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John Hanning Speke
May 4, 1827 – September 15, 1864

An English explorer of Africa, John Hanning Speke solved the riddle of the Nile River by discovering its source during the course of an epic journey to and through the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa.


Ever since the time of Herodotus, men had sought and speculated about the fountains - the ultimate origins - of the river that provided Egypt's life-blood and sustained classical as well as modern civilizations throughout much of its length. Ptolemy had hinted at the Nile's beginning in equatorial Africa, but only the 19th-century search for the sources of the main, or White, Nile (in the late 18th century James Bruce had seen the Blue Nile flow from Lake Tana in Ethiopia) produced John Speke's confirmation.

John Speke was born at Jordans, Somersetshire, on May 4, 1827. He joined the Indian army in 1844 and saw considerable action in the Punjab campaign. He liked to fight but was bored by the longueurs between periods of combat. Appropriately, he spent his local leaves shooting game in Tibet.

In 1854 Speke obtained overseas leave in order to join Richard Burton in Somalia. While Burton was journeying to the "forbidden city" of Harar, Speke twice went eastward to Bunder Gori, a nearby Somali town. In an attack in 1855 by Somali on the British camp near Berbera, Speke almost died from wounds before he and Burton fled to Aden.

Early Explorations

Speke served as a captain in a Turkish regiment at Kertch during the Crimean War (1855-1856) and then returned to Africa as second-in-command of Burton's expedition to the lakes of the eastern interior. The Royal Geographical Society was sponsoring this attempt to locate the rumored Sea of Ujiji and to ascertain the sources of the Nile.

Guided by Arabs and Africans, the expedition attained the Sea of Ujiji (modern Lake Tanganyika) in 1858. Speke's eyes were then too clouded with ophthalmia for him to see the waters of the lake, but he had already learned that Tanganyika was but one of the component lakes - Victoria and Nyasa being the others - of the Sea of Ujiji. He had also surmised or gathered that it was from Victoria that the Nile River flowed north to Egypt. Despite the opposition of Burton, he tested this hypothesis later in 1858.

From Tabora, Speke took a "flying trip" to the southern end of the lake along a route known but relatively little frequented by traders. Reaching the lake after several detours, he at last caught a murky glimpse of the southern waters of what he called Victoria Nyanza (Lake Victoria). With only the evidence of hearsay, Speke decided that this lake was in fact the source of the Nile.

Sources of the Nile

Two years later the Royal Geographical Society commissioned Speke to demonstrate his belief. Accompanied by James Augustus Grant, a colleague from the Indian army, Speke reached Tabora in 1861, and they set out around the western side of Victoria Nyanza to Buganda, the capital of which they reached early in 1862. After several months the kabaka, or king, Mutesa, gave Speke permission to travel to the Nile and then northward.

In July 1862 Speke stood above a point where the waters of the Victoria Nyanza cascaded down the White Nile on their way to Alexandria. "I saw," the exultant explorer wrote, "that old father Nile without any doubt [rose] in the Victoria Nyanza, and, as I had foretold, that [that] lake [was] the great source of the holy river which cradled the first expounder of our religious belief." Grant and Speke proceeded down the Nile, but they were inhibited from following its course, and from visiting other lakes of which they had heard rumor, by African warfare.

Even after Speke had seen the waters of Victoria coursing over Ripon Falls and down the Nile, however, there were some who remained unconvinced that Herodotus's fabled fountains had in fact been found. Burton was a leading critic: Speke had not, he said, followed the Nile the entire way from Victoria to Gondokoro. At a meeting of the august British Association for the Advancement of Science in September 1864, it was arranged that Burton and Speke present their theories. But on the day before the debate Speke went partridge shooting at Neston Park near Bath, mishandled a gun while crossing a stone wall, and fatally shot himself.

The effect of Speke's discoveries, which he embodied in two narratives - Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1863) and What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1864) - was to direct European interest to the peoples and regions near the headwaters of the Nile. Subsequent European enterprise, and the way in which Buganda was regarded as a prize at the time of the scramble for Africa, indicated the result of Speke's journey to the Nile for both Africans and Europeans.


John Hannington Speke (May 4, 1827 – September 15, 1864) was an officer in the British Indian army, who made three voyages of exploration to Africa and who is most associated with the search for the source of the Nile. He is most commonly referred to as John Hanning Speke.


In 1844 the British Indian Army served in the Sikh War under Sir Colin Campbell. He spent his leave exploring the Himalaya Mountains and once crossed into Tibet.

In 1854 he made his first voyage, joining the already famous Richard Francis Burton on an expedition to Somalia. 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 made a voyage to East Africa to find the great lakes which were rumoured to exist in the center of the continent. Both men clearly hoped that their 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 had to remove it with a knife. He also later went temporarily blind. After an arduous journey the two became the first Europeans to discover 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 voyage. Speke thus went alone, and found the lake, which he christened Lake Victoria. It was this lake which 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.
Routes taken by the expeditions of Burton and Speke (1857-1858) and Speke and Grant (1863).

Speke returned to England before Burton, on 8 May 1859 and made their voyage famous in a speech to the Royal Geographical Society where 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 without 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 July 28 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 voyage 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 river. A debate was planned between the two before the geographical section of the British Association in Bath on 18 September 1864, but Speke died that morning from a self-inflicted gun-shot wound while hunting at Neston Park in Wiltshire. An inquest concluded that the death was accidental, a conclusion supported by his only biographer, though the idea of suicide has appealed to some. Speke was buried in Dowlish Wake, Somerset, the ancestral home of the Speke family.


The film Mountains of the Moon (1990) (starring Scottish actor Iain Glen as Speke) related the story of the Burton-Speke controversy. The film hints at a sexual intimacy between Burton and Speke. It also vaguely portrays Speke as a closeted homosexual. This was based on the William Harrison novel Burton and Speke, which explicitly portrays Speke as homosexual and Burton as rampantly heterosexual. Both of these portrayals are marked by conflations of fact and artisic license and should be treated skeptically.

Mount Speke in the Ruwenzori Range, Uganda was named in honour of John Speke, as an early European explorer of this region.










This web page was last updated on: 31 December, 2008