John Hanning Speke 1827 -1864

speke-graveOn the edge of a field by a dry stone wall on the Neston estate is an epitaph to John Hanning Speke. He was among the greatest British explorers of the Victorian era, whose greatest achievement was the discovery of the source of the White Nile – the holy grail of Victorian exploration. Speke died in mysterious circumstances whilst shooting partridge on the Neston estate, at the age of 37, the day prior to a debate with Sir Richard Burton at the Royal Mineral Water Hospital Bath organised by the Royal Geographical Society.

John Hanning Speke was born on 4 May 1827 in Bideford, Devon. He served with the Bengal Native Infantry from 1844-1854. He obviously had a love of adventure as, aged 27, he joined an ill-fated expedition to Zanzibar led by Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) and explored the Wadi Nogal region in Somaliland. In 1855, they were both badly wounded when Issa warriors attacked Burton‟s camp, at Berbera, on the Somali coast. Speke returned to England to recover and then volunteered for the Crimea, serving with a regiment of Turks.

SEPT 15TH 1864.

John Hanning Speke 1827 -1864

John Hanning Speke 1827 -1864

Speke accompanied Burton‟s 1856-1859 expedition across Central Africa. They were looking for the large lakes thought to exist in the continent and were also hopeful of identifying the source of the Nile. Both men suffered from tropical illnesses, Speke also became temporarily blind. They were the first Europeans to discover Lake Tanganika in 1858, but then Burton contracted malaria and had to turn back. Speke carried on alone and on 3 August 1858 discovered what he named Lake Victoria in honour of the Queen, later proved to be the source of the Nile. Much of the expedition’s survey equipment had been lost at this point and so vital questions about the height and extent of the lake could not be answered.

It was understood Burton and Speke had an understanding they would announce their findings together to the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), but when Speke returned to England before Burton, on 8 May 1859 he made their trip famous in a speech to the RGS where he claimed to have discovered the source of the Nile. Burton returned on 21 May, and was angered by Speke’s precipitous announcements. A further rift was caused when Speke was chosen to lead a subsequent expedition without Burton. The two presented joint papers concerning the expedition to the RGS on 13 June 1859.

The Royal Geographical Society, which had sponsored the expedition, honoured Speke for his exploits and commissioned a second expedition in 1860 to resolve the dispute. Speke and Captain James Augustus Grant mapped a portion of Lake Victoria. In July 1862, Speke, unaccompanied by Grant, found the Nile’s exit from the lake and named it Ripon Falls. The party then tried to follow the river’s course, but an outbreak of tribal warfare required them to change their route.

Speke later returned to lead his own expedition, 1860-3, accompanied by James Grant. They confirmed that Lake Victoria is the chief reservoir of the Nile, Speke sending a celebrated telegram to London: “The Nile is settled.” On his return to England, Speke was greeted with enthusiasm and published ‘Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile’ (1863). Controversy over the question was kept alive for another decade, largely because of Burton’s vigorous opposition. Burton supposed

the Tanganyika was the Nile reservoir, and that Victoria was a seasonal collection of lakes or lagoons with no outlet. Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) circumnavigated Lake Victoria in 1875 and verified Speke‟s claim.

Controversy stayed with Speke. A public debate in Bath was to be held to discuss the issue of the source of the Nile, chaired by Sir Roderick Murchison, an extremely distinguished geologist. Speke was staying at Neston Park, home of his cousin George Fuller. The day before the debate, Speke went partridge shooting with his cousin. While climbing over a stone wall his gun discharged and he was killed. For decades it was unclear whether this was a tragic accident or whether Speke took his own life.

mapIt appears that Speke‟s relatives destroyed his diaries and many letters. Their descendants discouraged any attempt to investigate the explorer‟s life. So much so that efforts to research and gather sufficient material for a book were to no avail.

Mount Speke in the Ruwenzori Range, Uganda was named in honour of John Speke, as an early European explorer of this region.

Speke was buried in Dowlish Wake, Somerset, the ancestral home of the Speke family.

The film Mountains of the Moon (1990) (starring Scottish actor Iain Glen as Speke) related the story of the Burton-Speke controversy, portrayed as having been unjustifiably incited by Speke’s publisher to stimulate book sales. Speke’s suicide is presented as the result of his learning the truth of this betrayal of his trust. It also hints at a sexual intimacy between Burton and Speke, vaguely portraying Speke as a closeted homosexual. This was based on the William Harrison novel Burton and Speke, which explicitly portrays Speke as homosexual and Burton as rampantly heterosexual.

In what is the only full-length biography of Speke, Alexander Maitland set out on an exploration of his own – of Speke the man, and his demise. First published in 1971, Maitland‟s biography remains one of the most important books about Victorian exploration.

The memorial is at Grid reference ST 842674.

Sources: page7image27952page7image28272

Jane Browning 

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