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John Hanning Speke
Born 4 May 1827(1827-05-04)
Died 15 September 1864 (aged 37)
Occupation Officer and Explorer

John Hanning Speke (4 May 1827 – 15 September 1864) was an officer in the British Indian army who made three exploratory expeditions to Africa and who is most associated with the search for the source of the Nile.



In 1844 during the Sikh War Speke served in the British army under Sir Colin Campbell. He spent his leave exploring the Himalaya Mountains and once crossed into Tibet.

In 1854 he made his first voyage to Africa, joining the already famous Richard Francis Burton on an expedition to Somalia. The expedition did not go well. The party was attacked and Burton and Speke were both severely wounded. Speke was captured and stabbed several times with spears before he was able to free himself and escape. Burton escaped with a javelin impaling both cheeks. Speke returned to England to recover and then served in the Crimean War.

JH Speke.jpg

In 1856, Speke and Burton went to East Africa to find the great lakes which were rumoured to exist in the centre of the continent. Both men clearly hoped that their expedition would locate the source of the Nile. The journey was extremely strenuous and both men fell ill from a variety of tropical diseases. Speke suffered severely when he became temporarily deaf after a beetle crawled into his ear and he had to remove it with a knife. He also later went temporarily blind. After an arduous journey the two became the first Europeans to discover Lake Tanganyika (although Speke was still blind at this point and could not properly see the lake). They heard of a second lake in the area, but Burton was too sick to make the trip. Speke thus went alone, and found the lake, which he christened Lake Victoria. It was this lake which eventually proved to be the source of the river Nile. However, much of the expedition's survey equipment had been lost at this point and thus vital questions about the height and extent of the lake could not be answered.

Routes taken by the expeditions of Burton and Speke (1857-1858) and Speke and Grant (1863).

Speke returned to England before Burton, on 8 May 1859 and made their trip famous in a speech to the Royal Geographical Society where he claimed to have discovered the source of the Nile. When Burton returned on 21 May, he was angered by Speke's precipitous announcements believing that they violated an agreement that the two men would speak to the society together. A further rift was caused when Speke was chosen to lead a subsequent expedition without Burton.[1] The two presented joint papers concerning the expedition to the Royal Geographical Society on 13 June 1859.[2]

Together with James Augustus Grant, Speke left from Zanzibar in October 1860. When they reached Uganda Grant travelled north and Speke continued his journey towards the West. Speke reached Lake Victoria on 28 July 1862 and then travelled on the west side around Lake Victoria without actually seeing much of it, but on the north side of the lake, Speke found the Nile flowing out of it and discovered the Ripon Falls. Speke then sailed down the Nile and he was reunited with Grant. Next he travelled to Gondokoro in southern Sudan, where he met Samuel Baker and his wife, continuing to Khartoum, from which he sent a celebrated telegram to London: "The Nile is settled."[3]

An obelisk dedicated to Speke stands in Kensington Gardens, London

Speke's expedition did not resolve the issue, however. Burton claimed that because Speke had not followed the Nile from the place it flowed out of Lake Victoria to Gondokoro, he could not be sure they were the same river.[4] A debate was planned between the two before the geographical section of the British Association in Bath on 18 September 1864, but Speke died that morning from a self-inflicted gun-shot wound while hunting at Neston Park in Wiltshire.[5] An inquest concluded that the death was accidental, a conclusion supported by his only biographer, though the idea of suicide has appealed to some. Speke was buried in Dowlish Wake, Somerset, the ancestral home of the Speke family.[6]


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. It also vaguely portrays 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.[7][8]

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

Biographies, books, and articles about Speke

  • Speke by Alexander Maitland (1971) (the only full-length biography).
  • Burton and Speke by William Harrison (St Martins/Marek & W.H. Allen 1984).
  • A Walk Across Africa by J. A. Grant (London, 1864)
  • The Travelling Naturalists by Clare Lloyd. (Study of 18th Century Natural History - Includes Charles Waterton, John Hanning Speke, Henry Seebohm and Mary Kingsley) Contains colour and black and white reproductions. [9]
  • Wisnicki, Adrian S. (2008). "Cartographical Quandaries: The Limits of Knowledge Production in Burton’s and Speke’s Search for the Source of the Nile". History in Africa 35: 455-79.
  • Wisnicki, Adrian S. (2009). "Charting the Frontier: Indigenous Geography, Arab-Nyamwezi Caravans, and the East African Expedition of 1856-59". Victorian Studies 51.1 (Aut.): 103-37.

See also


  1. ^ Stephen, Leslie (1898). Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder. pp. 325. 
  2. ^ Burton, R. F.; J. H. Speke (13 June 1859). "Explorations in Eastern Africa". Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 3 (6): 348–358. doi:10.2307/1799169. 
  3. ^ "Twelfth Meeting, Monday Evening, 11 May 1863". Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 7 (3): 108–110. 
  4. ^ Burton, R. F. (14 November 1864). "Lake Tanganyika, Ptolemy's Western Lake-Reservoir of the Nile". Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 9 (1): 6–14. doi:10.2307/1799295. 
  5. ^ Roy Bridges, Speke, John Hanning (1827–1864) (subscription or library card required), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006. Accessed 15 Aug 2008.
  6. ^ Stephen, Leslie (1898). Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder. pp. 327. 
  7. ^ "Mountains of the Moon (1990) February 23, 1990 Review/Film; Two Victorian Eccentrics, Exploring and Feuding". Movie Reviews. New York Times. Retrieved 2009-08-22. 
  8. ^ "Relocating Burton: Public and Private Writings on Africa". The Journal of African Travel Writing. University of North Carolina. Retrieved 2009-08-22. 
  9. ^ Published by Croom Helm (UK) in 1985 with ISBN 0 7099 1658 2

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