speke became a hero, and he and Burton became bitter enemies. Burton challenged him to a debate at the Royal Geographic Society.

Speke was mortified at the prospect of presenting his poor evidence to the esteemed society, and on the morning of the debate, died in a mysterious ‘shooting accident’ in a field near his home. Some years later, an expedition was to prove that Speke was correct, and that Victoria was the true Source of the Nile.


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