Megan Vaughan

  • Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure by Tim Jeal
    Faber, 510 pp, £25.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 571 24975 6

In the final episode of the TV series Joanna Lumley’s Nile, Joanna Lumley stretches out next to the muddy dribble that is apparently the furthest source of the White Nile, deep in the mountains of Rwanda, and muses on the fact that this unimpressive wet patch gives rise to such a mighty river. Indeed, it is surprising. Determining the ‘source’ of a river is, it turns out, not a simple matter. There may be many plausible contenders. You can argue that it is the joining together and accumulation of the water from a number of tributaries that constitutes the ‘source’, not any one of them in particular. This issue gave pause even to Victorian explorers, not usually prone to doubts. ‘What should be called the source of a river?’ Henry Morton Stanley asked. ‘A lake which receives the insignificant rivers flowing into it and discharges all by one great outlet, or the tributaries which the lake collects?’ Stanley favoured the former theory, pointing out that otherwise it would be difficult to know where to stop – perhaps with clouds, and the vapours that composed them?

In the course of twenty years in the mid-19th century a group of British explorers – Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, David Livingstone, Samuel Baker (with his wife, Florence), Henry Morton Stanley and James Grant – slogged out on their respective expeditions through East and Central Africa, and engaged in an intense and bitter battle over who exactly could claim to have solved the ‘mystery of the Nile’, a mystery that had first gripped Ptolemy. Ancient Egyptian prosperity was built on the annual summer flooding of the river and the fertility produced by its silt. To be so heavily dependent on this miraculous annual event without knowing its ultimate source was a cause of unease for successive generations of rulers. Both the Greeks and the Romans sent expeditions southwards in attempts to locate the river’s origins, but they were halted by the vast swamp of the Sudd in what is now Southern Sudan. The Nile has two main tributaries, which join at Khartoum. The Blue Nile rises in the mountains of Ethiopia and the first European to reach its source was a Spanish Jesuit, Pedro Paez, in 1613. But the White Nile proved more resistant. By the mid-19th century the desire to locate its source was becoming a compulsion.

In 1857 the unhappy couple of Burton and Speke set off inland from Zanzibar. First they tested (and dismissed) the theory that the river originated in Lake Tanganyika. Burton fell desperately sick, leaving Speke to set off north, where there was rumoured to be an even larger lake. In July 1858 he caught his first sight of Nyanza (later renamed Lake Victoria), which he rightly assumed must be the real source of the river. But he did not circumnavigate the lake, and so could not claim to have established beyond doubt that the river emerged from it. In 1860 he returned, accompanied on an expedition by James Grant, to determine that there was, indeed, a major outlet from the northern edge of the lake. But the matter was far from settled, and in 1864 Speke killed himself accidentally during a partridge shoot before he could battle it out with Burton, who had accused him of treachery, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Burton then engaged in a campaign to slander Speke and the mud stuck. Livingstone, meanwhile, obstinately pursued an alternative theory that the river rose further to the west, and died in the process.

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