John Hanning Speke (4 May 1827 – 15 September 1864) was an officer in the British Indian Army who made three exploratory expeditions to Africa and who is most associated with the search for the source of the Nile and the discovery and naming of Lake Victoria.
Discovering the Source of the Nile proved to be a most tantalizing prospect for many Adventurers during the Victorian Age. It can only be compared with the modern day quest to put man on the moon in terms of the sheer fascination of the public with the subject.
Whoever would lay hold of this, the “Holy Grail” of British Exploratory zeal was sure to win for himself fame, wealth and nobility.Amongst those that set out for this prize were the religious like David Livingstone, the greedy like Stanly and those who saw a path to immortality like James Burton and John Hanning Speke.
Burton and Speke set of for a joint expedition which from its onset was fraught with mishaps and calamities and culminated in a bed-ridden Burton being left behind while a virtually blind John Hanning Speke proceeded to the southern shores of Lake Victoria.
The locals told of a vast river at the northen tip of the Lake Nalubaale (meaning “of the gods”), which Speke renamed Lake Victoria a tribute to his financial benefactors, the British Royal Family.Speke concluded that this must therefore be the Source of the Nile and returned to proclaim his discovery.
Burton however contended that Speke never actually saw the Nile, and suggested instead that Lake Tanganyika was the Source of River Nile.
It was Burton who was believed and knighted with the noble “Sir”.
The day Speke was to present evidence of his claim that it was Lake Nalubaale rather than Tanganyika that was the Source of River Nile he tragically shot himself while scaling a wall with his hunting rifle hanging at his side.
It was through analysis of his notes that the truth was finally established and a monument was erected on the western bank of the River Nile, which today is in Buikwe District modern day Uganda.
Speke was born on 4 May 1827 at Orleigh Court, Buckland Brewer near Bideford, North Devon. In 1844 he was commissioned into the British army and posted to India, where he served under Sir Colin Campbell during the First Anglo-Sikh War.
He spent his leave exploring the Himalayan Mountains and Mount Everest and once crossed into Tibet.
In 1854 he made his first voyage to Africa, joining an expedition to Somalia led by the already famous Richard Burton. The expedition did not go well. The party was attacked and Burton and Speke were both severely wounded.
Speke was captured and stabbed several times with spears before he was able to free himself and escape. Burton escaped with a javelin impaling both cheeks. Speke returned to England to recover and then served in the Crimean War.
In 1856, Speke and Burton went to East Africa to find the Great Lakes, which were rumoured to exist in the centre of the continent. It was hoped that the expedition would locate the source of the Nile.
The journey was extremely strenuous and both men fell ill from a variety of tropical diseases. Speke suffered severely when he became temporarily deaf after a beetle crawled into his ear and he tried to remove it with a knife.
He also later went temporarily blind. After an arduous journey, the two became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika (although Speke was still blind at this point and could not properly see the lake).
They heard of a second lake in the area, but Burton was too sick to make the trip. Speke went alone and became the first European to visit Lake Victoria. It was this lake that eventually proved to be the source of the River Nile.
However, much of the expedition’s survey equipment had been lost at this point and thus vital questions about the height and extent of the lake could not be answered.
Speke returned to England before Burton, on 8 May 1859, and made their trip famous in a speech to the Royal Geographical Society, in which he claimed to have discovered the source of the Nile.
When Burton returned on 21 May, he was angered by Speke’s precipitous announcements, believing that they violated an agreement that the two men would speak to the society together.
A further rift was caused when Speke was chosen to lead a subsequent expedition instead of Burton. The two presented joint papers concerning the expedition to the Royal Geographical Society on 13 June 1859.
Together with James Augustus Grant, Speke left from Zanzibar in October 1860. When they reached Uganda, Grant travelled north and Speke continued his journey towards the west.
Speke reached Lake Victoria on 28 July 1862 and then travelled on the west side around Lake Victoria without actually seeing much of it; but on the north side of the lake, Speke found the Nile flowing out of it and discovered the Ripon Falls.
Speke then sailed down the Nile and he was reunited with Grant. Next he travelled to Gondokoro in Southern Sudan, where he met Samuel Baker and his wife, continuing to Khartoum, from which he sent a celebrated telegram to London: “The Nile is settled.”
Speke’s expedition did not resolve the issue, however. Burton claimed that because Speke had not followed the Nile from the place it flowed out of Lake Victoria to Gondokoro, he could not be sure they were the same.