In Florence things can go badly for the rich if they don't run the state. — Lorenzo de Medici

Book of Discovery - M. B. Synge

Burton and Speke in Central Africa, 1856

Livingstone had just left Loanda and was making his way across Africa from west to east, when an English expedition set forth to find the Great Lakes still lying solitary and undiscovered, although they were known to exist. If we turn to the oldest maps of Africa, we find, rudely drawn and incorrectly placed, large inland waters, that may nevertheless be recognised as these lakes just about to be revealed to a wondering world. Ptolemy knew of them, the Arabs spoke of them, Portuguese traders had passed them, and a German missionary had caught sight of the Mountains of the Moon and brought back strange stories of a great inland lake.

The work of rediscovering the lakes was entrusted to a remarkable man named Richard Burton, a man whose love of adventure was well known. He had already shown his metal by entering Mecca disguised as a Persian, and disguised as an Arab he had entered Harar, a den of slave traders, the "Timbuktu of Eastern Africa." On his return he was attacked by the Somalis; one of his companions was killed, another, Speke, escaped with terrible spear-wounds, and he himself was badly wounded.

Such were the men who in 1856 were dispatched by the Royal Geographical Society for the exploration of the mysterious lakes in the heart of central Africa. Speke gives us an idea of the ignorance prevailing on this subject only fifty-six years ago: "On the walls of the Society's rooms there hung a large diagram constructed by two missionaries carrying on their duties at Zanzibar. In this section map, swallowing up about half of the whole area of the ground included in it, there figured a lake of such portentous size and such unseemly shape, representing a gigantic slug, that everybody who looked at it incredulously laughed and shook his head—a single sheet of sweet water, upwards of eight hundred miles long by three hundred broad, equal in size to the great salt Caspian."

Richard Burton

It was April 1857 before Burton and Speke had collected an escort and guides at Zanzibar, the great slave market of East Africa, and were ready to start for the interior. "We could obtain no useful information from the European merchants of Zanzibar, who are mostly ignorant of everything beyond the island," Burke wrote home on 22nd April.

At last on 27th June, with thirty-six men and thirty donkeys, the party set out for the great malarious coast-belt which had to be crossed before Kaze, some five hundred miles distant, could be reached. After three months' arduous travelling—both Burton and Speke were badly stricken with fever—they reached Kaze. Speke now spread open the map of the missionaries and inquired of the natives where the enormous lake was to be found. To their intense surprise they found the missionaries had run three lakes into one, and the three lakes were Lake Nyassa, Tanganyika, and Victoria Nyanza. They stayed over a month at Kaze, till Burton seemed at the point of death, and Speke had him carried out of the unhealthy town. It was January before they made a start and continued their journey westward to Ugyi.

"It is a wonderful thing," says Drummond, "to start from the civilisation of Europe, pass up these mighty rivers, and work your way alone and on foot, mile after mile, month after month, among strange birds and beasts and plants and insects, meeting tribes which have no name, speaking tongues which no man can interpret, till you have reached its sacred heart and stood where white man has never trod before."

As the two men tramped on, the streams began to drain to the west and the land grew more fertile, till one hundred and fifty miles from Kaze they began to ascend the slope of mountains overhanging the northern half of Lake Tanganyika. "This mountain mass," says Speke, "I consider to be the True Mountains of the Moon." From the top of the mountains the lovely Tanganyika Lake could be seen in all its glory by Burton. But to Speke it was a mere mist. The glare of the sun and oft-repeated fever had begun to tell on him, and a kind of inflammation had produced almost total blindness. But they had reached the lake and they felt sure they had found the source of the Nile. It was a great day when Speke crossed the lake in a long canoe hollowed out of the trunk of a tree and manned by twenty native savages under the command of a captain in a "goatskin uniform." On the far side they encamped on the opposite shore, Speke being the first white man to cross the lake.

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge

Having retired to his hut for the night, Speke proceeded to light a candle and arrange his baggage, when to his horror he found the whole interior swarming with black beetles. Tired of trying to brush them away, he put out his light and, though they crawled up his sleeves and down his back, he fell asleep. Suddenly he woke to find one crawling into his ear, and in spite of his frantic efforts it crept in farther and farther till it reached the drum, which caused the tired explorer intense agony. Inflammation ensued, his face became drawn, he could with difficulty swallow a little broth, and he was quite deaf. He returned across the lake to find his companion, Burton, still very ill and unfit for further exploration.

So Speke, although still suffering from his ear, started off again, leaving Burton behind, to find the great northern lake spoken of as the sea of Ukerewe, where the Arabs traded largely in ivory. There was a great empire beyond the lake, they told him, called Uganda.

But it was July 1858 when the caravan was ready to start from Kaze. Speke himself carried Burton's large elephant gun. "I commenced the journey," he says, "at 6 p.m., as soon as the two donkeys I took with me to ride were caught and saddled. It was a dreary beginning. The escort who accompanied me were sullen in their manner and walked with heavy gait and downcast countenance. The nature of the track increased the general gloom.

"For several weeks the caravan moved forward, till on 3rd August it began to wind up a long but gradually inclined hill, until it reached its summit, when the vast expanse of the pale blue waters of the Nyanza burst suddenly upon my eyes! It was early morning. The distant sea-line of the north horizon was defined in the calm atmosphere, but I could get no idea of the breadth of the lake, as an archipelago of islands, each consisting of a single hill rising to a height of two or three hundred feet above the water, intersected the line of vision to the left. A sheet of water extended far away to the eastward. The view was one which even in a well-known country would have arrested the traveller by its peaceful beauty. But the pleasure of the mere view vanished in the presence of those more intense emotions called up by the geographical importance of the scene before me. I no longer felt any doubt that the lake at my feet gave birth to that interesting river (Nile), the source of which has been the subject of so much speculation and the object of so many explorers. This is a far more extensive lake than Tanganyika; it is so broad that you could not see across it, and so long that nobody knew its length. This magnificent sheet of water I have ventured to name Victoria after our gracious sovereign."

Speke returned to Kaze after his six weeks' eventful journey, having tramped no less than four hundred and fifty-two miles. He received a warm welcome from Burton, who had been very uneasy about his safety, for rumours of civil war had reached him. "I laughed over the matter," says Speke, "but expressed my regret that he did not accompany me, as I felt quite certain in my mind I had discovered the source of the Nile."

Together the two explorers now made their way to the coast and crossed to Aden, where Burton, still weak and ill, decided to remain for a little, while Speke took passage in a passing ship for home.

When he showed his map of Tanganyika and Victoria Nyanza to the President of the Royal Geographical Society in London, Sir Roderick Murchison was delighted.

"Speke, we must send you there again," he said enthusiastically.

And the expedition was regarded as "one of the most notable discoveries in the annals of African discovery."


Front Matter

A Little Old World
Early Mariners
Is the World Flat
Herodotus the Traveller
Alexander Explores India
Pytheas Finds British Isles
Julius Caesar as Explorer
Strabo's Geography
The Roman Empire and Pliny
Ptolemy's Maps
Pilgrim Travellers
Irish Explorers
After Mohammed
Vikings Sail Northern Seas
Arab Wayfarers
Travellers to the East
Marco Polo
Mediaeval Exploration Ends
Mediaeval Maps
Prince Henry of Portugal
Bartholomew Diaz
Christopher Columbus
A Great New World
Vasco da Gama Reaches India
Discovery of Spice Islands
Balboa Sees Pacific Ocean
Magellan Sails Round World
Cortes Conquers Mexico
Explorers in South America
Cabot Sails to Newfoundland
Cartier Explores Canada
Search for a Northwest Passage
Frobisher Searches for Passage
Drake's Famous Voyage
Davis Straight
Barents Sails to Spitzbergen
Hudson Finds His Bay
Baffin Finds His Bay
Raleigh Searches for El Dorado
Champlain and Lake Ontario
Discoverers of Australia
Tasman Finds Tasmania
Dampier Discovers a Straight
Behring Finds his Straight
Cook Discovers New Zealand
Cook's Third Voyage
Bruce in Abyssinia
Mungo Park and the Niger
Vancouver and his Island
Mackenzie and his River
Parry and Lancaster Sound
The Frozen North
Franklin's Land Voyage
Parry's Polar Voyage
The Search for Timbuktu
Landers Discover the Niger
Ross Discovers North Pole
Flinders Names Australia
Sturt's Discoveries in Australia
Ross in the Antarctic Seas
Franklin Discovers Passage
David Livingstone
Burton and Speke in Africa
Livingston Traces Nyassa
Expedition to Victoria Nyanza
Baker Finds Albert Nyanza
Livingstone's Last Journey
Through the Dark Continent
Nordenskiold's NE Passage
The Exploration of Tibet
Nansen Reaches Farthest North
Peary Reaches the North Pole
The Quest for the South Pole
Dates of Chief Events