As a child my partner wanted to be an explorer, so I had no difficulty in persuading him to accompany me in search of Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke who in the mid-nineteenth century set out to discover the source of the Nile.
“Ruffian Dick” was a flamboyant, handsome, adventurer and risk taker, a polyglot fluent in twenty-nine languages including Hindustani, Marathi, Gujerati, Punjabi, Arabic, and Persian, and with a taste for dressing up. Acting as Charles Napier’s intelligence agent in the army of the East India company in Sindh, he developed the practice of passing himself off as a half Arab, half Persian trader. In 1852/3 disguised as Sheikh Abdullah, an itinerant Afghan Sufi, a disguise which allegedly included having himself circumcised, he went on hajj to Mecca although it is doubtful whether the disguise was necessary for he was not the first westerner to make the hajj and others since Burckhardt had travelled without disguise. Impressed by the linguistic skills of this experienced traveller the Royal Geographical Society funded his expedition to Somaliland in 1854-5. He was joined on that expedition by John Hanning Speke.
Speke too had led a colourful life: joining the East India Company’s army at seventeen, he had fought in the second Sikh war and travelled extensively in Tibet and the Himalayas.
When their camp was attacked during the Somaliland expedition Speke received eleven spear wounds, two spears penetrating his thighs and staking him temporarily to the ground. Punching his attacker in the face he escaped, running three miles barefoot and almost naked. Meanwhile a javelin passed through both of Burton’s cheeks knocking out his back teeth and he had to make his escape with it still transfixing his head.
This did not quench their thirst for adventure and two years later Speke joined Burton again on the first Nile expedition of 1856-1859, when they set off from Zanzibar and travelled inland from the east coast to Central Africa and the Great Lakes in search of the source of the Nile. Relations between the two men had however soured as Burton had taken credit for specimens collected by Speke in Somalia and had published parts of his diary at the end of his own book First Footsteps in East Africa. After leaving Zanzibar both men were so ill with tropical diseases and fevers that bearers had to carry them in hammocks for much of their journey. While Speke was sleeping a beetle embedded itself in his ear and when he tried to remove it with the point of his penknife, he made one side of his face infected with a festering, suppurating sore which became so swollen that he was unable to eat and was deaf for months. He was partially blinded from trachoma and hardly able to see when he and Burton became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika, which Burton considered to be the source of the Nile. By this time Burton’s mouth was numb with ulcers and he was still too ill to walk. Speke continued without him to Lake Ukerere; he had lost most of his surveying equipment but was convinced that Ukerewe, which he renamed Lake Victoria, was the headwater of the Nile. He returned to England before Burton and, announcing that he had found the source of the White Nile, embarked on a round of lectures. The RGS awarded him another expedition. Burton felt betrayed: they had, he claimed, agreed that they would announce their findings to the RGS and give their first public lecture together. He further repudiated Speke’s claim and asserted that Lake Tanganyika was the source of the Nile. The rift between the two men deepened with a prolonged public quarrel, resentments, and jealousies.
In 1860 Speke, with instructions from the RGS to circumnavigate Lake Victoria, locate the origin of the Nile and trace it to Gondokono, set out with James Grant on the second Nile expedition. Together they waded through swamps, faced threats from elephant herds, and were detained by chiefs wary of slave traders, but at the end an ulcerated leg held Grant back and Speke reached the lake without him. He located a river flowing from the north side over Mayinja, The Stones, which he renamed Ripon Falls. He re-joined Grant and the two proceeded down the crocodile and hippopotamus infested river, but they could not follow it all the way between Lake Victoria and Gondokono on account of local wars and the presence of slave raiding parties leading to travel restrictions imposed by local chieftains. They had to leave the river and travel overland. From Gondokono they travelled by ship to Khartoum and from there Speke sent a telegram to the RGS: “The Nile is Settled” . On return to England, he was acclaimed as a hero. Catherine Cavender’s booklet on sale in the church of Dowlish Wake describes his welcome in Somerset: “ Church bells rang out above the music of brass bands and cheering …Roads (were) strewn with flowers and here and there arched over with banners of welcome… A band played See the Conquering Hero Comes… (There was) a bonfire and huge display of fireworks…Somerset blossomed for days with flags and bunting.” Speke was lionised but Burton argued that since Speke had not travelled its full length he could not be sure that the river leaving Victoria Nyanza was the same river as the White Nile flowing from Gondokono. There was a gap in Speke’s map of the river and Burton held to his own conviction that the source of the Nile lay in Lake Tanganyika.
In 1864 the RGS arranged a public meeting at the Mineral Water Hospital in Bath where Burton and Speke were to debate and settle their dispute. Speke was staying with his cousin at Neston Park, near Corsham. The day before the debate they went shooting partridge and while climbing a wall Speke’s gun discharged, he shot himself in the side and died fifteen minutes later. The inquest returned a verdict of accidental death, but Burton spread the rumour that it was a suicide because Speke feared speaking in the debate. Popular feeling swung against Speke, and it was not until 1875 that Henry Morton Stanley verified Speke’s claim when he travelled the length of the Nile from Lake Victoria to Gondokono.
Meanwhile Speke was buried in the family chapel in the church of St. Andrew, Dowlish Wake in Somerset. Murchison, the President of the RGS, Grant, and David Livingstone attended his funeral. The government granted his family the right to add a hippopotamus and a crocodile as supporters of their shield; the flowing Nile, and the motto Honor est a Nilo, His Fame is from the Nile, to their coat of arms. Despite embellishment with hippopotamus, crocodile, and egret however the cold , white, wall memorial which rises above Speke’s dark sarcophagus remains too austere and bleak a monument to evoke the magic and mystery of the Nile.
A more colourful memorial is the stained-glass window presented by Speke’s uncle portraying an earlier discovery on the Nile.
Burton lived on until 1890 working, surprisingly, in the diplomatic service, with postings in equatorial Guinea, Brazil, Damascus and finally Trieste. More in character, he translated The Thousand and One Nights, The Kama Sutra, and The Perfumed Garden. At his death, his wife Isabel burned his diaries and journals and the translation of The Perfumed Garden and wrote a sanitised biography of her husband. She buried him in the graveyard of St. Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic church in Mortlake in a tomb which she designed herself, modelling it on a Bedouin tent which her husband had owned in Damascus. There, in one of the most incongruous and flamboyant sepulchres in England, she later joined him.
A ladder leads up to a window in the back of the tomb and in the spirit of exploration I sent my partner up to investigate.
Alas, notwithstanding the sense of peering into a mutoscope it revealed no exotic, erotic scenes from Burton’s life or his translations, just two coffins and some dusty lamps and wreaths.