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Among other projects, the RGS was especially keen to explore the uncharted territories of Africa.

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It asked Burton to go the African mountains and lakes, and it was hoped that he would solve the mystery of the source of the Nile. Speke gladly accepted Burton's invitation, and soon they both arrived in Zanzibar en route to the inner regions. But, initially, Burton confined himself to finding the Sea of Ujji Lake Tanganyika , which was apparently his obsession.

Burton and Speke trudged through the dense terrain, and after travelling for days arrived at the Arab trading settlement in Tabora where they were very hospitably received by the Arab slave-owners. The Arabs told the visitors that there were three lakes in the vicinity: Lake Malawi to the south, Lake Ukerewe to the north and Lake Tanganyika to the west. Burton fell seriously ill, and Speke developed ophthalmic problems. Nevertheless, they continued their journey and arrived at Lake Tanganyika. It was the biggest lake that any European had seen — about miles wide — and at an elevation of 1, feet.

Burton was convinced that he had reached the mouth of the Nile. Unfortunately, though, his illness worsened and he became practically incapacitated.

Explorers of the Nile : The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure

Speke in the meantime decided to go to the western part of the lake. After crossing the river, he took some rest. But he was attacked vigorously by beetles, one of which got into his ear. The insect was killed but Speke hurt his ear grievously, and suffered for it for the rest of his life. Still, Speke was undeterred. While he was on the western coast, he was excited to learn that there was a big river flowing north. When he reported this to Burton on his return, the latter was convinced that they were near the source of the Nile.

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However, Burton learnt soon afterwards that Speke's information was incorrect. But he was too weak to make any further investigations. It seems a shame that there is no monument here to Speke, who gave the lake the name by which it is now known.


At this point, remembering that Burton had previously expressed a desire to go to the northern lake which the Arabs called Ukerewe, Speke decided to go there on his own. He gathered a caravan of thirty-four men and set out on 9 July After about three weeks the party entered a valley nearing a vast lake. On arriving at the lake, Speke was again convinced that he had reached his destination. Locally, the lake was called Nyanza, but Speke decided to name it Lake Victoria. Local rivalries prevented him from making further explorations, so he returned to Burton and told him of his discovery.

Burton did not want to be upstaged. Because of jealousy or spite, he was reluctant to believe what Speke told him, and said more reconnaissance was needed. He, of course, was too ill to undertake such a journey. So they both decided to go back to Aden and return to England. However, the doctor at Aden forbade any further travel for Burton, so Speke ended up going back alone. Burton later claimed that he and Speke had promised to go to the RSG together to report on their journey to the north. But, once in England, Speke made his Nile claim public and published his findings in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in This of course completed the breach between the two explorers.

The RGS acted on the letter by sending Speke back again to verify and document his assertions. This time, Speke recruited John Grant, a friend from his regiment in India, and they both set out, together with their team, for East Africa.

River Journeys: The Nile

They arrived in Zanzibar in They trekked from the coast into the interior, their destination being the western coast of Lake Victoria. On the way, they encountered terrible obstacles — the desertion of porters, the hostility of the locals and the non-cooperation of local chiefs. On top of this, Grant's health gave way and he was temporarily disabled by a leg ulcer.

He had to be left behind, as Speke determinedly moved north to Buganda. Here he was well received by the Bugandan king, who asked his men to show Speke the way to the north of Lake Victoria. Reaching spectacular falls known locally as "The Stones" in July , Speke was convinced that he had arrived at his destination, and christened them the Ripon Falls.

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But this was merely an assertion, not scientific proof. He did not follow the Nile river closely. This led his critics, especially Burton, to question his claims yet again. On his return, Speke wrote about his discovery under the title, The Journal of the Source of the Nile in This was published by Blackwood.

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Murchison arranged a debate between Speke and Burton in order finally to settle the matter. Of all the ordeals Speke had been through, this was perhaps the worst. He was clearly rattled by the prospect of a debate with the formidable Burton, with Livingstone in the chair. The day before it was scheduled, he attended a lunch at which Burton was also present. Without finishing his lunch, Speke went off to Wiltshire, and set out with his cousin to shoot partridges at Neston Park. While climbing a wall, he accidentally fell and shot himself.

They alleged that Speke shot himself because he felt that he would be humbled by Burton. Murchison was deeply grieved and perhaps felt that he had had a part in Speke's death. In compensation, and, with the Queen's consent, he called for an obelisk to be erected in his memory in Kensington Gardens. This was done in October This was only rectified in , with the laying of a new, more informative plaque on the grass in front of the monument. That Speke had found the primary source did not discourage them. Baker was the odd man out. Rich enough to fund his own expedition, he turned to the Nile when big-game hunting no longer satisfied him. Florence, whom he had bought as a year-old in a Turkish auction of white slaves, endured malarial fevers and convulsions so violent that the porters began to dig her grave. Hers was to marry him and, eventually, queen it as Lady Baker. Venerated at the RGS, he was determined to crack the mystery: he would find the source if anybody could.

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  6. Livingstone was a Good Man in Africa when what was needed was a more military approach. His porters were idle, and many deserted him; with his chronometers broken, he was left to travel in the wrong direction. This legendary story deserves its place because Stanley and Livingstone did manage to piece together another small part of the jigsaw. But neither of them could bear to leave it at that. In , Livingstone bought a new set of false teeth and set off again on his final, fatal journey, touchingly described here by Tim Jeal.

    He mapped a key lake and proved that the Nile had nothing to do with that other great African river, the Congo. The question is - why did these explorers keep going back and back, when the most important discovery had already been recorded? It all goes back to Richard Burton. He was outraged that Speke, his deputy, should have should have got the glory, and the RGS Gold Medal, instead of him.

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    I was filled with fury, reading how this great Englishman was hounded right up until his death, possibly by suicide, in Burton and his widow were able to muddy the waters so that, until now, no-one has known the truth, and biographers have mostly accepted the Burton version. It may be too late to grant Speke a posthumous knighthood, but it must be heart-warming for his descendants to know the truth.