John Hanning Speke was an English explorer who became the first European to reach Lake Victoria in east Africa. Before embarking on his exploratory expeditions to Africa Speke had been an officer in the British Indian Army. Later on he joined Richard Burton on an expedition to Africa with the intention of searching for the great lake that was believed to be the origin of the river Nile. He received considerable fame for his search for the source of the Nile and correctly identified Lake Victoria as the source of the river. The source of the river Nile, generally regarded as the longest river in the world, had been puzzling explorers from the past several centuries and several expeditions had already been undertaken to establish the river’s source. Ultimately it was Speke who correctly identified the long-sought source of the river though his results were rejected by Burton who was not with Speke at the time of the discovery. This gave rise to a bitter feud between the two men regarding the actual source of the Nile and a debate was planned in order to shed more light on the issue. However, Speke died under mysterious circumstances before the debate could take place. Years later, it was finally proven that Speke had been right all along about Lake Victoria being the source of the Nile.
Childhood & Early Life
Not much is known about John Hanning Speke’s early life except for the fact that he was born on 4 May 1827 at Orleigh Court, Buckland Brewer near Bideford, North Devon.
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John Hanning Speke was commissioned into the British army in 1844 and posted to India. There he served in the First Anglo-Sikh War in Punjab under Sir Colin Campbell. He was an adventurous young man who explored the Himalayan Mountains during his leaves. He also travelled to Tibet once.
In 1854, Speke obtained overseas leave and made his first voyage to Africa. He wanted to cross the Gulf of Aden and collect specimens in Somaliland for his family's natural history museum in Somerset. However, he was denied permission for this journey as Somaliland was considered rather dangerous.
Speke then joined Richard Burton, a famous explorer, on his expedition to Somalia. Burton was already accompanied by Lt William Stroyan and Lt. Herne, and Speke joined the group. The party faced a brutal attack by the Somalis in April 1855 in which Speke was severely wounded though he eventually managed to escape.
Back to his duties, he served as a captain in a Turkish regiment at Kertch during the Crimean War (1855–1856). In late 1856, Speke was invited by Burton to join him on an expedition to search for the origin of the river Nile.
Speke and Burton traveled to east Africa to find the Great Lakes and locate the much sought-after source of the Nile. They started from Zanzibar Island in June 1857 and explored the east African coast for six months, attempting to find the best route inland. They reached the Lake Tanganyika in February 1858.
The duo had also heard of another lake to the North-East and they decided to explore it on their way back to the coast. However, Burton fell very ill on the return trip and Speke decided to leave him in the base camp and proceed alone. Speke travelled for 47 days during which he covered 452 miles and on 30 July 1858, he found a great lake which he named in honor of Queen Victoria.
Speke theorized that the Lake Victoria was the source of Nile. However, this claim was disputed by Burton and this gave rise to a bitter dispute between the two men. The expedition to find the source of the Nile had been sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and the society honored Speke for his efforts and commissioned a second expedition in 1860 to resolve the dispute.
He left on his second expedition accompanied by James Augustus Grant in April 1860. The expedition approached the lake from the south west, but faced numerous delays on their journey. Grant also suffered from frequent bouts of ill health.
Along with Grant he was able to map a portion of Lake Victoria. In July 1862, Speke found the Nile’s exit from the lake and discovered the Ripon Falls; he was unaccompanied by Grant this time who had to stay behind because of poor health. However, further investigation around the lake was deemed impossible because of an outbreak of tribal warfare.
Speke and Grant returned to England in 1863. Several questions regarding the flow of the Nile were still unanswered, but still the men were welcomed home as heroes. This caused the bitterness between Burton and Speke to flare up and Burton once again questioned Speke’s claims.
The Royal Geographical Society asked that a public debate be held between Speke and Burton in order to try and settle the controversies surrounding the Nile. Speke, however, died before the debate could take place.
John Hanning Speke was the first European to reach Lake Victoria in east Africa which he named in the honor of Queen Victoria. He also identified the lake as the source of river Nile. His finding, though greatly debated upon during his lifetime, was proven to be correct years after his death.
Personal Life & Legacy
While in Africa, he fell in love with an 18 year old girl called Meri. However, his love was one-sided and he was heart-broken by his inability to win the girl’s heart.
On 15 September 1864 John Hanning Speke went for an afternoon’s shooting at Neston Park in Wiltshire. There he died from a self-inflicted gunshot. It remains uncertain whether it was an accident or suicide. He was buried in Dowlish Wake, Somerset, the ancestral home of the Speke family.