English soldier and explorer (1827-64)

by Raymond John Howgego

Born in Devon, Speke was one of seven children of William Speke, a retired army captain and a tenant at Orleigh Court, near Bideford, and Georgina Elizabeth (née Hanning) who came from a wealthy mercantile family. (Note: Speke's birthplave has been variously given as Orleigh Court; Jordans, the family seat near Ilminster; or Bamford Speke, near Bampton in Devon.) He was educated at Barnstaple Grammar School and at a college in Blackheath, London, but from an early age suffered bouts of ophthalmia which made reading difficult and discouraged learning. Through his mother's acquaintanceship with the Duke of Wellington, he obtained a commission in the army of the East India Company, and in 1844 sailed for India to join the 46th Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry. Speke served with distinction in the Punjab War under General Sir Colin Campbell, and in the second Sikh War under Lord Gough when he fought in the Multani campaign of 1849. It was during these actions that he formed a lifelong friendship with fellow officer JAMES AUGUSTUS GRANT (see below), who would later accompany Speke in his African explorations. In the peace that followed the Sikh War, Speke occupied his leave with hunting and collecting trips in the Himalayas, and by producing some remarkably accurate freehand maps of the country traversed.


(Note: Speke's first two expeditions took place under the leadership of Richard Burton. To avoid repitition, details are given in the article for Burton, while the notes below serve only to distinguish Speke's particular role and important diversions.)
In September 1854, Speke arrived at Aden on a P & O vessel with a number of fellow officers and other officials, en route to England. There, in October, he encountered for the first time the explorer RICHARD FRANCIS BURTON, who had arrived with two other officers, Lieutenant WILLIAM STROYAN and Lieutenant G.E. HERNE, intending to carry out a survey of Somalia and to visit the city of Harar (now in Ethiopia). A third officer had died shortly before departure, leaving a place vacant on the expedition which Speke readily accepted. On the advice of James Outram, the British resident at Aden, the expedition was divided into three sections. Burton would proceed alone to Harar while his fellow officers would carry out geographical explorations nearer the coast. Herne would be sent to Berbera, joined in January 1855 by Stroyan, to assess the state of commerce and the caravan routes, and to visit the coastal mountains, while Speke would be landed at Arz Al-Aman to make his way the Wadi Nogal (Nugaal) which was reputed to be gold-bearing.

Sailing on 18.10.54 in an Arab dhow, dressed in oriental costume and with four assistants, Speke landed on the north coast of Somalia and worked his way into the coastal mountains. However, from the start of the expedition, his progress was hampered and his authority undermined by his inability to communicate with his "abban", or protector. Plagued by disputes and deceit among his party, and obtaining only a little information about the Wadi Nogal, he called a halt to the expedition in January 1855 and returned to the coast. He arrived back in Aden about 16.2.55 and there joined Burton and the others. Early in April 1855 Burton, Speke, Herne and Stroyan returned to Berbera and on 7.4.55 set up camp outside the city. Burton's intention was to lead an expedition from the east coast to the upper reaches of the Nile, but on 18.4.55, having survived an electric storm which opened the Somali monsoon period, the camp came under severe attack by Somali tribesmen. Burton, Speke and Herne narrowly escaped with their lives, but Stroyan was killed by a spear through the heart. The proposed expedition was immediately abandoned and the three survivors, carrying Stroyan's corpse, staggered into Berbera and took ship for Aden.

Speke returned to Aden on 22.4.55 with Burton and Herne and, after examination of the spear wounds he had incurred, was recommended to take three years leave in England. In fact his wounds healed quickly, and in a month he was restored to perfect health. Soon after returning to England in June 1855 he embarked to serve in the Crimean War, where he was promoted captain and made second-in-command of a Turkish regiment. At some time, with his friend EDMUND SMITH, he organised a hunting expedition to the Caucasus. As early as 1849 Speke had expressed a desire to explore Africa in search of the fabled 'Mountains of the Moon', so on his return from Crimea in 1856 he applied to join Burton's next expedition, the purpose of which was to locate the "Sea of Ujiji" (i.e. Lake Tanganyika), which had been reported by Arab traders to lie deep in the interior.


Burton and Speke sailed for Bombay to make the necessary preparations and obtain supplies and equipment, and on 20.12.56 arrived in Zanzibar. After a rather pointless excursion to the Pangani river district, they left Zanzibar on 17.6.57, landed on the coast opposite and made their way inland. Via Tabora, the principal trading centre of central Tanzania, they arrived in desperate physical condition at Ujiji on 14.2.58. Burton's first concern was to procure a boat to explore the lake, but when none could be had locally Speke was sent across the lake by canoe to obtain a dhow from an Arab trader. Speke returned on 29.3.58 after a gruelling trip on the lake and in poor physical condition, the side of his face distorted by a tumour which made him almost deaf and made chewing impossible. Nevertheless, he had gained important intelligence about a large river that flowed northward out of the lake. After a survey of the lake, Burton and Speke left Ujiji on 28.5.58 and made their way back to Tabora where they arrived on 20.6.58. On the outward journey they had heard reports of another great lake, called Ukerewe (now Lake Victoria), which lay to the north of Tabora, and after some discussion it was decided that Speke should make his way alone to the north to investigate the rumours. (It is generally recognised that Burton wanted to have time to himself to gather information from the Arabs at Tabora, and did not believe that Speke would make a discovery of any importance. This was a mistake he would live to regret.) Speke departed Tabora on 9.6.58, heading directly north with twenty porters and a guard of ten Beluchi. Crossing Unyambewa country, the expedition proceeded without incident, reaching the village of Ukuni on 18.6.58, beyond which the landscape became greener and the going easier. On 30.7.58 he caught first sight of Lake Ukerewe, and for the next two days made his way down a small creek which suddenly broadened into a vast archipelago. On 3.8.58, climbing to the top of a hill near Muanza (Mwanza), he saw the vast expanse of the lake, which extended in all directions as far as the eye could see. The following day, from the top of what he named Observatory Hill, he took careful bearings of the major topographical features. Neither of the local sultans could supply boats or, fearing the savageness of the lakeside tribes, assist in the exploration of the lake, and no intelligence could be gained of the extent of the lake to the north. After three days near the lake, Speke set out for Tabora and without incident arrived back with Burton on 26.8.58.

Speke and Burton had already grown tired of each others' company, but Speke's discovery now strained the relationship almost to breaking point. While Burton lounged in the comfort of his Arab friends talking about Lake Ukerewe, Speke had actually been there and discovered it. Speke's suggestion that they should return to the lake together was unacceptable, effectively placing Burton in a subordinate role, and, more significantly, both men now harboured ambitions to be the first to discover the source of the Nile. They regained the coast on 2.2.59 and, after an excursion south to Kilwa and the Rufiji river, came back to Zanzibar. Parting company at Aden, the two explorers returned separately to London, Speke arriving aboard HMS "Furious" on 8.5.59. Burton reached London thirteen days later, only to find that his discovery of Lake Tanganyika had already been overshadowed by an unsupported announcement that Speke had discovered the source of the Nile. Speke had become a national hero, while Burton was all but forgotten.


When Speke returned to England in May 1859 he went directly to Sir Roderick Murchison, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, to deliver an account of the discovery of what he had named Lake Victoria, and to express his conviction that the lake was the source of the Nile. In an address to members of the society at Burlington House he again pressed his views, and within a week this previously unknown army officer was being hailed for a discovery of monumental importance. Burton arrived back in Britain thirteen days later to find that the public was only mildly interested in his careful and scientific report of Lake Tanganyika, although much debate still raged over which, if either, of the two lakes was the true source of the Nile. In fact Burton had previously favoured a more easterly source, possibly around Mt Kenya or Kilmanjaro, maintaining that Lake Victoria might constitute a minor feeder; while intelligence gained in Tabora had suggested other sources in unexplored regions far to the northwest. In time, however, he began to concentrate more upon Lake Tanganyika and Speke upon Lake Victoria. Each adopted his own lake and was determined to support it against all arguments.

To settle the matter the society invited Speke to strike inland again from Zanzibar along the same route, work his way up the western shore of Lake Victoria, and on its northern coast find an outlet which might be the source of the Nile. Confirmation would then require a descent of the river northward in the hope of reaching Sudan, and ultimately Egypt. (At the time, remarkably little intelligence could be gained, even from Arab traders, of the regions to the north and west of Lake Victoria. A single Arab trader called AHMED BIN IBRAHIM had pentrated Buganda to the north in the 1840s, and a few others had visited Karagwe on the western shore.) The sum of £2500 was quickly raised for the expedition, and for his companion Speke selected JAMES AUGUSTUS GRANT (see below), a like-minded fellow officer in the Indian Army whom Speke had first encountered in India in 1847. To support the expedition the society engaged the services of JOHN PETHERICK (see volume 2), a Welsh mining engineer and trader who had spent some time exploring the upper reaches of the Nile and was employed as the British government's consul in Sudan. It was proposed that Petherick should ascend the Nile from Khartoum and at Gondokoro, a tiny Austrian mission north of the present border with Uganda, and leave boats and supplies which Speke and Grant would collect on their way north. Petherick responded with a claim for £2000 for expenses but, in the end, was granted an increase in his consular salary to £300 per annum.
Speke and Grant sailed from Portsmouth in the "Forte" on 27.4.60, and via Madeira and Rio de Janeiro reached Cape Town where they transferred to HMS "Brisk" for the voyage north. Arriving in Zanzibar on 17.8.60, a month was spent in preparation and on 25.9.60, in the "Secundrah Shah", they crossed the strait to Bagamoyo. With 213 men and a caravan of donkeys, mules and goats, they set out on 2.10.60 for Tabora (or Kazeh as Burton had called it). En route they experienced the effects of fever and the discomfort of perpetual rain; most of the mules collapsed and died; and stores dwindled under the ravages of tribal taxes and theft. The expedition entered Tabora on 25.1.61 and was delayed for fifty-one days. Rains had flooded the rivers to the north obstructing the import of grain, and porters were almost impossible to procure due to wars between traders and natives. Both Speke and Grant fell sick, but after several false starts got off in detachments, taking thirty days to cover the first 240 kilometres. Grant was laid up in the village of Ukuni for four months while Speke scoured the countryside for seventy porters. Upon his recovery, Grant set out on 12.9.60 to join Speke, but was attacked and his goods plundered. Reunited on 26.9.60, they made their way to the northwest, Speke weak from a chest complaint and Grant suffering almost daily attacks of fever.

On 25.11.61, Speke and Grant finally reached Karagwe, located between the western shore of Lake Victoria and the Virunga Mountains, where they were warmly welcomed by the delightful king, Ruwanika. So far the explorers had not set eyes on Lake Victoria and were told that to do so they would need to proceed into the neighbouring kingdom of Buganda, ruled by the "kabaka" Mutesa. On 7.1.62 a Moslem trader named Juma arrived at Ruwanika's palace bringing presents from Mutesa and an invitation requesting the two explorers to proceed into Buganda. However, Grant's leg had become severely ulcerated, meaning that Speke would have to proceed alone. In February, accompanied by a party of warriors with pipes and drums, Speke entered Mutesa's palace, situated on a hill in what are now the suburbs of Kampala. By contrast with Ruwanika, Mutesa was a cruel and despotic ruler who would spear a man to death for the slightest breach of etiquette. When Speke presented him with a rifle, Mutesa ordered one of his pages to demonstrate its efficacy by shooting an innocent bystander in the outer courtyard. However, Speke steadily accustomed himself to life in Buganda, and settled down to enjoy himself. By April 1862, while Grant was still laid up in Karagwe, Speke received intelligence of an unidentified expedition, led by a bearded white man, far to the north. Unkown to Speke, the explorer was a Maltese ivory trader named AMABILE DE BONO (see below), who had been sent out by John Petherick to locate the missing party. Unfortunately, De Bono never made contact. Delayed at Faloro by torrential rains and swollen rivers, he eventually returned to Petherick to report that he had seen or heard nothing of Speke and Grant.

Grant, carried by stretcher, eventually arrived at Mutesa's palace on 27.5.62, but it was not until 7.7.62 that the two explorers were given leave to depart for the final phase of the expedition. With an escort provided by Mutesa, they bore northeast through Namavundu, Nasire and Baja, and at Urondogani on 21.7.62, they finally caught sight of the White Nile. Being now some distance north of Lake Victoria, Speke followed the river southward and on 28.7.62 stood beside the falls close to the point where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria. He named them the Ripon Falls after the president of the Royal Geographical Society at the time the expedition left England. Returning to Urondogani, Speke joined Grant and on 13.8.62 began a descent of the Nile in five canoes. Surviving an attack by hostile tribesmen near the entrance to Lake Kyoga, they entered the territory of King Kamrasi, a suspicious and supercilious ruler who kept the explorers waiting twenty-three days before receiving them. Kamrasi retained them in his dirty, rat-infested capital from 9.9.62 until 9.11.62 when they were able to resume their journey down the Nile.

From the Karuma Falls, where the Nile turns to the west, they trekked northward across country and on 3.12.62 arrived at Faloro, a trading outpost to the southwest of modern Nimule. There the Sudanese officer, Mohamed Wad-el-Mek, apologised for Petherick's absence and further detained the two explorers. Proceeding overland to the north, Speke and Grant crossed th Nile at Jaifa and Apuddo (on the border of Uganda), and at the later were shown a tree bearing the initials of GIOVANNI MIANI, a Venetian explorer who had penetrated southern Sudan in 1860. On 15.2.63, some thirteen months after the appointed time, they entered Gondokoro. (This mission, lying close to modern Mongalla, had been founded by the Austrian missionary IGNAZ KNOBLECHER in 1854.) At Gondokoro, rather than finding Petherick, the two explorers were warmly greeted by the hunter and explorer SAMUEL WHITE BAKER, who with his wife had journeyed south in search of them. (Details of Baker's explorations are given in a separate article.) Petherick, who had apparently neglected his duty to rendezvous with Speke and Grant, despite a considerable payment for his services, was at that time trading at N'yambara, some 110 kilometres west of the Nile. He eventually arrived at Gondokoro on 18.2.63, only to find that his work had been done for him. With three boats supplied by Baker, Speke and Grant left Gondokoro on 25.2.63 to sail and paddle slowly through the Sudd to reach Khartoum on 30.3.63. There Speke received information that the Royal Geographical Society had awarded him its Gold Medal for 1861 in recognition of his discovery of Lake Victoria. With eighteen men and four women, Speke and Grant continued downstream to Cairo, where the escort was paid off.

Speke and Grant returned to England in the summer of 1863, certain that they had settled the question of the source of the Nile, and on 22.6.63 Speke delivered his narrative at a public meeting of the Royal Geographical Society. However, he now came up against his old rival Burton, who questioned whether the lake that Speke had seen from the north in Buganda was the same as he had sighted from the south in 1858. Other questions soon arose and gained academic support, such as the possibility that Speke's Bugandan Nile was no more than a minor tributary of the great river itself, and that a large section of the river had been by-passed by Speke's overland trek from the Karuma Falls. Moreover, Speke's report was condemned by the society as inadequate and superficial, and hardly matched Burton's rival publication "The Nile Basin". In September 1864 the British Association for the Advancement of Science arranged for the two rivals to confront each other at a public meeting in Bath. Speke, already in an impaired physical condition, nervous and depressed, with a dislike of public speaking, knew he could be no match for Burton. On 16.9.64, the conference hall packed in anticipation of some lively dialogue, Sir Roderick Murchison announced that Speke had been killed the previous afternoon while out shooting partridges. The stunned audience listened instead to Burton's paper on Dahomey, read 'in a voice that trembled'. On returning home, Burton 'wept long and bitterly'. Speke was buried in the church of Dowlish Wake at a small family funeral attended by Murchison, David Livingstone and Grant. The official verdict of an inquest was that his death was accidental, and that his shotgun had gone off while he was lifting it over a wall, but doubts lingered in the public mind.

AMABILE DE BONO was a nephew of ANDREA DE BONO, the Maltese ivory and slave-trader who operated from Khartoum. Amabile established the trading station at Faloro, to the southwest of modern Nimule, and in so doing became the first European to enter the bounds of Uganda.

JAMES AUGUSTUS GRANT (1827-92) was born in Nairn, the son of a parish minister, and was educated at the local grammar school and Marischal College, Aberdeen. He joined the Indian Army in 1846 and first met Speke the following year while serving in the Sikh Wars. He was by then a highly talented artist and a capable sportsman with a strong interest in botany. A quiet, kind and gentle man who shunned publicity, he was the model of a British army officer, cautious, patient and shrewd. Wounded in the relief of Lucknow, he returned to England in 1858 and did not meet Speke again until the autumn of 1859. Grant attended Speke's funeral and in 1864 published, as supplementary to Speke's account, "A Walk across Africa", in which he dealt particularly with 'the ordinary life and pursuits, the habits and feelings of the natives' and the economic value of the countries traversed. He also contributed a paper on the botanical results of the expedition. In 1864 he was awarded the patron's medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and in 1866 given the Companionship of the Bath in recognition of his services in the expedition. He married in 1865. Grant continued in active military service and was a member of the Intelligence Department during the Abyssinian Campaign of 1868. He retired from the army with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, settled at Nairn and died there in February 1892.


Travels in 1854-59

Speke, John Hanning, 'Captain Speke's adventures in Somali Land', Blackwood's Magazine 87, 1860.
Burton, Richard Francis, First footsteps in East Africa; or an exploration of Harar (London 1856, 1894, 1910, 1924; ed. by Gordon Waterfield, London 1966; 'Memorial Edition', London 1986; New York 1987).
Speke, John Hanning, 'Journal of a cruise on the Tanganyika lake and discovery of the Victoria Nyanza lake', Blackwood's Magazine 86, 1859.
Speke, John Hanning, 'Discovery of the Victoria Nyanza', Adventure and Sprt 1, 1859.
Speke, John Hanning, My second expedition to eastern intertropical Africa (Cape Town 1860 [19 pages. Privately printed]).
Speke, John Hanning, 'Captain Speke's discoveries in Central Africa', Cape Monthly 7, 1860.
Burton, Richard Francis, The lake regions of Central Africa. A picture of exploration (London 1860, 2 vols; New York 1860; ed. by Alan Moorehead, New York & London 1961; St. Clair Shores, MI 1971; Folio Society, London 1993; New York & London 1995; French trans. by Mme H. Loreau, Paris 1862).
Speke, John Hanning, What led to the discovery of the source of the Nile (Edinburgh & London 1864; London 1967).

Travels in 1860-63

Speke, John Hanning, Journal of the discovery of the source of the Nile (London [printed Edinburgh] 1863; 2nd edn, Edinburgh & London 1864; New York 1864; London & New York 1906, 1969; London, Toronto & New York 1922; London 1912, 1937; [selections] as Speke and the Nile Source, Edinburgh 1954; facsimile edn, Heron Books 1971; Mineola, NY & London 1996, 1997; [USA] 2004; French trans., Paris 1864, 1867, 1869; Polish trans., Warsaw 1874; Spanish trans., 2000).
Speke, John Hanning, Lake Victoria: a narrative of explorations in search of the source of the Nile. Compiled from the memoirs of Captains Speke and Grant, by G.C. Swayne (Edinburgh & London 1868).
[Speke, John Hanning], Travels and adventures in Africa: a thriling narrative of the perils and hardships experienced by Captains Speke and Grant, the celebrated African explorers (Philadelphia 1864).
[Speke, John Hanning], Wonderful travels in Africa (Philadelphia 1875).
Grant, James Augustus, A walk across Africa; or, domestic scenes from my Nile journal (London [printed Edinburgh] 1864).
Grant, James Augustus, 'Botany of the Speke and Grant expedition', Transactions of the Linnaean Society 29.
Grant, James Augustus, Khartoom as I saw it in 1863 (Edinburgh 1885 [38 pages]).
Burton, Richard Francis, The Nile basin. Part I. Showing Tanganyika to be Ptolemy's western lake reservoir [by Burton]; Part II. Captain Speke's discovery of the source of the Nile [by James M'Queen] (London 1864; New York & London 1967).
Petherick, John, Egypt, the Soudan and Central Africa, with explorations from Khartoum on the White Nile to the regions of the equator. Being sketches from sixteen years' travel (London 1861).
Petherick, John, Travels in Central Africa (London 1869, 2 vols).

Books about Speke

Ambjörnsson, Ronny, Flodsökarna. Med bidrag av John Hanning Speke, Henry M. Stanley samt Samuel White Baker (1969).
Bradnum, Frederick, The long walks: journeys to the sources of the White Nile (London 1969, 1970).
Carnochan, W.B., The sad story of Burton, Speke, and the Nile; or, was John Hanning Speke a cad? Looking at the evidence (Stanford University 2006).
Harrison, William, Burton and Speke (New York 1982).
Harrison, William, Mountains of the Moon (New York 1990).
Maitland, Alexander, Speke (London 1971).
Johnston, Harry Hamilton, The Nile quest (London 1903).
Loftus, Ernest Achey, Speke and the Nile sources (London 1954).
Moorehead, Alan, The White Nile (London 1960).
Murdoch, Sophia [née Speke], Records of the Speke family (1922 [privately printed]).
[National Library of Scotland], James Augustus Grant, 1827-1892: African explorer and illustrator (Edinburgh 1982).
[National Library of Scotland], Papers of James Augustus Grant (1827-92) and John Hanning Speke (1827-64) from the National Library of Scotland (Marlborough 2003).
[Speke, John Hanning], 'Captain Speke's welcome', Blackwood's Magazine 94, Aug. 1863.
[Speke, John Hanning], 'The death of Speke', Blackwood's Magazine, Oct. 1864.
Thomas, H.B., 'Giovanni Miani and the White Nile', Uganda Journal 6, 1942.

Copyright: Raymond John Howgego 2006

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