Introducing the Hakluyt Society Edition of Grant’s Walk across Africa

The latest Hakluyt Society publication,  ‘A Walk Across Africa: J.A. Grant’s Account of the Nile Expedition of 1860-1863’, edited by Roy Bridges, has now been distributed to members. In a series of blog posts, Professor Bridges, a past president of the Society and expert of African history, shines his light on the new volume. In this first post he tells about his own 60-year engagement with the Speke and Grant Nile Expedition which eventually led to his remarkable and beautifully-illustrated Hakluyt Society edition.


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I first became acquainted with the story of the Speke and Grant Nile Expedition of 1860-63 when I began research on the history of the Expedition’s sponsor, the Royal Geographical Society, in the late 1950s. James Grant did not seem to have any particular interest for me. Like earlier commentators, I assumed he was just a loyal second-in-command to Speke. When I went to work at Makerere University in Uganda in the early 1960s, I wrote a long article for the Uganda Journal about the Expedition to mark the centenary in 1962 of Speke’s actual visit to the source of the Nile on 28th July 1862.  This article concentrated very much on Speke and his problems and his relationship with the RGS.

My understanding of the situation might have remained as it was, as far as the two explorers were concerned. However, the early 1960s was a period when much scholarly effort was being made to develop understanding of truly African history and this began to make me think much more seriously about the African context in which explorers like Speke and Grant had operated. The situation changed again for me in 1979 when Grant’s descendants put his papers on the market and, fortunately, the National Library of Scotland (NLS) acquired Grant’s incredibly detailed journal, the sketches and watercolours he executed on the journey, and his correspondence.

Grant in 1863
Figure 1. Captain James Augustus Grant from a photograph taken in Dingwall after his return home in 1863. He is wearing what was said to be the dress as worn in Africa. However, when S.W. Baker met him at Gondokoro in 1863, he said Grant was in ‘honourable rags.’ From Speke, Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, p. 420.

I wrote a short biography of Grant for the beautifully-produced portfolio of some of Grant’s pictures which the NLS published in 1982. I began to realise that Grant was a much more important figure than I had realised. He was a better observer and scientist than his leader and developed a more informed and sympathetic understanding of the African peoples among whom he moved in 1860-1863. And what fortitude he showed when an extremely painful ulcerated leg laid him up in what is now Karagwe in north-west Tanzania. When the all-powerful Mutesa of Buganda sent for him, Grant had to be carried on a litter – an experience he found not only painful but frustrating as he could not easily survey the country through which he was being carried.

Figure 2. Grant leaving Karagwe in April 1862, after Mutesa of Buganda sent for him as he suffered from an ulcerated leg. He found the shaking gave him intense pain and he was upset that he could not see where he was going.

As my interest in Grant developed, my first instinct was to try to transcribe his journal for a possible printed edition but I came to realise that, given its length, detail and semi-note form, it would have been impossible easily to read and understand the result. The solution was to reproduce Grant’s 1864 publication, A Walk across Africa, to annotate the text in the light of more recent knowledge and to supplement that text with extracts from the journal. I also felt strongly that because Grant had endeavoured to create a visual as well as a verbal record of the Expedition, his sketches and watercolours showing the people and places he had encountered must be shown in their original form – not the doctored versions of some of them featured in Speke’s book. This will explain the character of this new Hakluyt Society edition.

Roy Bridges is Emeritus Professor of History in the University of Aberdeen. He joined the Hakluyt Society in 1964 and became its President from 2004 to 2010. With Paul Hair he edited Compassing the Vaste Globe of the Earth (1996) for the Society’s 150th anniversary. His edition of Jacob Wainwright’s ‘A Dangerous and Toilsome Journey’, in Four Travel Journals (2006) was the first Hakluyt text by an African. He has now produced an edition of Grant’s A Walk across Africa (2018). Among other books and articles are several studies of the Society’s founder, W.D. Cooley.

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