How feud wrecked the reputation of explorer who discovered Nile's source

Jealous but charismatic Sir Richard Burton managed to push travelling partner John Speke out of the historical limelight

He was a 19th-century explorer who risked his life to unearth a great secret – the source of the White Nile, a mystery since Alexander the Great first posed the question. But new research reveals that John Hanning Speke's place in history was eclipsed by a jealous, charismatic rival, who stole the limelight by convincing others Speke was an unscrupulous, disloyal man devoid of emotion.

Previously unpublished documents cast fresh light on Speke, showing he was very different to the character portrayed by Sir Richard Burton, his travelling companion, whose denigrating image has long been accepted by historians.

Tim Jeal, author of a new book Explorers of the Nile, has unearthed evidence that has convinced him Speke's achievements were "diminished by what a very skilful, clever but ultimately cynical person had done to him". Speke had, in fact, fallen hopelessly in love with an African woman in Uganda and showed astonishing frankness in giving tribesmen and women sexual advice. He also showed real bravery. Apart from fighting off spear-wielding Somalis, he saved a wife of a Bagandan king from being beaten to death. Speke, Jeal believes, should be in the pantheon of the world's greatest explorers. It was he who, in 1863, became the first European to reach Lake Victoria and find its outlet, still accepted as the Nile's main source, demonstrating how the world's longest river flowed through a vast desert without being replenished for 1,200 miles by a single tributary.

Jeal said: "Burton became painfully jealous of Speke for upstaging him by 'discovering' Lake Victoria on a solo excursion during their joint expedition to Lake Tanganyika. For over a decade after Speke's accidental death, Burton did his utmost to persuade the British public that the dead man had been a deluded nonentity." Burton was hailed as the first European to find Lake Tanganyika, but Jeal said he was a "relatively unsuccessful explorer" whose discovery was made with Speke. "They explored the lake together to reach the key northern part but failed. Then, as Burton was too sick, Speke volunteered to search alone. Yet Burton later claimed Speke was sick too."

Burton's condescending assessment of Speke's character was so devastating that seven Burton biographies published in the past 50 years support his ideas, Jeal said. The author argues that, while Burton is justifiably admired as a linguist and swordsman and for his "staggering 50 books", including translations of works such as the Kama Sutra, Speke was "looked down on". There has been only one biography about Speke, published 40 years ago. What damaged Speke most, Jeal said, was "the claim that he was not merely self-absorbed, but cold". Biographers described him as "inhibited and prudish", with suggestions he was a repressed homosexual or "entirely sexless – a sad figure compared with the sexually active Burton".

The new material shows Speke as more tolerant and insightful about Africans than most explorers of his day. In contrast, Jeal said, "Burton's racism is often forgotten … His attitude to Africans was deplorable. Speke, like every white traveller in Africa, wrote some unkind things too, but his real support for Africans has never fully come out before."

Source of the Nile map
Map illustrating the paths of the White and Blue Nile. Photograph:

Part of Speke's poor reputation is because his parents did not keep his letters. Also, it seems, historians never made use of the manuscript on which Speke based his book The Discovery of the Source of the Nile, despite its availability in Scotland's National Library.

Jeal found extensive passages that had been deleted by Speke or his publisher, John Blackwood. In one of them, Speke asked his readers to "be prepared to see and understand the negroes of Africa in their natural, primitive or naked state; a state in which our forefathers lived before the forced state of civilisation subverted it". Blackwood insisted that praise for the "naked state" be deleted.

Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Great Victorian Adventure will include previously unpublished accounts of Speke's unrequited love for an 18-year-old African woman called Méri – his "beautiful Venus". He was dismayed by her unsentimental honesty in telling him that her reason for being with him was so that she "might die in the favours of a rich man". He wrote of his parting gifts to her: "A black blanket as a sign of mourning that I never could win her heart… a packet of tobacco in proof of my forgiveness, though she had almost broken my heart; [but] I only hoped she might live a life of happiness with people of her own colour as she did not like me because she did not know my language to understand me."

Speke's enemies, led by Burton, were preparing a savage attack on him at a debate in Bath. But Speke died suddenly in Corsham, while climbing a wall holding a shotgun. It was clearly accidental, despite Burton's claim of suicide to avoid "exposure of his misstatements in regard to the Nile sources". While Burton was knighted, Speke was denied the honour.

Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Great Victorian Adventure is published by Faber on 22 September. It will be BBC Radio 4's book of the week from Monday [12th] .


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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