Water in the Empty Part of the Map

The treacherous quest for the source of the Nile was the downfall of John Hanning Speke

Lake Victoria (Damiano Luchetti)
Lake Victoria (Damiano Luchetti)


The Strange Lake on the Map

When John Hanning Speke discovered the lake, he killed three birds to celebrate. He could not rejoice with his African porters because he did not speak their language, and in any case, the lake was not new to them. Some of them had visited its banks before, eaten the fish pulled out of its waters, carried in their livers flukes contracted while bathing in its shallows. If the porters rejoiced, it was not for the discovery of the lake, but rather for the sheer expanse of the water before them, the shimmer off it, a sweet-water sea.

Upon returning to England, Speke wrote a book about finding the lake in which he describes this scene. What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile was a nonfiction adventure book, a popular genre in Victorian times, when so much of the world seemed ripe to be plucked and devoured. Speke wrote it in a hurry, hoping to finish before his traveling companion, Sir Richard Francis Burton, more famous as both an adventurer and a writer, could complete a similar work of his own.

Speke shot one of the birds as it was drying its plumage on the shore, opening and closing its wings slowly, revealing white feathers like underclothes. A mere florican, it was not exotic enough to bring back to England, so he shared its meat with his guide, an Arab trader named Mansur, who had lost his cargo and had been reduced, of late, to eating sorghum porridge.

Mansur explained that the dimensions of the lake were unknown. It stretched, he said, “to the end of the world.” I imagine Speke looking toward the watery northern horizon, visible from his vantage on a hill, and pushing his tinted spectacles up on the bridge of his nose. His glasses made him a curiosity among the Africans, and he often didn’t wear them, despite the relief they gave his eyes, often inflamed, occasionally to the point of blindness. In his notebook, he began to calculate the number of beads he had with him, how much food he had, how many canoes he would need to beg, borrow, or steal to move his men across this supposedly immeasurable distance.

Speke may have hoped for something bigger to kill, something more befitting the occasion. A wildebeest. A rhinoceros. A bull elephant. It was 1858, and he’d arrived at the source of the Nile. In England, they said it would be the biggest geographical discovery since Columbus stumbled onto the Americas. The Nile was the world’s longest river, and it had the potential to open up the hinterlands of Africa to the trading centers of Europe.

The desire to discover a place unknown since the time of Ptolemy was, in the minds of most people from Speke’s native Devon, inexplicable, even unnatural. But Speke did not consider himself to be like most men. He had left England as an officer and had proved adept at killing during his service in India. It was game, however, not men, that he wished to hunt—in particular, species previously unknown to the Western world. He’d sent back to London the bodies of countless wild Himalayan goats, their horns curved like Indian swords, their woolly hides tufted and thick.

The biggest, strangest game was in Africa. So Speke traveled to the Dark Continent. Only after knowing Burton did Speke begin to desire yet more. If Burton, with his unseemly proclivities—he’d measured and recorded the lengths of penises on three continents—could sit among the men of the Royal Geographical Society, surely Speke could, too. Speke could draw a map, measure altitude, and shoot a sparrow at a hundred yards. But he could be better than a mere journeyman explorer. He could sit among the well-born and learned men with his head held high, despite his status as a second son and his exclusively military education. The men of the society may have been the inheritors of great English estates, but Speke, if successful, could accede to the empty space on the maps, the large interior of a continent.

He envisioned steamships upon the pale blue waters of the lake. Where smoke rose from fires in grass-thatched huts, he saw factories and mills. An airship, despite being invented by a Frenchman, could ferry passengers between the lake’s archipelagos. By God, it was beautiful.

Or it could have been. Speke felt God’s absence in Africa. To him, Africans were so obviously the children of Ham that his travels there provided him with “a strikingly existing proof of the Holy Scriptures.” He was not a missionary, but he believed in their cause.

Speke had left Burton bedridden in Kazé (the present-day city of Tabora, in Tanzania), several weeks’ march away, so he was the only Englishman to stand on the shores of the lake he now named for his queen. Queen Victoria, almost as wide as she was tall, was a good namesake for a lake that stretched on forever. Years later, she would be buried in her wedding veil, a froth of white at her brow. The White Nile, one of the Nile’s two tributaries, flowed from the north end of the biggest lake in Africa into the ancient world before spilling itself into the Mediterranean Sea.


Black Beetles

The benefits of discovering an unknown place in Africa were not as clear in 1858 as they would become later. Cecil John Rhodes—for whom a country would be named and who would found a company that, in its heyday, controlled 90 percent of the world’s diamonds—was only five years old in 1858.

Christopher Columbus’s fate was more typical. He never received the profits originally promised him by the Spanish crown; instead, he and his brothers were put in shackles in Santo Domingo and sent back to Spain. And yet, Speke may have felt a kinship with Columbus, and not just because they were both explorers who suffered from ophthalmia, their eyes exposed to too much bright equatorial light. Columbus likely brought the tomato back to Europe. Without him, the Irish wouldn’t have had the potato, or the Swiss their chocolate. And how intolerable to live without tobacco! The American plains might never have felt the hoof of a horse had it not been for Columbus. Speke imagined a similar legacy for himself. He would find exotic plants that would appear in every larder in Europe. If the resources of the New World had given rise to the Industrial Revolution, the spoils of Africa could lead to even greater heights of civilization.

The costs of exploring Africa were obvious. On his journey to what he hoped would be the source of the Nile, Speke awoke in his tent with pain emanating from inside his head. Head pain was not unusual for him. Often, his eyes hurt him so much, he had to wear a bandage over them and blindly ride on the back of a horse. During his fevers, his head felt like it might be made comfortable only if disconnected from his neck. But the pain this night was singular in its scraping intensity. “I felt inclined to act as our donkeys once did, when beset by a swarm of bees,” Speke writes. “They galloped about in the most distracted order … treading on their heads … rushing under bushes, into houses.”

Inside Speke’s ear was a beetle with large, glossy black mandibles, a beetle that usually fed on ants, slugs, and beetles smaller than itself. A nighttime hunter, it had crawled into what seemed like a tunnel in sun-warmed earth and now, unable to turn around, was struggling to climb out of it. Speke shook his head violently, only agitating the beetle further. He’d used salt, oil, and tobacco with some success in the removal of leeches, but he had none of these supplies in his pack. He warmed butter over the flame of his lantern and poured it into his ear. Speke considered how many hours of pain he could endure before he would go mad. Unable to reach the beetle with his pinky finger or to dislodge it with tip of his pen, he used his penknife to kill the insect, and deafened himself in the process. But even as he returned to his cot, Speke could still not remove the dead beetle from his ear. Over the next few months, it slowly decomposed and pieces of its exoskeleton fell out—a spurred back leg, a wing, and finally, part of its abdomen, dark and shiny as a jewel.

Speke was sometimes described as a fine physical specimen, but when he was ill, Burton belittled him, tolerating illness less in Speke than in other men, it seemed, even though both men were often sick enough to be carried on litters for weeks at a time, unable to rise from their cots to defecate or to bathe. Burton endured his illnesses in silence, as did Speke, until the fevers took hold of his mind and made him call out.

Disease was not the only cost of exploration. Speke wore evidence of spear wounds on his torso, legs, and arms. Burton had been speared through his left cheek. (According to several of his biographers, Burton had always thought of himself as ugly. Fawn Brodie suggests that the scar made his face “sinister.”) Speke, moreover, had invested his income from the British Indian Army in fruitless expeditions and seen no recompense from the crown. He was 31 and had no prospects for marriage, much to the disappointment of his mother.

The consolation for the life that Speke had chosen was that, when the sun sank into the horizon each evening, he could smell the cooking fires of African women as they made their last meal of the day. Even in dense jungle, when the porters had to use machetes to cut a path through the vegetation, he could smell smoke. At night in his tent, he could hear distant drumming, a heartbeat, a distinctly human sound emanating from the dark, inhospitable wilds. He’d seen the headman of a village wearing the skin of a lion and jewelry made from a hippopotamus’s teeth. As a hunter, Speke appreciated the pride of the African men, and he wrote often of the spoils of zebras, lions, and buffalo taken during their hunts.

As for the women, there was one African princess of Rumanika’s court, where Speke spent the Christmas of 1861. She was a large woman, too big to stand. “So large were her arms,” Speke writes, “that, between the joints, the flesh hung down like large, loose-stuffed puddings.” What Speke wanted to do—in his audience with a princess in a kingdom where girls of the higher classes were fed milk all day to fatten them—was to measure her. I imagine that he did it because it was something Burton would have done. He gestured for the woman to move for him and she moved, rolled slightly so he could place the measuring tape around her belly, shoulders, and generous hips. Her flesh was supple and dark. Her eyes were bright. When his measurements were done—her upper arm had a circumference of two feet and her thigh was nearly three feet around—she looked closely at his light eyes, and he revealed to her, in exchange, his naked arm, which was not particularly hairy for an Englishman but was unusual among the Africans.

Speke does not write often about women, and there has been speculation about his sexuality. His biographer Alexander Maitland suggests that he may have had homosexual experiences, but no more or less than the average man in Victorian England. Burton wrote much more often about women (“There is no difference except civilization between a very old woman and an ape”), and speculation about Burton’s sexuality was more widespread. Speke’s description of measuring the princess is the most intimate thing he wrote involving a woman.



When Speke returned to Kazé, Burton was writing and visiting with the Arabs, though his rooms still smelled of sickness. (Burton had been writing about female circumcision practices—his descriptions suggest either a good imagination or his presence inside a wedding tent.) Speke told Burton about the lake he had named Victoria.

Burton writes, “We had scarcely, however, breakfasted, before he announced to me the startling fact that he had discovered the sources of the White Nile. It was an inspiration perhaps: the moment he sighted the Nyanza, he felt at once no doubt but that the ‘lake at his feet gave birth to that interesting river which has been the subject of so much speculation and the object of so many explorers.’ ”

In an 1881 book about central Africa, Bayard Taylor writes that when Burton mentioned Speke, it was “always in singularly bad taste, and often unjustly disparaging.” Taylor also suggests that Burton’s failure to discover the lake himself “seems to have seriously annoyed him.”

Burton was Speke’s superior on the expedition and six years his senior. And he was already an accomplished explorer. Burton had traveled disguised as a Muslim to become one of the first white men to visit Mecca. He had been circumcised to complete the disguise. It was rumored that he had killed a boy who caught him peeing standing up instead of squatting as a true Muslim would. Burton had told Speke, and the world, that he had not killed the boy. No one was sure what was true.

The journey back from the lake to Kazé had taken two weeks; Speke was very ill, and the expedition was low on supplies. It would be a challenge to make it to the Zanzibar coast with what they had. Half-empty sacks of low-quality rice. Whatever fish they could catch and game they could shoot along the way. Many of the porters had either deserted the expedition when they neared their home villages or died of disease. Speke couldn’t go back to the lake to prove himself to Burton. Not now. Departing Africa with the northern reaches of the lake unexplored left him as aggrieved, he said, as a mother whose child has died. He had been the only European to see it, and that would prove to be both a stroke of luck and his undoing.

There was talk of Speke and Burton announcing the discovery together in London.

But when they reached Zanzibar, Speke made his own arrangements to sail as quickly as he could to England.


Regrets at Inability to Complete the Discovery

Soon after Speke arrived back in England on May 8, 1859, he presented papers to the Royal Geographical Society that included drawings of the topography and flora on the banks of Lake Victoria. He was not a gifted watercolorist, and had no appreciation for perspective; the landscapes look like flat fields of foreshortened shrubs and trees. He also offered the results of astronomical observations that suggested the longitude and latitude of the lake. The lines of latitude matched those of the Nile as documented by cartographers who had mapped the northern end of the continent.

While Burton was still at sea, Speke secured a promise from Lord Ripon, the president of the society, for financial support to return to Africa to confirm his findings.

Burton arrived in London 13 days after Speke. At first, he publicly championed Speke, the discovery of the lake, and the success of their shared expedition. In private, he and Speke argued about money, reimbursements from the expeditions, and how the porters had (or had not) been paid in Zanzibar. It was an uncomfortable position for two men who had together survived an attack by Somali warriors and whose blood had mingled in the Indian Ocean as they waited to die, back in 1855. Yet they bickered and raced to get their competing books about the expedition into print.

Speke tried to explain himself to Burton, but Burton would not understand. Burton went from calling Speke by his Christian name—“Dear John, I am not angry at you”—to calling him “sir” to refusing to speak to him at all. Within the year, Speke was on his way back to Africa unaccompanied by Burton. He returned to his lake, this time mapping its north end, then followed the river that ran out of it as far as he could. Meanwhile, John Petherick, another member of the Royal Geographical Society and an ivory merchant, began in Egypt and traveled up the Nile, first by boat, and then overland following the river’s banks when the waters were no longer navigable. When the two men met, Speke proved his theory, he hoped, beyond a doubt.


Land of Promise

When Speke discovered the waterfalls where Lake Victoria emptied into the Nile, he wanted the members of his entourage to shave their heads and bathe in the water, like Hindu devotees in the River Ganges. But they refused, so instead, he shot an antelope and a few birds, including a previously unknown species of long-tailed goatsucker. He named the falls Ripon (for Lord Ripon), revealing, perhaps, a decline in the scope of his ambition since the discovery of the lake itself.

Speke sailed down the river, fat with crocodiles and hippopotamuses. Papyrus grew on its banks, their starburst flowers conjuring up for him a picture of biblical Egypt. When the river became treacherous, members of the group marched overland, carrying supplies inside their wooden canoes. Occasionally, and much to Speke’s later regret, they lost sight of the river, though they always rejoined it. As was the case with every one of Speke’s expeditions, the rice rations were crawling with worms and a porter died of disease every few days.

The small kingdoms Speke passed through were at war, capturing each other’s citizens to sell to slave traders. Still, he loved Africa as much as ever. He later wrote in his journal: “[I] feel as if I only wanted a wife and family, garden and yacht, rifle and rod, to make me happy here for life, so charming was the place.”

He kept records of longitude and latitude in his notebooks and used the same pen to remove parasites that laid eggs in his skin. He wrote down the estimated elevation of the river and the hills around it. He caught Nile perch, some so big that two men had to pull them out of the water. They had ugly yellow-rimmed eyes. The porters said that the big fish would eat anything, even their own kind.

Two years and five months after departing from Zanzibar, Speke met Petherick in southern Sudan, on a stretch of the White Nile. Petherick and his party had fresh supplies and tea from India. Speke drank it from a porcelain cup made in England and sent a telegram to London: “The Nile is settled.”


Confusion About Rivers Running In and Out

Speke spent six years traveling in Africa, ruining his body and often set upon by spears, in search of the source of the Nile. And then he found it. Twice. Yet when he returned to England, no one would believe him.

During his second absence, things had changed at the Royal Geographical Society. Burton publicly challenged Speke’s claims. In 1860, Burton published his book The Lake Regions of Central Africa, and in the preface he emphasizes that Speke was his underling. He criticizes Speke for his inability to speak any of the local languages, a bitter complaint from a polyglot who knew 25 languages and even more dialects. “He was not a linguist—French and Arabic being equally unknown to him—nor a man of science, nor an accurate astronomical observer,” writes Burton. “He was unfit for any other but a subordinate capacity. Can I then feel otherwise than indignant, when I find … he had lost no time in taking measures to secure for himself the right of working the field which I had opened[?]”

Eminent geographers criticized Speke for including in his papers a map that was a known forgery. They chuckled at the latitudes that he had estimated for the northern reaches of the lake. In letters published in geographical journals, they challenged his findings. They said that Speke might have followed any number of rivers, since he had lost sight of the water on several occasions. Speke’s publisher told him the elevations he’d recorded for the Nile suggested that it ran uphill for a stretch of 90 miles. In a book Burton coauthored, Speke was called a pervert for measuring the African princess.

During his moments of weakness, Speke went over his calculations and searched his hand-drawn maps for edges where they might not fit together. I imagine he tried in vain to return to the moment when he’d first stood on the shore of the lake and felt so sure.

For the amusement of the members of the Royal Geographical Society, a debate between Burton and Speke was planned for September 16, 1864, to resolve, once and forever, the controversy. Burton was the stronger public speaker. Speke was deaf in one ear. But he had his ideas for Africa—so fertile, so full of promise—to defend, not to mention his own honor, so he agreed to participate in the spectacle. “As Burton has taken up the pen instead of a pistol, we will have it out so,” he writes in a letter to his publisher, William Blackwood.

The day before the debate, Speke saw Burton in the conference hall of the Mineral Water Hospital in Bath, the first time they had met in five years. Burton was married and his wife, Isabel, the niece of a baronet, sat beside him. If it was possible, Burton looked even uglier than before, yet he had returned to England and married a woman of high birth.

Burton wanted nothing more than to discredit Speke, maybe not because he truly believed that Speke was wrong, but merely because he was jealous. Maybe it was an accident of history that Speke, and not Burton, had found the lake, that a mosquito had (likely) bitten Burton on the ankle—leaving him bedridden in Kazé—and not Speke. Could history be made simply by accident?

Isabel Burton would later write that when she saw Speke on the platform at the conference hall, “he looked at Richard and at me, and we at him. I shall never forget his face. It was full of sorrow, of yearning, of perplexity. Then he seemed to turn to stone.”

Later, Speke began to fidget. “Oh, I cannot stand this any longer,” he said and stood to leave.

A man standing near Speke’s chair said, “Shall you want your chair again, Sir? May I have it? Shall you come back?”

“I hope not,” said Speke, and he left to prepare for a hunting trip before the debate.


General Character of the Land Traversed 

Speke stood before a low stone wall in Neston Park, his hunting rifle in his hand, the butt near his boots. The land, located in Wiltshire, in the southwest of England, had belonged to his family for generations and still bore the marks of a raised Roman road, evidence of ancient exploration, occupation, and plunder. Speke was supposed to be hunting partridges. The two men accompanying him—Speke’s cousin George Fuller and Daniel Davis, a gamekeeper—were no more than 100 yards away from him.

Fuller and Davis saw Speke jump up onto the wall, saw his coattails swing as he alighted momentarily. Then they heard the sound of shot, and Speke disappeared on the other side of the wall. Fuller ran to him and found him with a bullet wound to the chest. He put his hand to the red tear in his cousin’s shirt and pushed down to staunch the bleeding.

Saint Francis Xavier died on an island off China waiting for a boat. His death was appropriate to a man who had traveled around the Cape of Good Hope, to India and Japan, in the 16th century. And then his body, incorruptible as it was, made its way back to India. His right arm made it back to Rome.

Francis Drake died near a port city in Panama. He’d circumnavigated the world, and his final act was to be dressed in full armor. He was buried at sea in a lead coffin.

Ferdinand Magellan was felled by a bamboo spear in the surf off an island in the Philippines.

Marco Polo died in his bed in his hometown.

For a quarter of an hour, Speke lay wounded but alive on a stretch of grass near a low wall in the English countryside, upon which there was nothing more exotic to kill than partridges.

He could have died in so many different places. On the Somali coast, where his encampment had been attacked. In his expedition tent from one of the millions of African bacteria that still swam lazily in his blood. In a battle in India. Impaled on the horns of a beast. At sea. Certainly vessels on which he had traveled had sunk to the bottom of the ocean, but never with him on board.

“Don’t move me,” he said and listened for the sound of distant drumming.

In the conference hall of the Royal Geographical Society the next morning, the society’s president delivered the news of Speke’s death to Burton and the others. Burton then read a lecture on ethnology that he had prepared.

The question of whether Speke’s death was an accident or a suicide was splashed across the newspapers at the time. His family insisted it was an accident.

Subsequently, works of fiction about Speke’s life have most often played with the idea of suicide. Suicide fits most neatly into the narrative: the great yet dishonored explorer exiting the story the day before what might have been his greatest humiliation.


Meditation Among the Tombs

The lake had older names than the one Speke gave it. It was called Ukerewe. It was called the Eye of the Rhino. Before Speke had seen it, the lake had dried up and been reborn three times. It dried up during the ice ages, when the glaciers were hoarding all the fresh water. Lake Victoria is large, the second-largest lake in the world by surface area, but it is shallow. Native and Bantu people fished the hundreds of species of cichlids that lived in its waters. Arab traders used the lake to move ivory, gold, and slaves. Indeed, an Arab named Al Idrisi drew the lake’s silhouette a full 700 years before Speke saw it.

After Speke visited the lake twice, his countrymen followed. David Livingstone—who had been in the conference hall when Speke’s death was announced—tried to find it, but ended up too far west. Henry Morton Stanley, after first going on a voyage to find the mislaid Livingstone, was the next European to see Lake Victoria, which he circumnavigated before claiming the Congo for the Belgian king.

The lake, though claimed by Europeans, never became the new New World that Speke had imagined, unless you consider the fate of its fish. The lake’s big pale Nile perch, a colonizing species introduced a century later, ate the smaller cichlids and competed with them for plankton. The cichlid species died off by the hundreds, but the Nile perch swam its way into the restaurant kitchens of Europe and America. If Columbus brought tomatoes to the world, Speke might indirectly claim the Nile perch.

In the most widely distributed image of Speke, he stands—bearded and holding a pocket watch in his right hand—in front of a backdrop of Africa. A lake shimmers in the distance like an illusion. What drove men like Speke? Conquest, greed, a lust for fame, I fear. But what did Speke gain? He gave his best years and his health to Africa. In 1864, grieved to be parted from the continent’s red earth, he died, his name falling eventually into obscurity. The painting, all the more poignant, then, is a portrait of Speke with his one great love.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sierra Bellows lives in Ottawa. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Gulf Coast, Meridian, Greensboro Review, and the Scholar.


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