Exploration of the Nile River: A Journey of Discovery and Imperialism

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Exploration of the Nile River: A Journey of Discovery and Imperialism


The nineteenth-century efforts to find the source of the Nile River, one of the great rivers in the world, can be seen both in the light of genuine scientific exploration and discovery and in the light of naked imperial expansionism. On the one hand, John Hanning Speke's discovery that Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile was the culmination of centuries of curiosity. On the other hand, the discovery reflected the efforts of European colonial powers to explore, conquer, and control the African continent and its vast natural resources.


Our understanding of rivers and river systems has increased greatly in the last few decades. Satellite images have shown us more about the geography of the world's major rivers than we ever knew from land exploration. What we now understand is that the Nile River is not a single flowing body of water that snakes through hundreds of miles of terrain. In fact, what we call the Nile River of today is actually a major drainage source of regions deep into the African continent in an area called the Great Rift Zone. The many beautiful tributaries and lakes create a chain of waterways that empty into a final passageway to the sea at the Great Nile Delta.

The Nile River began to carve its passage through the continent about 30 million years ago. Some believe the main headwaters were the section of the present-day system called the Atbara River. The current understanding of the Nile includes two rivers as the actual source. They are the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The length of the Nile from the major tributary, the White Nile at Lake Victoria, Uganda, is approximately 4,100 mi (6,695 km). The Nile River system flows through nine countries: Uganda, Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Zaire, Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Travel along the Nile River has a history that starts long before Europeans ever witnessed its shores. The early Egyptians, who lived along its banks, used its waters to carry a wide variety of goods, including the limestone blocks used to build the pyramids. The records of their commerce are the first pictures we have into the character and size of this mighty river. The Egyptians limited their use of the river, however, and never ventured farther than the known empires that thrived along its coast. As far as we know, there was never any attempt made by the Egyptians to discover the actual source of the river.

Greek history describes several explorations of varied length and success. Many travelers, like Herodotus, found the waterfalls near presentday Aswan an impenetrable barrier for boat voyage and turned back. Later, Grecian investigators described a variety of lakes and side rivers as possible sources, but they did not actually explore these territories. The suggested sources some of these writers proposed were extraordinarily precise considering they did not actually follow the routes to their supposed destination.

The first recorded exploration for the source of the Nile occurred with the Romans in 66 A.D. Emperor Nero sought to expand the reach and wealth of his empire and launched a failed expedition up the White Nile. The unlucky adventurers met additional imposing waterfalls along the route that made the heartiest of them weary with the constant trek through the surrounding wilderness. The Roman expedition was finally stopped by a tough and resistant people of the As-Sudd.

It was not until the seventeenth century that exploration of the Nile began in earnest. By the late 1600s both the Spanish and British empires were supporting expeditions around the world in search of new territory. A little-mentioned Spanish expedition, led by a Jesuit priest, Pedro Pàez (1564-1622), was successful in locating the source for the Blue Nile in 1618. The Blue Nile is the source of almost 70 percent of the flood-water measured at Khartoum. Pàez found a small spring above Lake Tanganyika in northwestern Ethiopia. It empties into the lake at about 6,000 ft (1,800 m) above sea level. The path following the outflow of the lake to its meeting with the White Nile follows a tortuous route down deep gorges, over high waterfalls, and through dense rain forest.

The quest for the source of the Nile during the nineteenth century was driven by the desire to find waterways across the region. The control of water has always been considered to be of economic importance, since the country that controls the water controls the commerce along its waterways. Motivated by potential wealth and fame, expeditions began across the region.

In northern and central Sudan, Muhammad 'Ali (1769-1849), viceroy of Ottoman Egypt in 1821, sent his sons in search of the source of the White Nile. Turkish expeditions vied with the Egyptians for geographical exploration. Missionaries from Austria and other European countries began to traverse the region as well, bringing Christianity to tribal people. Their journeys were recorded and catalogued in great detail. From these journals the world began to accumulate much of its knowledge about the physiography of the Nile region. Records of undiscovered mountains and lakes sparked a flurry of expedition that was to become one of the most famous quests in history: the search for the source of the Nile.

One of the most prestigious and influential societies of the nineteenth century was the Royal Geographical Society of London. It was established in 1830 in Westminster near the Royal Albert Hall. The society, composed of wealthy gentlemen, sponsored expeditions around the world, including to the Arctic and Antarctica. In particular, great financial support was lent to the exploration of Africa. Famous expeditions led by members such as David Livingstone (1813-1873) and Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) were financed by the society. It was the expedition led by John Hanning Speke (1827-1864) that is credited with the actual discovery of the source of the Nile. It was the continued pursuit of this exploration by both Burton and Speke that has become the stuff of legend.

Burton was raised by his father in England, France, and Italy, where he showed an amazing talent for language and dialect. After expulsion from Oxford in 1842, he joined the army in British India, where he learned to speak Arabic and Hindi. In his travels around the world he eventually learned to speak 25 languages, a feat that made him an invaluable member of any expedition. In 1855 his fascination with the White Nile and its source compelled him to form an exploration party with three additional officers of the British East India Company. One of these officers was John Hanning Speke, a friend with whom he would have a lifelong relationship.

Speke is credited as the first European explorer to reach Lake Victoria, the identified source of the Nile. He was a British officer commissioned in the British Indian Army in 1844. He served in Punjab and traveled extensively throughout the region. He joined with Burton in the 1855 attempt to locate the source of the Nile. Together they planned a route that would take them along a route used by Arabs for trading, one that would take them along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. On this expedition Speke was critically wounded by the Somalis at Berbera. Another officer of the party died in the attack, and Burton was pierced by a spear through the jaw. The expedition was dismantled and Burton returned to England.

Undaunted, Speke and Burton continued to pursue their plans for discovering the Nile source. Speke and Burton teamed up in Zanzibar for another attempt at the elusive discovery during 1857-58. This attempt proved to be as devastating as the first. Their goal was to find a lake described in many journals and texts, from the ancient Greeks to the seventeenth-century missionaries. They believed it to be in the heart of Africa and were confident that it would be the elusive source of the mighty river. Their journey, however, floundered for six months along the shores of the African coast, where they had hoped to find a route inland towards the lake. The physical strain of the expedition took its toll on both men. Burton contracted malaria and Speke became nearly blind. They came, exhausted, upon the shores of Lake Tanganyika, which they discovered was not the source of the mighty river after all. Dismayed, they discovered that an important tributary, the Rusizi River, flowed into and not out of the lake.

Burton was physically unable to continue the journey at this point. As he made plans to return to England, Speke regrouped. Burton wished Speke to return with him to prepare another expedition, but Speke's refusal and organization of another trip created a rift between the two men that would never heal.

In 1860 Speke asked James Augustus Grant (1827-1892), a loyal lieutenant in the British Indian Army, to accompany him on another expedition towards a great lake that Speke believed to be the Nile's source. Speke read many descriptions of this unrecorded lake and believed it to be the true source of the Nile. Again, the men endured the terrible hardships of illness, conflict with native peoples, and fatigue. At times Speke was so ill that command of the expedition was handed to Grant, who stalwartly pushed the weary band forward.

On July 28, 1862, the two men found themselves at the outlet of a tremendous lake that they undoubtedly believed to be the true source of the Nile River. They named the Lake after the reigning Queen of England: Victoria. Lake Victoria still stands as one of the most majestic lakes in the world and is considered by all to be the source of the Nile River. While exploring the extent of the lake, Speke and Grant separated and conducted independent surveys around the vast body of water. On one of these forays Speke discovered the famous and beautiful waterfalls we now know as Ripon Falls.


Although the goals of the expedition were in part scientific, mention must be made of the expansionist agenda of the British colonial empire that financed and carried out the trip. The southern and central African expeditions of Livingstone, Speke, Burton, and others resulted in a frenetic race between European nations to colonize Africa and introduce so-called "civilized" European ways into the continent's peoples. This included an infusion of Christian missionaries and enterprise-oriented merchants and traders, many of whom exploited the African natives. The subsequent carving up of Africa by the European colonial powers—with artificial "nations" created where none had existed before—left a legacy of violence and conflict that continues to the present day.

Speke and Grant returned to England with news of their discovery only to find controversy. Burton refused to believed they had found the source. He discredited their achievements and tried to gain support for his own travels back into the wilderness. The members of the Royal Geographic Society were divided in their opinions of Speke and Grant's discovery. However, in a hotly debated controversy, it was decided that since the society had financially supported Speke's expedition it would support his claim. Burton was devastated. He could find no financial support for his own mission and created a public feud over the incident.

Speke returned with Grant to Lake Victoria and began a mapping project that was to continue for some time. When he finally returned to England he challenged Burton's criticism of his achievements and agreed to a public debate over his findings. Unfortunately, a few days before the scheduled debate, Speke accidentally shot himself in a hunting accident and the two men, Burton and Speke, were never reconciled.

Today, Speke is credited with the discovery of the Nile source. The history of the many hearty adventurers who attempted to discover the wonders of this famous river and the land that contains it is long and colorful. The Nile deserves its place as one of the natural wonders of the world, and it will continue to inspire the imaginations of generations to come. The discovery of its source will also continue to inspire historians to understand the legacy of European colonialism in Africa.


Further Reading

Erlich, Haggai and Israel Gershoni, eds. The Nile: Histories, Cultures, Myths. Lynne Reinner Publications, 1999.

Harrison, William. Burton and Speke. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Nomachi, Kazuyoshi. The Nile. (Photographic book.) Odyssey Publications, 1998.

Speke, John Hanning. Journey of the Discovery of theSource of the Nile River. New York: Dover, 1996.

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