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JOHN HANNING SPEKE (1827-1864)

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Originally appearing in Volume V25, Page 633 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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JOHN HANNING SPEKE (1827-1864), English explorer, discoverer of the source of the Nile, was born on the 4th of May 1827 at Jordans near Ilminster, Somersetshire. On his father's side he descended from the ancient Yorkshire family of Espec, a branch of which migrated to Somerset in the 15th century. His mother was a Miss Georgina Hanning, of Dillington Park, Somerset. Through his mother's influence with the duke of Wellington he obtained a commission in the Indian Army, which he entered in 1844. He served in Sir Colin Campbell's division in the Punjab campaigns, and acquired considerable repute both as a soldier and as a sportsman and naturalist. When on furlough Captain Speke had explored portions of the Himalayas, had crossed the frontier into Tibet and mapped part of its south-western districts; but his attention was at an early date turned to the great problems of African geography, and in 1854 he began his brief and brilliant African career by joining Captain (afterwards Sir) Richard Burton in an expedition into the interior of Somaliland, the incidents of which are narrated in What led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (London, 1864). In April 18J4 the expedition was attacked by Somalis near Berbera, one officer being killed, Burton slightly, and Speke severely wounded. Invalided home, Speke shortly afterwards volunteered for the Crimea and served during the war with a regiment of Turks. In 1856 he accepted an invitation from Burton to join an expedition to verify the reports as to the existence of great lakes in east central Africa, and especially to try and find Lake Nyassa. The route to Nyassa was closed by the Arabs, and the travellers left Zanzibar in June 1857 by a more northerly route, which brought them by November to a place called Kaze in Unyamwezi. Here they learnt from an Arab trader that further inland were three great lakes—and Speke leapt to the conclusion that the most northerly of the three would prove to be the source of the Nile. Continuing westward in January 1858 the travellers reached Lake Tanganyika, of which they made a partial exploration, Speke marking on his map the mountains which close in the lake to the north, " Mountains of the Moon." By June they were back at Kaze, and here Speke induced hig chief, who was ill, to allow him to attempt to reach the northern lake. Marching north for twenty-five days, on the 3oth of July Speke reached a creek, along which he travelled till, on the 3rd of August, he saw it open up into the waters of a lake extending northward to thehorizon. He no longer doubted that this lake—the Victoria Nyanza—was the source of the Nile. Returning to Kaze (August 25) he made known his discovery to Burton, who did not believe Speke's theories. The explorers reached Zanzibar early in 1859, Speke hastened back to England in advance of his comrade, and at once made public his discoveries and conclusions. Despite the scepticism of his fellow traveller and many geographers, he secured the support of Sir Roderick Murchison, president of the Royal Geographical Society, under whose direction a new expedition, expressly intended to solve the Nile problem, was fitted out. Of this expedition Speke had the command, his only European companion being Captain (after-wards Colonel) J. A. Grant (q.v.). The expedition, over 200 men all told, started from Zanzibar in October 1860 and reached Kaze on the 24th of January 1861. Despite illness and the hostility and extortions of the natives the Victoria Nyanza was again reached, at its south-west corner, in October 1861. Following the western shores of the lake Speke crossed the Kagera on the 16th of January 1862, and arrived at the capital of Uganda on the 19th of February following. Here he was detained by the king, Mtesa, for some months, but at last prevailed on the chief to furnish him with guides, and on the 28th of July Speke stood at the spot where the Nile issued from the lake. The great discovery was made, the problem which had baffled all previous efforts—extending over 2000 years—was solved. The troubles of the travellers were, however, by no means over; with difficulty they obtained permission to enter Unyoro, and with difficulty were allowed to leave, without being permitted to visit another large lake (the Albert Nyanza) of whose existence and connexion with the Nile they learned. As far as possible Speke and Grant followed the course of the Nile, and on the 3rd of December came in touch with the outside world once more, striking in 30 10' 37" N. an outpost established at the request of John Petherick, British consul at Khartum, who had been charged with a mission for the relief of the explorers. On the 15th of February 1863 they arrived at Gondokoro, the Egyptian post on the Nile marking the limit of navigability from the north. At Gondokoro they met Sir Samuel (then Mr) Baker, generously giving him the information which enabled him to discover the Albert Nyanza. From Khartum Speke telegraphed to London the great news that the Nile had been traced to its source, and on his return to England he was received with much enthusiasm. In the same year (1863) he published his Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, a work full of geographical, ethnological and zoological information, and written in a frank, attractive style. The accuracy of his observations and the correctness of his main deductions have been since abundantly justified. But as Speke had not been able to follow the Nile the whole way from the Victoria Nyanza to Gondokoro, and as the part played in the Nile regime by the Albert Nyanza was then unknown, Burton and others remained unconvinced, and Speke's conclusions were criticized in The Nile Basin (1864), a joint production of Burton and James McQueen; it being argued in this work that Tanganyika was the true Nile source. It was arranged that Speke should meet Burton at the meeting of the geographical section of the British Association at Bath on the 16th of September and publicly debate the question of the Nile source. On the previous afternoon Speke was out partridge shooting at Box, near Bath. In getting over a low stone wall he laid down his gun at half cock. Drawing the weapon towards him by the muzzle one barrel exploded and entered his chest, inflicting a wound from which Speke died in a few minutes. A granite obelisk to his memory was erected by public subscription in Kensington Gardens. See, besides the works mentioned, Sir R. F. Burton, The Lake Regions of Central Africa (London, 186o) ; J. A. Grant, A Walk across Africa (London, 1864) ; T. D. Murray and A. S. White, Sir Samuel Baker: a Memoir (London, 1895) ; The Times (Sept. 17 and 19, 1864) ; Sir H. H. Johnston, The Nile Quest (London, n. d. [1903]).
End of Article: JOHN HANNING SPEKE (1827-1864)
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