John Speke

John Hanning Speke

Lake Victoria from Speke's map

This map of Lake Victoria (above) is from Speke’s sketch map of the lakes and rivers of east central Africa. It set a new standard for completeness and detail in maps of the African interior. Click on the map to see more.

James GrantMyamuezi with a cockerel

Speke published a book in 1863 about his journey through east Africa. It was illustrated with pictures like the ones on this page of a Myamuezi tribesman with a cockerel, and 'The three buffalo charges'. These were mostly drawn by James Grant (above left), a young army officer who travelled with Speke. Click on the pictures to see more.

Captain John Hanning Speke (left) went on three expeditions looking for the source of the River Nile.

In the far north of Africa, the River Nile spreads out into the Mediterranean Sea. The oldest maps show the last bit of the Nile’s route, as it travels through Egypt. Until the nineteenth century no one knew where it began. Waterfalls and rapids blocked the path of explorers who tried to trace it.

The map below is from an atlas published in 1822, 36 years before Speke’s first expedition. It shows that people knew the start of the Nile was somewhere near the Mountains of the Moon in east central Africa. Click on the image to see the whole map of Africa.

The Nile from Smith's new general atlas (1822)

The first two expeditions that Speke went on were organised by Richard Francis Burton. In 1858, Burton and Speke reached Lake Tanganyika. Burton thought that this was the source of the Nile. He was ill and had to rest. Speke continued the expedition and found Lake Victoria (left). He claimed that this was the source of the Nile. Neither of them could prove their side of the story.

Buffalo charge

In 1860, Speke went back to Africa to collect evidence. He was sure that the Nile flowed out of Lake Victoria, but Burton criticized his evidence and continued to disagree with him.

Another buffalo charge

A public debate between Burton and Speke was organised in 1864. Speke did not live to argue his case. He shot himself whilst hunting on the morning the debate was due to take place. His death was probably an accident but people at the time thought he might have killed himself because he thought Burton would win. The mystery about the source of the Nile inspired David Livingstone to continue the search. Later evidence proved Speke right. Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile.

Man with a gun