‘A Walk Across Africa’: The Nile Source Problem

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 second post, he goes deeper into the central problem behind the 1860 expedition led by John Hanning Speke and James Augustus Grant: the 2000-year old question about the source of the Nile.


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When, in 1860, the Royal Geographical Society decided to send Speke and Grant to search for the source of the world’s longest river, the Nile, they were asking the two men to settle not only a series of arguments and disputed information which had arisen during the 1850s, but also arguments and speculations which had interested the learned world for over two thousand years or more.

The immediate problem was that the RGS, founded in 1830, had become a powerful almost quasi-official institution keen to garner accurate geographical information but also perhaps to use that information in the service of especially British overseas interests. A knowledge base would be provided for the officials and service personnel who operated around the world, and not least those concerned with the Middle East and the sea approaches from the Indian Ocean to the all-important India. Hence East Africa began to be seen as part of that interest.

In East Africa itself, developing economic activities in the Indian Ocean region had begun to attract Africans to go down to the coast to sell their ivory or their own labour. Soon Arab and Swahili traders from Zanzibar and the coast towns began more frequently to penetrate inland. As a result, uncertain information filtered out to Europeans about lakes and mountains in the interior and this stimulated speculation on the Nile source which surely had to be somewhere in that region.

In 1856, the RGS commissioned Richard Burton, who already had a great reputation as a traveller in India, Arabia, and Somaliland, to go inland and search for the lakes and the Nile source. Burton chose as his companion, John Hanning Speke, the fellow Indian Army officer who had been with him in Somaliland. Travelling along the ‘caravan’ route from the Zanzibar Coast to Tabora, the two men went on to reach Lake Tanganyika in 1858. They were unable to discover the lake’s outlet. Whether the lake had any connection to the Nile remained in doubt.

On the way back to the coast, while Burton was ill, Speke made a ‘flying trip’ northwards and reached a lake which he named Lake Victoria and claimed must be the source of the Nile. Burton was less certain of this and was angry and mortified when on his return to England, Speke persuaded the RGS to send him on another expedition to prove his Nile theory. He chose yet another India Army officer, James Augustus Grant, the subject of this book, to accompany him.

Hoping to be met on the Upper Nile by a Welsh trader called John Petherick, the two men travelled on to Buganda and, controversially and unfortunately, only Speke himself visited the spot where the Nile does indeed debouch from Lake Victoria, on 28 July 1862.

Back in England in 1863, Speke found that his old companion Burton now threw doubt on his discovery: Burton insisted that his discovery – Lake Tanganyika – must be the western lake reservoir of the Nile, as shown on maps which interpreted the information on the river’s source provided by the 2nd century AD astronomer Claudius Ptolemy (figure 1). Thus the old and the new arguments and speculations about the Nile were brought together.

Grant map 4
Figure 1. Sir Harry Johnston’s Interpretation of Ptolemy’s Information on the Nile. In his Uganda Protectorate of 1902, Johnston provided this map showing what he claimed was Ptolemy’s concept of the Nile source. Note that the two lakes are designated as Albert and Victoria. Given the fact that he had lived in the region, it is difficult to know where Johnston thought the ‘Lunæ Montes’ could have been.

In the end, Speke was right, but he had died in a shooting accident in September 1864. Argument went on. Perhaps, some people argued, Speke’s discovery was Ptolemy’s Eastern lake reservoir while the Western was actually not Tanganyika but another lake discovered by S.W. Baker in 1864, after he had been directed to it by Grant’s map. Incidentally he, Baker, named his discovery, perhaps inevitably, Lake Albert.

It is my contention in the Hakluyt Society edition of Grant’s Walk that the information from Ptolemy is nonsense and that the credulity about it that was displayed in the 1860s and has continued to be demonstrated, even in the twenty-first century, is badly misplaced, to say the least. Rather, I argue, the Nile source problem should be examined not in terms of the arguments between Burton and Speke or the alleged information from Ptolemy (which incidentally helped to push Livingstone to his death), but in terms of geography and, more particularly, the geomorphological history of the Upper Nile.

In this respect, the book offers a major new insight into the Nile problem and so provides an important perspective on the expedition of which Grant’s information and pictures provide such a vital record.

Grant map 9
Figure 2. Grant’s February 1863 map showing the Result of the Expedition. As reproduced in the Illustrated London News of 4th July 1863 shortly after the return of Grant and Speke, this gave the RGS and others in Britain an immediate idea of what the expedition had achieved. Most notably, the map identified the source of the Nile as being in Lake Victoria. However, it also showed how Grant interpreted the general layout of lakes and rivers in East Africa and the upper Nile whilst the Expedition was still in progress.

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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