Suppressed story of Richard Burton's rival explorer surfaces

Secret edition of John Hanning Speke’s What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile contains stinging accusations against his fellow adventurer

A secret addendum to John Hanning Speke’s account of his discovery of the source of the Nile, which details his long-running feud with fellow explorer Richard Burton and which was considered too provocative for publication, has been acquired by the National Library of Scotland.

The eight-page supplement to Speke’s 1864 book, What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, was referred to by the explorer as “the Tail” – possibly because, like a scorpion’s tail, it included the “sting” of the book. It laid out his grievances against Burton, which included anger over Burton’s failure to pay his African caravaneers, as well as further details of his adventures.

Where all other copies of the book conclude with “The End”, the suppressed version continues: “In a few words more I shall briefly describe how the expedition came out of Africa, and what became of the men who brought us safely to the end of our journey.” Speke goes into further detail about how he felt the porters ought to be paid, but says that Burton “wanted their protection, but did not want to pay them, so he took them at their word, made use of them all the way down to the coast, but neither paid them nor their master”.

The National Library of Scotland’s newly acquired copy of John Hanning Speke’s What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile.
Title page of the National Library of Scotland’s newly acquired copy of John Hanning Speke’s What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, signed by the author’s brother. Photograph: Bernard Quaritch Ltd

Just 12 copies featuring the addendum were printed, after Speke’s family and his publisher Blackwood’s felt it was too inflammatory and would undermine his achievements. These copies were intended solely for the author’s family – in an 1864 letter, publisher William Blackwood advises Speke “to be very cautious, & not let any of these copies be sent about beyond your family circle” – and their existence was little-known until 2004, when one of the copies came up for sale at Christie’s. Only five are believed to have survived, with this latest edition sold to the National Library of Scotland by the antiquarian booksellers Bernard Quaritch, which was selling it for a private collector. The copy is signed by the author’s brother, Benjamin Speke.

“Until this time, only about 20 people have had access to this text,” said Mark James at Bernard Quaritch. “For 150 years, nobody had publicly commented on the existence of these eight pages. Members of the family kept them very much to themselves, and it’s not impossible they destroyed one or two of them. But with the death of that generation, most of whom were gone by the 1920s, it really fell off the radar.”

It was once believed that three or four copies of the Tail existed, but using Blackwood’s ledgers in the National Library of Scotland, Bernard Quaritch was able to discover that 12 had been printed. “All of the clues are in the National Library of Scotland – now we can put the last bit of the puzzle there,” said James.

James said that the relationship between Burton and Speke was “like a bad marriage – constant bickering and chiselling away at each other, trying to get one-up”. Their simmering acrimony began when they first travelled to Africa together, exploring Somalia from 1854 to 1855, on a quest to find the origin of the White Nile. Their encampment at Berbera was attacked by the Habr Awal tribe in April 1855, with Burton injured by a spear thrust into his face, and Speke attacked and captured, later escaping with serious injuries.

A subsequent expedition to the lakes of East Africa saw the disputes become “open antagonism”, according to the bookseller. The explorers successfully located Lake Tanganyika, which Burton believed to be the Nile’s source. But when severe illness cut the expedition short, Burton declined to accompany Speke north to search for Lake Ukerewe. Speke first saw it on 3 August 1858, naming it the Victoria Nyanza and believing it to be the source of the Nile.

Burton disagreed with his conviction, but Speke arrived back in England first, and gave a lecture to the Royal Geographical Society laying out his hypothesis, despite having promised he would not make any announcements before his colleague’s return. Burton would publish The Lake Regions of Central Africa in 1860, attacking Speke for a paucity of evidence and for unsubstantiated speculations; by 1862, another expedition to Africa would see Speke confirming the Victoria Nyanza as the source of the Nile, a discovery for which he was wildly celebrated on his return to London in 1863.

“For Victorian explorers, that was the Everest,” said James. “[It was] one of the greatest discoveries of the Victorian era, which led to his lionisation on his return to London. Windows were broken by the crowds trying to get into the Royal Geographical Society meeting where he formally announced his discovery.”

Speke had planned to include the suppressed material about Burton in a second edition, but died on 15 September 1864 in a shotgun accident, which is believed by some to have been suicide. “I believe it was an accident,” said Alexander Maitland, who wrote a biography of the explorer. “He had plans to publish the book with the additional pages, but his family felt after his death that time had passed and they didn’t want it to be done. I can’t think of a better place than the National Library of Scotland for this book now.”

Rare books curator Dr Graham Hogg said the National Library was delighted to acquire the copy, which will now join holdings of correspondence between the Blackwoods and John and Benjamin Speke.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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