Speke, John Hanning (DNB00)

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SPEKE, JOHN HANNING (1827–1864), African explorer and discoverer of the source of the Nile, second son of William Speke (1798–1887) of Jordans, near Ilminster, Somerset, by Georgina Elizabeth, daughter of William Hanning of Dillington, was born at Jordans on 4 May 1827. His father, who had been a captain in the 14th dragoons, was the representative of a younger branch of the ancient family of Speke of White Lackington [see Speke, Hugh] (Collinson, Hist. Somerset, i. 69). From his childhood Speke was educated for the army, and entered the 46th regiment Bengal native infantry (1844). He served through the Punjab campaign under Sir Hugh, first viscount Gough [q. v.], and was present during the Sikh war at the battles of Rámnagar, Sadullápur, Chilianwala, and Gujarat, acting in Sir Colin Campbell's division. He was promoted lieutenant 1850 and captain 1852. At the close of the war Speke appears first to have conceived the idea of exploring Central Equatorial Africa (What led to the Discovery of the Nile, p. 1), and all the leave of absence which he could secure in India he spent in hunting and exploring expeditions over the Himalayas and in unknown portions of Thibet, during which he proved himself a competent sportsman, botanist, and geologist. Having completed his ten years' service in India, 3 Sept. 1854, he left Calcutta the following day for Aden, intending to put in effect the scheme he had formed for African exploration. He arrived at Aden at a moment when an expedition was being organised by the Bombay government, under the command of Lieutenant (afterwards Sir Richard) Burton, for the purpose of investigating the Somali country. At the suggestion of Colonel (afterwards Sir James) Outram [q. v.], Speke was put on service duty as a member of the expedition. He was at first despatched, 18 Oct. 1854, in preparation for the main journey, to Bunder Gori, with instructions to penetrate the country southwards as far as possible, to inspect the Wadi Nogul, and eventually to join the rest of the expedition at Berbera. But mainly owing to the unsatisfactory character of his headman or guide, who took advantage of his ignorance of the language, he was compelled to return to Aden, 15 Feb. 1855, without accomplishing the object of the journey. On 21 March 1855 he started again for Berbera, arriving there 3 April. Many camels had been got together, and great preparations had been made for the advance, but the expedition was doomed to failure, a night attack being made on the camp by the Somalis, in which Speke was dangerously wounded. Leaving Aden on sick certificate, Speke arrived in England in June 1855, and almost immediately volunteered for the Crimean campaign. He was attached to a regiment of Turks, with the commission of captain, and proceeded to Kertch in the Crimea, where he served until the close of the war. On its termination he meditated exploration in the Caucasus, but abandoned the idea on receiving an invitation from Burton to join in another African expedition. The new expedition was undertaken at the joint expense of the home and Indian governments, and at the recommendation of Lord Elphinstone, then governor of Bombay, Speke was officially appointed a member of the party. The instructions of the Royal Geographical Society to Burton were to penetrate inland from Kilwa or some other place on the east coast of Africa, and make the best way to the reputed lake of Nyassa, to determine the position and limits of that lake, and to explore the country around it.

On 3 Dec. 1856 the expedition, under the command of Burton, sailed in the East India Company's sloop Elphinstone from Bombay to Zanzibar, where they arrived on 21 Dec. The journey inland was not commenced until 27 June 1857, the six months preceding being occupied in exploring the coast and determining the best line of march. Starting from Kaolé and proceeding in a south-west direction as far as Zungomero, and then north-west through Ugogo and Ukimba, the travellers arrived at Kazé, south latitude 5°, east longitude 33°, on 7 Nov. 1857. Here they received information of three inland lakes from an Arab trader, Sheik Snay, which first led Speke to entertain the idea that the most northern lake might prove to be the source of the Nile. Moving slowly forward, owing to the illness of Burton, they reached Kawelé, on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, January 1858; here great difficulties were experienced with the native chief, Kannina, whose protection was only to be bought by heavy tribute, and who threw all possible obstacles in the way of their navigation of the lake. Both the explorers were for some time completely disabled, Burton from fever, Speke from ophthalmia; but on 3 March 1858 the latter embarked in a canoe, and crossed the centre of Lake Tanganyika, east to west, from Kabogo to Kasenge. At the latter place he noted, and subsequently put down in his maps, what he believed to be the western horn of the Mountains of the Moon encircling the north of the lake. At Kasenge Speke was given by the Sheik Hamed a full description of the Lake Tanganyika, but his efforts to secure the loan or purchase of a dhow proved unavailing, and he recrossed and joined Burton, 31 March. Both travellers now in company made a partial examination of the lake from canoes, but before it was completely navigated they were compelled, owing to Burton's ill-health and the fact that their supplies were running short, to return to Kazé, where they arrived towards the end of June, having adopted a slightly more northerly route than that by which they came. Here Speke persuaded Burton to permit him to make an attempt to visit the larger northern lake (Victoria Nyanza), while Burton remained at Kazé, making the necessary arrangements for their return journey.

On 9 July 1858 Speke, with thirty-five followers, provided with supplies for six weeks, left Kazé, and, marching due north for twenty-five days, arrived 30 July at a creek forming the most southern point of the great lake, and on 3 Aug. he secured his first complete view of it, and named it Victoria Nyanza. After taking compass bearings of the principal features of the lake, and securing such information as he was able to get on the spot, he started on his return 6 Aug. and rejoined Burton at Kazé 25 Aug. He immediately expressed his belief that he had discovered the source of the Nile, but on this point his fellow traveller was sceptical, and a coolness between the two explorers, arising in the first instance from this difference of opinion, subsequently increased and destroyed their old friendship. The expedition now returned to Zanzibar, and Speke, leaving Burton, still sick and unfit to travel, at Zanzibar, availed himself of a passage home offered in H.M.S. Furious, and arrived in England 8 May 1859. He there communicated with the Royal Geographical Society, lectured at Burlington House on the discovery of the two lakes (Tanganyika and Victoria Nyanza), and practically arranged with Sir Roderick Impey Murchison [q. v.], president of the Royal Geographical Society, the plans of a new expedition which he was to lead. Burton's arrival on 21 May and Speke's somewhat unnecessary haste in announcing the results of the expedition accentuated the already strained relations between the two travellers. The rupture became complete when Speke, in two articles in ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ openly assumed the main credit of the expedition and expressed the view that the Victoria Nyanza was the source of the Nile. These articles were answered by Burton in his book, ‘The Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa,’ in which he criticised Speke's Nile theory and ridiculed his imaginary discovery of the Mountains of the Moon. Both travellers received from the French Geographical Society the medal awarded for the most important discovery of the year.

Speke was almost immediately engaged in preparations for the new expedition, of which, through the support of Sir Roderick Murchison, he was given the command. He started from England 27 April 1860, with Captain James Augustus Grant [q. v.] (1827–1892), an old friend and officer in the Indian army. The objects of the expedition, which was organised by the Royal Geographical Society and supported by the government by a grant of 2,500l., were to explore the Victoria Nyanza and to verify, if possible, Speke's view as to that lake being the source of the Nile. The expedition also received from the home government assistance in the passage by sea; the Indian government granted arms, ammunition, and presents for chiefs in the interior, and the Cape parliament gave 300l. and the services of ten men from the Cape mounted rifle corps. The route taken was in the first instance the same as on the previous occasion, and the party, consisting of 217 persons, bearers and armed men included, left Zanzibar on 25 Sept. 1860, and arrived at Kazé on 24 Jan. 1861. To this base of operations Speke had sent on beforehand a considerable quantity of cloth and beads. Very great difficulty was now experienced in making a further forward movement, owing to the scarcity of carriers, warfare between the Arabs and natives, and the extreme rapacity of the small chiefs through whose country it was necessary to pass. From July to September Speke was seriously ill, and in September Grant, while leading a separate portion of the caravan in the territory of the chief Myonga, was attacked and plundered. Rejoining each other on 26 Sept., they marched north between the lakes Tanganyika and the Victoria Nyanza, through Bogue and Wanga, and arrived in November 1861 in Karague, where they were treated with great hospitality by the king, Rumanika. Leaving Grant invalidated in the care of Rumanika on 10 Jan. 1862, Speke proceeded north into Uganda. On 19 Feb. he arrived at the palace of Mtesa, the king of Uganda; here he was rejoined by Grant in May, and after tedious negotiations, extending over four months, he persuaded Mtesa, who on the whole treated him in a very friendly fashion, to facilitate the progress of the expedition northwards through the territory of Kamrasi, the king of Unyoro. The party left the capital of Uganda on 7 July, and, marching round the north-west shoulder of the Victoria Nyanza, struck the Nile at Urondogani on 21 July. Before the Nile was reached Grant was despatched with the bulk of the property to Chagusi, the capital of Unyoro. After trying in vain to secure boats in which to ascend the stream, Speke marched up the left bank, and on 28 July he reached the place where the Nile leaves the Victoria Nyanza, and named it Ripon Falls, after Lord Ripon, under-secretary of state for war, under whose auspices his expedition had been arranged by the Royal Geographical Society. Not being allowed by Mtesa's officers to do more than examine the falls, Speke started on his return down the stream on 31 July. With great difficulty he secured boats and attempted to continue his journey on the Nile, leaving Urondogani on 13 Aug., but was obliged to abandon the river owing to the hostility of the natives, and was only allowed, after long negotiation, to enter Unyoro by land. Not till 9 Sept. was he permitted to approach the palace of Kamrasi, the extremely suspicious king of Unyoro (N. lat. 1° 37′ 43″ E. long. 32° 19′ 49″). It was as difficult to get away from Kamrasi as it had been in the first instance to approach him, and Speke was not allowed to pass on his road north until 9 Nov., and then only at the cost of his last and best chronometer. Following the river, he reached the Karuma Falls on 19 Nov., here, where the Nile begins to make its great bend to the west, he was obliged to leave the stream owing to native warfare, and, travelling down the chord of the arc made by the river, he reached De Bono's ivory outpost (N. lat. 3° 10′ 37″) on 3 Dec. On 13 Jan. 1863 Speke, now marching with a contingent of Turks from the ivory station, reached Paira, within sight of the Nile, and thence travelling down the right bank of the stream by Apuddo, Madi, Marsan, and Doro, he arrived at Gondoroko on 15 Feb. Here he was met, and given cordial assistance, by Samuel (afterwards Sir Samuel) Baker, who, at his own expense, had organised another expedition. To Baker Speke gave willingly all the information he possessed as to the lake Luta Nzigé (Albert Nyanza), in and out of which he was well aware that the Nile flowed, but he erroneously regarded that lake as a backwater of the Nile. He planned the route by which Baker should go, and gave him a map of remarkable accuracy, considering that part of it was drawn on hearsay evidence; the map is now in the possession of the Royal Geographical Society. He thus enabled Baker to make his successful discovery of the third lake, Albert Nyanza (Sir Samuel Baker: a Memoir, by D. Murray, p. 97). A relief expedition, the funds for which had been raised by public subscription (February 1861), and the command of which had been given to Consul Petherick, was a failure, through the difficulties it experienced en route and the illness of its leader, and proved of no assistance to Speke.

Shortly after his arrival at Khartoum the foreign office received a message by telegram from Speke that all was well and the Nile traced to its source. This message created a great sensation when publicly communicated at the meeting of the Royal Geographical Society on 11 May 1863. Honours were now showered on the successful explorers. At Gondoroko Speke first heard that the founders' medal of the Royal Geographical Society had been awarded to him for the discovery of the Victoria Nyanza. On his arrival at Alexandria he was entertained by the viceroy of Egypt, and the king of Sardinia presented him with a medal with the inscription ‘Honor est a Nilo.’ He was publicly received on landing at Southampton, and a special meeting of the Royal Geographical Society was called in his honour on 22 June 1863. Speke's ‘Journal of the Discovery of the Nile’ was published in the same year and was widely read; it was translated into French in 1869, and the author was invited to Paris and presented to the Emperor Napoleon, by whom he was promised assistance if he should undertake another expedition.

The fact that Speke's proof of the Victoria Nyanza being the source of the Nile was not absolute, owing to the stream being left for a considerable distance and the Luta Nzigé (Albert Nyanza) not being visited, rendered his achievement open to some doubt, and his discoveries and theories were criticised both by Miani, the Venetian traveller, and by Burton and McQueen in their joint production, ‘The Nile Basin’ (1864). Great public interest was taken in the matter, and it was arranged that Speke should meet the most formidable of his critics, Captain Burton, and debate the subject with him at the meeting of the geographical section of the British Association at Bath on 18 Sept. 1864. Unhappily on the morning of the day fixed for the discussion Speke, who was stopping with his uncle-in-law, John Bird Fuller, at Neston Park, near Bath, accidentally shot himself fatally when partridge-shooting. He was buried on 26 Sept. in the church of Dowlish-Wake.

The importance of Speke's discoveries can hardly be overestimated. In discovering the ‘source reservoir’ of the Nile he succeeded in solving the ‘problem of all ages’ (Sir R. Murchison's Address to the Roy. Geogr. Soc. 25 May, 1863). He and Grant were the first Europeans to cross Equatorial Eastern Africa, and thereby gained for the world a knowledge of rather more than eight degrees of latitude, or about five hundred geographical miles, in a portion of Eastern Africa previously totally unknown. Though no great linguist, Speke was by nature thoroughly qualified as an explorer, possessing remarkable courage, an unflinching perseverance, and a rare aptitude for dealing with the savage rulers with whom he came into contact. While not altogether scientific in his geographical method, he was a good astronomer, and on the whole his reckonings were remarkably accurate. He possessed a curious geographical instinct, guiding him to correct conclusions on slender evidence. His knowledge of natural history and his skill as a sportsman proved of great service to him during his travels. By Baker he was described as a ‘painstaking, determined traveller who worked out his object of geographical research without the slightest jealousy of others—a splendid fellow in every way’ (Sir S. Baker: a Memoir, p. 97).

There is an engraving of Speke, by Mr. S. Hollyer, after a photograph, prefixed to the ‘Journal of the Discovery of the Source of Nile;’ and an oil painting of Speke and Grant is in the possession of Sir John Dorington; a bust, taken after death, stands in the Shirehall, Taunton; and a bust in plaster, modelled by Pieroni, is in the possession of the Royal Geographical Society. A portrait by Waterhouse, belongs to the family. A granite monument was erected by public subscription in Kensington Gardens. In 1875 an arm of the lake Victoria Nyanza was named ‘Speke Gulf’ by Mr. H. M. Stanley.

In recognition of Speke's services his family were granted an augmentation of arms with the use of supporters by royal license in 1867. Speke wrote: 1. ‘Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile,’ Edinburgh and London, 1863. 2. ‘What led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile,’ Edinburgh and London, 1864.

[Speke's publications; Times, 19 Sept. 1864; Roy. Geogr. Soc. Proceedings, 1857–63; Hitchman's Richard Burton, ii. 37, 40; Lady Burton's Life of Sir Richard Burton; Sir Samuel Baker, by T. Douglas Murray; Beke's Sources of the Nile; Speke's original maps in the possession of the Royal Geogr. Soc.; Brown's Story of Africa (1892), ii. 50–115; Lugard's Rise of our East African Empire (1893); Sir H. H. Johnston's British Central Africa, 1897, pp. 63 seq.]

W. C.-r.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.255
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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324 i 24 Speke, John H.: for Ilchester read Ilminster