The Source Of The Nile

WORLD HISTORY | November 2, 2019

Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

To Europeans of the 19th century, one of the great puzzles was over where the great Nile River, the longest river in the world at over 4,000 miles, began. This puzzle was solved in the mid-nineteenth century in a series of bold explorations that ended in destroyed reputations and slander.

Map of the Nile. Source: (Wikipedia)

The Nile River has been well documented since ancient days. It was known to be formed at the confluence of two rivers at Khartoum, Sudan and from there flowed north into Egypt. Yet ancient explorers found it impossible, due to geography and hostile native peoples, to explore either the White Nile to the west or the Blue Nile to the east.

The Blue Nile, being the shorter river extending into the highlands of Ethiopia, daunted explorers because of its large gorge just inside the Ethiopian border. However, by the late 16th and early 17th century, Portuguese explorers and Jesuits missionaries had managed to penetrate deep enough to reach the river’s source, Lake Tana. The first documented record of finding the source of the Blue Nile was by the Jesuit missionary Pedro Páez on April 21, 1613. It is important to note that other Portuguese in Ethiopia may have seen Lake Tana before Páez, but it is unrecorded. 

A modern image of the Blue Nile gorge. Source: (Wikipeda)

Of the White Nile and the Blue Nile, the Blue is considered to be the feeder into the mainstream of the White. The White Nile was much more mysterious to Europeans since it arose much farther south than the Blue Nile. This area was unknown to Europeans and was the epitome of what they called the “Dark Continent,” due to the mysterious nature of the land. Several expeditions to find the source of the White Nile were undertaken by several explorers of which the Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke expeditions that are the most famous.

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Burton was a dashing explorer that cut a fine figure. A former soldier, he took to exploration which included a journey in disguise to Mecca at a time when non-Muslims were forbidden entry to the sacred city. This won him fame so that he was able to mount an expedition organized by the Royal Geographic Society in 1857.

John Hanning Speke (1827-1864). Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

On this journey, John Hanning Speke joined Burton. Speke too was a former soldier but did not have the charisma of Burton. Speke, however, was far more tolerant than Burton and did not have some of the common racist attitudes that other African explorers, like Burton, had.

Speke had known Burton since an 1854 expedition into East Africa where both men were wounded -- Speke badly. Speke believed that Burton thought him cowardly and it was a source of growing antipathy between them. Still, Speke joined Burton for the 1857 expedition.

The Nile near Lake Victoria. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

They landed on the coast opposite Zanzibar and headed inland. In February 1858 they had found Lake Tanganyika. They spent some time exploring the areas about the lake until illness made them withdraw toward the coast. Speke recovered from his sickness sooner than Burton, and he took a contingent of the expedition’s forces to plummet into the interior again. In August 1858, he and his companions found what he named Lake Victoria. This lake he believed was the source of the Nile. To celebrate, Speke shot three birds. His African porters were probably puzzled since they had seen the lake before.

Ripon Falls no longer exists due to hydrology projects. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

A jealous Burton, however, contended that Speke was in error and that the true source of the Nile was Lake Tanganyika. Speke decided to take the initiative. He returned to Britain in 1859 (before Burton) and announced that he had discovered the source of the Nile. Burton was naturally infuriated and maligned Speke. In 1860, the Royal Geographic Society sent Speke back to Africa and after some delays managed to reach Ripon Falls on July 28, 1862, where he thought the White Nile issued from Lake Victoria.  

Speke in Africa. Source: (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Speke returned to Britain triumphant and the Royal Geographic Society awarded the explorer a gold medal. But Burton still refused to accept the Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile. A debate between the two was scheduled for September 16, 1864, by the British Association. However, the day before, Speke was shot and killed in a hunting accident. He was 37 years old. His cocked gun had gone off. Although ruled an accident there were rumors perpetuated by Burton that he had committed suicide. Burton claimed that Speke was so afraid to debate him that he shot himself. Based on the coroner's report and the wound, this was highly unlikely.

Speke was proven correct in that Lake Victoria was the main source of the Nile although it should be noted that the river has many sources stemming from Lake Victoria and Ripon Falls is not the most southerly.  But in the main, it is Lake Victoria. Burton it should be said was successful in his own right -- He diminished Speke’s reputation. Burton was knighted, Speke was not.  

Tags: river | The Source Of The Nile

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