From the Times of Oman: How source of Nile was finally uncovered
FOR centuries the River Nile has fascinated, even seduced, the questing mind. As far back as the second century BC, many had sought to solve the question of its source. But it was not until the middle of the 19th century that this geographical mystery was solved and revealed its secrets to a hugely courageous group of intrepid British adventurers who beat a remarkable path in Africa. Between 1856 and 1876 these men (and one woman) became national heroes as stirring accounts emerged of their journeys into the heart of the Dark Continent. These expeditions fired the Victorian imagination.
Now a book, Explorers Of The Nile, by historian Tim Jeal, gives a detailed account of these forays in search of the Nile’s source. The object of the quest had been the planet’s most elusive secret. Alexander The Great is said to have asked about the Nile and a proverb grew up over the centuries. Dreamers of the impossible were often told: “It would be easier to find the source of the Nile.”
The men were forced to endure malaria and flesh-eating ulcers as well as stab and spear wounds.
The huge challenge, however, fired the imagination of these individualistic and aggressive explorers — among them David Livingstone and Henry Stanley — and they set out to fill in one of the blanks on the world’s maps. It was a formidable challenge. The world’s longest river has two main branches — the White Nile, which flows 4,230 miles from its remotest central African sources to the Mediterranean, and the Blue Nile, which rises high up on the Ethiopian plateau and flows for 1,450 miles.
The two parts then join at Khartoum by which time the White Nile has flowed some 2,500 miles. To natives of this vast area the river possessed magical qualities. Some even feared its wrath.
But European explorers faced more gruelling horrors than mere native superstition. They were forced to persevere in the face of treacherous rainy season quagmires and deadly disease for which, in those pre-penicillin days, there was no cure.
One noted explorer, John Hanning Speke, gave a graphic account of being “invaded” in his tent by a host of small black beetles — one of which rushed into his ear. “One of the horrid little insects,” he wrote, “struggled up the narrow channel (of the ear) until he got arrested by want of passage room.
This impediment evidently enraged him for he began with exceeding vigour, like a rabbit at a hole, to dig violently away.” Speke was forced to gouge out the beetle using a knife which led to his face and shoulder swelling up. He also lost his hearing in that ear.
Hunger for fame
The men were also forced to endure malaria and flesh-eating ulcers as well as stab and spear wounds inflicted by natives in revolt. But what partly drew British explorers to central Africa was more their hunger for fame (and fortune) than any simple thirst for adventure.
Among the most charismatic was Sir Richard Burton, already well-known for his travels in Asia, Africa and the Americas. He had an extraordinary knowledge of languages (he spoke 29 European, African and Asian ones.)
In 1856 Speke and Burton joined forces and set off for East Africa to find the Great Lakes which were rumoured to exist in the centre of the continent. Both men hoped the expedition would eventually locate the source of the Nile. They became the first Europeans to discover Lake Tanganyika (although the hapless Speke had gone temporarily blind and could not see it).
They were told of a second lake in the area but Burton, himself now sick, was left behind and a shaky Speke had to go alone. He found the magnificent body of water and named it Lake Victoria. It was eventually named as the source of the Nile. But it was impossible to prove this at the time because much of the expedition’s survey equipment had been lost and vitally important technical questions about the height and extent of the lake could not be answered.
Speke returned to England without Burton and was quick to make a speech to the Royal Geographical Society in which he claimed to have discovered the source of the Nile. Burton, who later returned, was infuriated by Speke’s announcement. He accused his former friend of breaking to speak together. Speke returned to Lake Victoria in 1862 and found the Nile flowing out of it. He then sailed along the river until he met up with other explorers. Reaching Khartoum, he sent a telegram to London: “The Nile is settled.”
This enraged Burton who claimed Speke had not followed the Nile from the point it flowed from Lake Victoria. A debate on the matter was arranged by the British Association in Bath for September 18, 1864. But that morning Speke died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while out hunting at Neston Park, Wiltshire. An inquest concluded that it was accidental but some thought it was suicide. Despite evidence that it was clearly an accident, Burton soon declared that Speke had committed suicide to avoid “the exposure of his misstatements in regard to the Nile sources”.
Race to find source
Another extraordinary figure in this race to find the source of the Nile was Sir Samuel Baker, who was accompanied on his explorations by his wife Florence. They were by all accounts an unconventional couple who, despite flouting some Victorian rules, were popular within society.
The couple had met in unusual circumstances. Baker discovered his future wife, then aged 14, about to be sold in an Ottoman slave auction. She had been orphaned in a Hungarian uprising, brought up in a harem and given the name Florenz (which she later changed to Florence). He smuggled her away and they would eventually appear in Africa approaching the Nile from the Egyptian end.
Florence cut a colourful figure in Africa where the natives were fascinated by her blonde hair (which none had even seen before). She had made herself a female version of her husband’s military uniform.
But what shocked other Europeans they met was her insistence on refusing to ride side-saddle — the normal practice for women in that era. The couple also fell victim to malaria and on one occasion recovered, quite amazingly, after an old chief sprayed them with spittle. However their travels were not without moments of unintentional humour.
The same chief spotted Baker’s chamber pot in the corner of their hut and decided that it would make a perfect serving bowl for important occasions. He was deeply disappointed when he was informed that it was a “sacred vessel” which had to accompany Baker everywhere he went.
Back in Europe during the decades that men such as Speke, Burton and Baker were venturing into the heart of Africa there were more political considerations developing.
After the creation of a unified Germany and Italy, the other European powers (specifically France and Britain) became involved in an intricate political dance to maintain dominance. All looked to Africa for what was called “a place in the sun”. Britain in particular focused on Egypt and the control of the Suez Canal. The Nile area would equally become a part of such a scramble for power.
The explorers of this era were a rare breed whose courage and curiosity were matched by their tenacity and physical endurance. Although many suffered at the hands of Africans who saw them as a threat, they mostly strived to make the lives of those they met better.
Speke had been deeply shocked by the poverty of the local people and he realised, like many of the other adventurers, that the establishment of colonies was the best way to clear the path for enlightenment. For the men who found the source of the mighty Nile also knew that the river would prove to be one of Africa’s blessings.