The Dark Continent: Searching for the Source of the Nile River

From the lecture series: Victorian Britain

By Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D., Emory University

Although most of the African coastline had been explored by the time of Queen Victoria’s reign, much of the interior of Africa was still unknown to the Europeans. It was called the “Dark Continent”.

Map showing the paths taken by different expeditions towards Lake Victoria.
Map showing the paths taken by different expeditions in search of the source of river Nile(Image: By Rgclegg/Public Domain).

The Search Begins for The Source of the Nile River

British explorers in the Victorian period crisscrossed Africa and traced the course of the major rivers and got a sense of the principal geographic features of the interior of Africa.

They had various motives for doing so. One was to acquire new geographical knowledge. Some of them were very eager to spread the Christian gospel. Others wanted to suppress the Arab slave trade, which was still thriving inside Africa. Others hoped to develop worthwhile commercial possibilities and create the colonies for the British Empire. In their conflicts with the Africans and sometimes with the Arabs, once again, the British were nearly always successful because of their technological superiority and the superiority of their military discipline. What they didn’t have was sufficient medical resources to deal with the extremely unhealthy climate, so many of the explorers died of tropical diseases.

This is a transcript from the video series Victorian Britain. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Portrait of David Livingstone, the British explorer
David Livingstone, was a famous British explorer who was viewed as a hero for his great exploits in Africa (Image: By Domain)

The British public followed the explorers’ exploits with great interest, and several of the explorers, particularly David Livingstone, who was the most famous of all of them, became great heroes back in Great Britain. Certainly, the British public of the later Victorian period was very enthusiastic about colonizing Africa. Before the 1880s, at least, the British government, particularly when the Liberals were in power, was cautious about becoming too heavily committed to Africa. It wasn’t really until the period from 1880 to 1900 that a scramble for Africa began.

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Early Starts

Portrait of James Bruce by Pmopeo Btaoni 1762
In 17170 James Bruce found the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia (Image: By Pompeo Batoni/Public Domain)

One of the first big geographical challenges was to find the River Nile’s source. This was funded by the Royal Geographical Society, which was founded in 1830. Back in 1770, a Scotsman called James Bruce had found the source of the Blue Nile, one of the major tributaries, in Ethiopia.

In 1795, another Scotsman, Mungo Park, had traced the course of the Niger River in West Africa. He had a very difficult expedition and he found that the chiefs for whose land he passed along the way all demanded what was called hongo—gifts—from the explorer, to be allowed to go forward. Gradually he was stripped of everything he possessed until he was a nearly naked wanderer in the African wilderness.

Portrait of Mungo Park
In 1795 Mungo Park traced the course of the Niger River in West Africa(Image: By Unknown/Public Domain)

He was able to stay alive partly because he had the knowledge to repair muskets. Already slave trade had led to the scattered incidence of firearms, which the Africans could use but couldn’t repair. After Mungo Park, the orthodox view was that if you wanted to take an expedition into Africa, you had to take a lot of supplies with you, particularly gifts to distribute to chiefs.

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Speke and Burton’s 1858 Expedition

Portrait of Sir Richard Burton By Rischgitz 1864
Richard Burton was one of the English explorers who discovered Lake Victoria, the origin of Nile. (Image: By Rischgitz/Stringer – Hulton Archive/Public Domain)

In 1858, two British explorers set off to find the source of the Nile, Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. This was the expedition that discovered Lake Victoria, the massive internal lake from which, in fact, the Nile originates. Richard Burton was probably the most intellectually adventurous man in Britain at the time.

He was a brilliant linguist; in the course of his life, he mastered about 26 languages. He was a very prolific writer and he had a very voracious intellectual appetite. He loved to study things and to learn things. He was the very first Englishman to visit the Islamic holy city of Mecca. He went in disguise and spoke Arabic well enough to avoid discovery. From the Islamic point of view, it was a sacrilegious act. Burton was the first translator of the Arabian Nights, as well as a very good amateur anthropologist.

Portrait of John Hanning Speke by S. Hollyer; Southwell Brothers (circa 1863)
John Hanning Speke co-found the origin of Nile, Lake Victoria. (Image: By S. Hollyer; Southwell Brothers/Public Domain)

John Hanning Speke, his companion, was a man he had met while they were both British army officers in India. Speke was a big game hunter, but in other respects was less suited to an expedition of this kind than Burton. He was poor at languages, and on his many trips to Africa he never really became familiar with any of the African dialects, whereas Burton learned them very quickly. He had far less of a natural curiosity about the lands and the peoples they were encountering.

They traveled in from the African east coast of Zanzibar, moving west into the interior of Africa, rather than going from Egypt up the River Nile. His expedition took very heavy loads. Here are some of the things they had with them. “A portable boat, beds, chairs, tables, pots and pans, books, carpentry tools, scientific instruments, and a rain gauge.”

All of this was carried by 130 native people whom they had hired, native bearers they were called, and 30 donkeys. The donkeys were all killed, either by attacks from hyenas or by the bite of the tsetse fly, which is one of the many predators they had to endure. The local kings through whose lands they passed charged a high price for passage, and many of their 130 bearers deserted, taking the supplies with them.

Speke himself was a teetotaler; he was a temperance man and was shocked by Burton’s conduct. Burton drank and experimented with local drugs. Each one of them began to dislike the other.

Burton is annoyed that Speke wants to stop to hunt big game at various points along the way. Eventually they got to Lake Tanganyika, and by then Burton was so sick with malaria, he was unable to carry on. Speke, advancing on his own, actually advanced to the banks of Lake Victoria and was the first man to witness this massive lake. He gave it the name Lake Victoria and claimed, “This lake is the source of the river.”

He didn’t actually see the Nile leaving the lake, and although it was a plausible guess, they didn’t then have sufficient evidence to confirm that view. He wasn’t able to circumambulate the lake because he himself was also very sick. The sufferings they endured, all of which they wrote about afterward, were so graphic and so horrifying you are amazed that they kept going at all.

Learn more about how Britain during the age of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) was one of the first societies to embody the characteristic modern paradoxes with which we still deal

Speke Returns to Africa

James Grant, the Scottish explorer
James Grant, the Scottish explorer (Image: By Unknown/Public Domain)

Speke went back to Africa in 1859 but this time with a new companion, called James Grant. They traveled into the interior along a different route and became the first Englishmen to go to an area we now call Uganda. On this expedition, the Speke and Grant Expedition, Speke confirmed his view that the Nile originated in Lake Victoria, and, this time, he actually saw a big river flowing out of the lake over a series of waterfalls, which made his original guess all the more plausible. The whole course of the river still hadn’t been traversed at this point, so a potential doubt remained.

One of the people who doubted that this was really the Nile was Richard Burton himself. Burton felt that he had been betrayed by Speke because, at the end of the first expedition, Burton had remained in Africa while Speke went home, and although Speke had promised not to tell the press and the geographical society about their findings, in the end he’d changed his mind.

So in Burton’s view, Speke had betrayed him and gone beyond the evidence. In a book of his own, Burton said that Speke was no good as a scientist, that he didn’t have any scientific or linguistic training, and that he, Burton, had done all the real work and Speke had taken the glory.

In the end, the Royal Geographical Society promoted a debate. The day before the confrontation between the two men, Speke died in a mysterious shooting accident. There were rumors that Burton had killed him, although we know that is not the case. It looks as though Speke committed suicide from shame at having preempted Burton after promising not to.

Common Questions About the Source of the Nile River

Q: Is there an actual source of the Nile river?

While there are other smaller sources, the actual body of water that is the primary source of the Nile River is called Lake Victoria.

Q: Is the Nile River deep?

The Nile river, on average, runs somewhere around 25-35 feet deep.

Q: Is the water of the Nile River potable?

As of 4/10/2012, the Nile river has been proclaimed safe to drink from.

Q: What tributaries also act as sources of the Nile river?

The Nile has two main tributaries: the White Nile, which is the primary stream of the Nile itself, and the Blue Nile, which is the actual source of silt and the water.

This article was updated on 12/14/2019

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