Here at last I stood on the brink of the Nile; most beautiful was the scene---nothing could surpass it! It was the very perfection of the kind of effect aimed at in a highly kept park; with a magnificent stream from 600 to 700 yards wide, dotted with islets and rocks, the former occupied by fishermen's huts, the latter by sterns and crocodiles basking in the sun--flowing between fine high grassy banks, with rich trees and plantains in the background, where herds of the nsunn and hartebeest could be seen grazing, while the hippopatami were snorting in the water, and florikan and guinea-fowl rising at our feet.
John Hanning Speke entered the above notation, in what would become the Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, on the 21st of July in 1862. It is a stupendous journal as was the expedition that took him there; one that really began some eight years before when he joined up with Richard Francis Burton to explore East Africa. Understand, deep inside from the very beginning, John Speke had two things in mind; the exploration and discovery of the fauna of Africa and the discovery of the source of the Nile.
John Speke was born on the 4th of May in 1827, at Jordans near Ilminster, Somersetshire. His father was a descendant from the Yorkshire family of Espec, which had migrated to Somerset in the 15th century. His mother, Georgina Elizabeth Hanning, was the daughter of wealthy local merchants, and also from Somerset. It was her influence with the Duke of Wellington which was responsible for young Speke to have received a commission in the Indian Army, which he entered in 1844. The lack of further information about Speke's youth is puzzling, but one can presume a great interest in nature, since his observations and interest in the flora and fauna of both India and Africa are marvelously keen. His explorations into such affairs began in India, while serving in the fighting brigade under Sir Cohn Cambell. It was here while on furlough, that Speke would explore the Himalayas and Tibet and where his reputation as a soldier, sportsman and naturalist began to grow.
In 1854, after ten years of service to the Queen, Speke was afforded an opportunity to join an expedition in East Africa under the guidance, or shall we say command, of Richard Francis Burton. An inauspicious beginning it was, when during their initial trek into Somaliland,
the expedition was attacked by Somalis near Berbera and both Burton and Speke were seriously wounded. So it was back to England for rest and recuperation, until 1856, when once again, Burton sought Spekes company for another African adventure, specifically to verify the existence of great lakes in east central Africa, with special emphasis on finding Lake Nyassa, believed at the time to be the source of the Nile.
In 1857, Speke and Burton began a six month journey, which ended at Lake Tanganyika in February of 1858. Having been assured by a local chieftan that the source of the Nile was the northern-most lake, Speke, this time without Burton, located what would become known as Lake Victoria and was certain of its prominence as the source. Speke returned to camp, with his discovery and theory but was at once rebuffed by Burton, who believed Lake Tanganyika to be the source. Returning to London to announce his historic discovery, Speke was met with much scepticism and doubt. Much ballyhoo followed and the Royal Geographic Society decided to end this debate once and for all. They would sponsor one more trip.
This time Speke, being honored for his previous exploits, was chosen to lead the expedition with assistance from James Augustus Grant. They left from Zanzibar in October of 1860 and together mapped a portion of Lake Victoria. But once again, on his own, with porters of course, Speke discovered the small cataract, which he named Ripon Falls, where the lake overflowed and gave birth to the Nile.
From the high banks we looked downupon a line of sloping wooded islets lying across the stream, which more fairy-like, wild, and romantic...it was exactly the sort of place, in fact, where to enact some dreadful tragedy. Even the Wanguna seemed spell-bound at the novel beauty of the sight and no one thought of moving till hunger warned us night was setting in, and we had better look out for lodgings.
Returning to London, this time certain of his finding, Speke published Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, but was was still being met with opposition by Burton and others. The controversy was finally brought to public light. In 1864, both Burton and Speke were invited to present their opinions and evidence in what was becoming known as "the Nile duel." Unfortunately, Speke died in a hunting accident on September 16, 1864, the day before the debate was to take place, an accident that many attributed to suicide. Since then his "source" has been verified time and time again. Today in Kensington Gardens in London, a simple obelisk of red granite , bears on its west face the cryptic inscription:
In Memory of
And the Nile 1864
Fortunately, Speke's legacy lives on in the love he had for the animals of East Africa. Animals that Speke "discovered" and first described to the west and in which his name is attached to today, include: Speke's weaver, a small bird, Speke's Gundi, a rodent, and Speke's gazelle.