John Hanning Speke

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John Hanning Speke (4 May 1827 – 15 September 1864) was an officer in the British Indian Army who made three exploratory expeditions to Africa and who is most associated with the search for the source of the Nile.



In 1844 during the Sikh War Speke served in the British Army under Sir Colin Campbell. He spent his leave exploring the Himalaya Mountains and once crossed into Tibet.

In 1854 he made his first voyage to Africa, joining the already famous Richard Burton on an expedition to Somalia. The expedition did not go well. The party was attacked and Burton and Speke were both severely wounded. Speke was captured and stabbed several times with spears before he was able to free himself and escape. Burton escaped with a javelin impaling both cheeks. Speke returned to England to recover and then served in the Crimean War.

In 1856, Speke and Burton went to East Africa to find the Great Lakes which were rumoured to exist in the centre of the continent. Both men clearly hoped that their expedition would locate the source of the Nile. The journey was extremely strenuous and both men fell ill from a variety of tropical diseases. Speke suffered severely when he became temporarily deaf after a beetle crawled into his ear and he had to remove it with a knife. He also later went temporarily blind. After an arduous journey the two became the first Europeans to discover Lake Tanganyika (although Speke was still blind at this point and could not properly see the lake). They heard of a second lake in the area, but Burton was too sick to make the trip. Speke thus went alone, and found the lake, which he christened Lake Victoria. It was this lake which eventually proved to be the source of the River Nile. However, much of the expedition's survey equipment had been lost at this point and thus vital questions about the height and extent of the lake could not be answered.

Speke returned to England before Burton, on 8 May 1859 and made their trip famous in a speech to the Royal Geographical Society where he claimed to have discovered the source of the Nile. When Burton returned on 21 May, he was angered by Speke's precipitous announcements believing that they violated an agreement that the two men would speak to the society together. A further rift was caused when Speke was chosen to lead a subsequent expedition without Burton.[1] The two presented joint papers concerning the expedition to the Royal Geographical Society on 13 June 1859.[2]

Together with James Augustus Grant, Speke left from Zanzibar in October 1860. When they reached Uganda Grant travelled north and Speke continued his journey towards the west. Speke reached Lake Victoria on 28 July 1862 and then travelled on the west side around Lake Victoria without actually seeing much of it, but on the north side of the lake, Speke found the Nile flowing out of it and discovered the Ripon Falls. Speke then sailed down the Nile and he was reunited with Grant. Next he travelled to Gondokoro in Southern Sudan, where he met Samuel Baker and his wife, continuing to Khartoum, from which he sent a celebrated telegram to London: "The Nile is settled."[3]

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