British imperialism as natural science: The Royal Geographical Society’s 1856 expedition to find the source of Africa’s White Nile River

This is a paper I wrote for a history class at Augsburg. The assignment was to choose a popular movie as a secondary source for a historical event or character. I chose “Mountains of the Moon” the story of the exploration for the source of the White Nile river in 1858 by the British Royal Geographical Society. Sir Richard Burton was an amazing character of history to research.

In the 1850’s central Africa remained largely unknown and undiscovered to Europeans. The success of locating the source of Africa’s longest river, The Nile, would define Great Britain as the conqueror of a mystery shrouded for millennia, escaping the likes of Alexander the Great and Napoleon. Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, great explorers officers in the British Army, set forth and completed a journey that would forever change the world. In 1856, the primary reason to invest in the exploration of central Africa and locate the source of the White Nile was to claim the region for the British Empire. Royal Geographical Society expeditions may have departed England in the interest of progressing natural science, but they returned under a banner of conquest.

There were three entities involved in the expedition. First and foremost was the explorers themselves, Burton and Speke. Although differentiated in their approach to exploration as evidenced by their personal journals, they tolerated each other just long enough to complete the task granted to them. Second was the Royal Geographical Society of London (RGS), an organization established in 1830 for the exploration and documentation of the expanding new world. Comprised of Royal Navy and British Army patriots, the RGS sought to expand the empire and at the same time progress natural science. Third was the British Foreign Office and British Army providing funding and supplies and granting Burton and Speke time away from their assignments in India and the Crimean War to undertake the expedition. The Army used the RGS for it’s cartography and members to reconnoiter and perform reconnaissance in areas of the world not yet discovered. The Foreign Office took minimal risk in providing a few thousand British Pounds to a few brave men and the rewards were plentiful. This expedition was all the more necessary to national security in India, as east Africa was becoming more disturbed and prone to violence with Indian-financed Arabs undercutting African traders.

Sir Richard Francis Burton was a writer, geographer, scientist, soldier, Oxford student, raconteur, sword fighter, explorer, and exceptional linguist.  In early childhood his parents moved the family several times around Europe, ending with his acceptance and, shortly thereafter, dismissal from Trinity College.

Burton served with the British Army in northern India, working as an undercover agent and linguist. A clinical report on homosexual brothels led to his unofficial leave of absence as homosexuality in 19th century Victorian England was considered incredibly sinful. “Even the idea of describing it clinically was for most Englishmen profoundly shocking.1” Burton took orders others would have turned away, not for fame, but for discovery.

In 1853, restless for action and new adventure, Burton got the approval of the RGS for a journey to the area of Mecca. There he was one of the first white Europeans to enter the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina after disguising himself by rubbing walnut oil on his face and posing as a medical doctor. In 1854, Burton received the support of the RGS for an expedition to explore the interior of Somalia. There he met John Hanning Speke and was the first white to enter the Muslim holy city of Harar. Burton was a careful yet adventurous explorer.

As a writer and linguist Burton “took to languages in India as other men to liquor, intoxicated by the sense of mastery and the exhilaration of unlocking mysteries.2 Burton would eventually master twenty-nine different languages in his lifetime. He maintained two different diaries for over forty years, one for his thoughts and the other for pure observation. Burton enjoyed hunting, but with falcons instead of guns, and during the expedition, would only stop to let Speke hunt when absolutely necessary.  Burton loved to write and wanted to preserve nature.

The Queen never knighted John Hanning Speke in spite of his national recognition for the discovery and christening of Lake Victoria. Speke had an exceptionally different childhood and teenage life than Burton. Born of the rich upper class in England, he detested school and never attended such a university as prominent as Oxford. In 1844, at the age of seventeen he was commissioned to the Indian army and joined the 46th native Bengal infantry. Speke, like Burton, was an avid explorer, venturing over the Himalaya Mountains and entering Tibet in 1848 while on leave. Speke loved to hunt and was very proficient with a rifle. To Speke, exploring Eastern and Central Africa was “…however, not for geographical interest, so much as for a view I had in my mind of collecting the fauna of those regions, to complete and fully develop a museum in my father’s house, a nucleus of which I had already formed from the rich menageries of India, the Himalaya Mountains, and Tibet.3” Burton would remark in his journals of how Speke chiefly concerned himself with hunting, and despised the people and cultures encountered along the way, mostly because he could not speak their language.

An expedition of this magnitude would not have been possible without funding from the Foreign Office and the support of the RGS as the huge need for manpower, supplies, and linguistic expertise put it out of reach for private companies. It is unlikely that Burton would have been able to convince Speke to accompany him had it not been done with the backing of the RGS. Burton was well respected in the RGS, and recommended to lead the expedition by the vice-president Royal Navy Admiral Back.  At the time, there were no better candidates with the experience and availability of Burton and Speke due to the Army’s devotion to resources in India and the Crimea. Speke and Burton were lucky to have each other, the RGS was lucky to have Burton, and the British Empire was lucky to have the RGS to do their inexpensive bidding.

On December 20th 1856, they sailed to the island of Zanzibar, off Africa’s eastern coast near modern day Tanzania. After six months of delay they set out leading a caravan of 132 men and 30 donkeys – a completely new experience for both of them. Upon discovering his initial recruit was stealing from him, Burton hired Seedy Mubarak Bombay, an African native, tall and powerful with sharpened incisor teeth. Bombay, who knew some Hindustani and English, was the only one other than Burton that could converse with Speke.

The expedition would have to navigate unknown and hostile territory in sweltering and dry conditions as the area was under a severe drought. Travelling mostly across open fields with very little cover meant they were vulnerable to swiftly changing weather conditions and animal predators, and also gave the local tribes people an instant advantage should a confrontation arise. To the men of the caravan and the local chiefs encountered, the journey was an absolute mystery – if not sorcery, and the chiefs charged exorbitant fees to traverse their territories safely. At night they dealt with hordes of mosquitos and other poisonous insects, along with the constant threat of deserting workers stealing equipment and supplies.

134 days and some 600 miles later they came upon the Arab settlement of Kazeh, present day Tabora in central Tanzania. Snay bin Amir greeted Burton warmly, sharing with them the knowledge that there was not one lake in the central area as had been previously pictured on an RGS map from 1856, but several – two of great size, one to the north and one to the west. Unconfirmed, Burton gambled on the theory that the western lake, Tanganyika, by virtue of its southerly position, was in fact the true Nile source.

Burton fell ill with malaria paralyzing his legs leaving him unable to walk for the next eleven months and the porters would have to carry his massive frame in a hammock after his last donkey died from exhaustion. While both men suffered greatly from eye infections, Speke at this point was nearly blind. On they went, the lame man in a hammock leading the blind man trailing behind him, finally reaching Lake Tanganyika and Ujiji, a settlement and slave market, in February of 1858.

Burton asked Speke to take four men and acquire a sailing vessel to navigate the lake, as the local natives were unwilling to assist. Speke returned with the information the vessel would cost them 500 dollars and Burton was overcome with anger and disappointment in his cohort’s inability to negotiate. That evening, Speke would experience far worse pain when a beetle crawled into his ear, requiring the use of a penknife for extraction. His hearing never fully recovered.

On the quest to find a boat, Speke was told that a large river flowed north out of the lake, possibly to the other large lake spoken of by Amir. Burton, spurred on by this new information, negotiated to obtain two canoes even though it meant spending what little money they had left while they were dangerously low on supplies.

They crossed the lake to the west and headed north up the coast, encountering several cannibalistic tribes, and a few Arab traders who claimed to have travelled to the northern tip of the lake. They asserted to Burton that the river does not flow out of, but into, the lake. Burton was devastated. It turned out the information Speke had received was incorrectly translated.

Burton remained determined to find the river but the men would not continue for fear of the cannibalistic tribes along the way. Burton was filled with regret in having to leave, never finding out if the mysterious river flowed out of Lake Tanganyika.

Still unable to walk, Burton worked with the Arabs in Kazeh to learn the languages and vocabularies as part of a greater plan to make a return trip to the area. Speke, not knowing any Arabic, became restless and set out by himself due north to find the other lake Amir had referred to.

It took Speke very little time to locate the lake to the north and conclude it had a higher elevation than Lake Tanganyika, making it in his mind the source of the White Nile. He decided to name the lake “Nyanza Victoria” and celebrated, of course, by shooting at some geese swimming in the lake.

Speke returned to Kazeh in just three days, full of excitement to share the news with Burton. Sitting down to breakfast, Speke explained his findings, only for Burton to dispute and disagree with his conclusion. Speke wanted to return to Lake Victoria immediately, but Burton refused, instead promising him a return trip. Burton began to realize Speke would cling to his theory and take it back to England, claiming a prize for which Burton believed was his. There was hardly enough supplies to get back to Zanzibar, monsoon season was approaching, and their leave from the Army had nearly expired. The expedition finally left Kazeh on September 6th 1858 with almost entirely new porters. The trip to Zanzibar would take four months and Speke fell ill with what the natives called, “little irons”, resulting in intense pain in the chest and abdomen and Burton would be there to console and support him.

Burton was reluctant to return to London and tried to persuade Speke to stay with him in Zanzibar, acquire more funds and supplies, and make another trip to Lake Victoria to fully document it. But Speke, wary that Burton was using this as a way to gain an equal share in notoriety, refused.

On the expedition they needed each other’s companionship and at times medical aid to survive, but Speke was first to return to England and was immediately pressured to claim his theory that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile, even though he was fully aware Burton did not concur and would not confirm this, forever widening the rift between them and generating public controversy. They would eventually stop corresponding to one another entirely, and while Burton went on to explore North and South America, Speke returned to central Africa with a bigger expedition and equipment to fully document the area. The colonization of east Africa had officially begun.

In an effort to settle the controversy, the Royal Geographical Society of London scheduled a public debate between Speke and Burton. Unfortunately, Speke was killed while on a local hunting trip and the debate never took place.  Fawn Brodie, an expert on Richard Burton’s life and author of The Devil drives: A life of Sir Richard Francis Burton, regards Speke’s death as a suicide. While she does not directly mention that he took his own life, as there is no factual proof, she writes, “…suicide is a supreme act of hate, often directed against someone one has loved. 5

The relationship between Burton and Speke is a fascinating dichotomy providing personal insight into the conflict between imperialism and the progression of natural science, and their personal accounts reveal as such. “Burton was like a sponge. Speke a stone.4

In his book Journal of the discovery of the source of the Nile, Speke details the daily trials and tribulations of the journey. Speke’s intentions for the book are obvious throughout it’s pages; he wished to have it published and gain worldwide recognition all at once. Written after he returned to England in 1864, it is remarkable in scope and verbose with reasoning and gives a voice to British imperialism.  It is apparent Speke considered himself to be in the incredibly enviable position of not just reporting what he saw in Africa, but instead responsible for injecting his moral, religious and cultural beliefs into the passages and descriptions. Speke was one of the first Europeans to visit these regions and meet these tribes of Africa and so it was important to carry the Christian, political and technological values of all Britons. He writes, “If my account should not entirely harmonise with preconceived notions as to primitive races, I cannot help it 6” Clearly, he knows his remarks could be received as inflammatory, yet persists. This casts doubt that Speke’s findings in Africa would be one of a natural science explorer, but instead one of an agent of the British Empire, sent by God to rid Africa of it’s anti-Christian malaise.

Speke represents a section of British and subsequently European society upholding that Africa, and thereby Africans, are simply the result of missing or unknown laws and currently devoid of God’s everlasting guidance when he writes “…reflect on ourselves, who have been so much better favoured, yet have neglected to teach them, than those who, whilst they are sinning, know not what they are doing. 7” Speke implies white Europeans lack of involvement is to blame for Africa’s perceived troubles, and has a duty to bring them to civilization, thus leaving him with the responsibility to report conditions that require such intervention. Born of the British industrial revolution, Speke cannot see human beings that do not belong to his social class as anything more than units of labor, either fit for duty or beyond reproach.  Speke even goes so far as to present all Africans as potential slaves when he writes again about the freed slaves, the Wanguana, and their apparent desire to return to slavery. “The association of white men and the glitter of money merely dazzle him. He apes like a monkey the jolly Jack Tar, and spends his wages accordingly… he calls his old Arab master his father, and goes (back) into slavery with as much zest as ever 8”.

In the movie Mountains of the Moon, the writers and director strive to avoid the issue of colonialism and do not portray Speke or Burton’s racist values and a greater national purpose for the voyage. There are scenes where Speke is annoyed and angry with the workers assisting the voyage, but one never gains the true sense of his institutionalized racism. The viewer is lead to believe that Burton has merely an investigative, childlike curiosity, and not the mind of a relentless and at times reckless ethnologist. At times it appears the producers wanted to tell a historical narrative more akin to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade than Roots.

Mountains of the Moon has several historical inaccuracies as well, one indicating Burton wrote Arabian Nights during the expedition or before it, when in fact he wrote it some twenty years later in 1885.  It also has scenes of Speke kissing Burton on the lips implying his homosexuality wherein there is no documented evidence that Speke was gay. In 1992, homosexuality was largely considered sinful and wrong to the viewing public, and the writers chose to portray Speke as a homosexual in an effort to make the journey appear to be even more barbaric, mysterious and exaggerated. This is the one major failure of the entire film, not because it is inaccurate, but because it used a political “hot-button issue” to gain notoriety at the expense of others. If the movie wanted to gain publicity for its portrayal of wild Africa, more attention on the cannibalistic tribes or the Arab slavers would have more than sufficed.

In The Devil Drives: A life of Sir Richard Francis Burton Fawn Brodie uses Burton’s private diaries (limited as they were due to his wife Isabel burning the vast majority of them after his death in an effort to “protect his reputation”) and other primary literature written by Burton obtained through the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain and the Royal Anthropological Society (Burton was one of the founders).  Brodies interpretation and analysis of the journals kept by Speke and Burton navigates the issues and controversy between them without bias in favor of Burton. She skillfully identifies and reports information that was not known to Speke and Burton when they wrote about the expedition, making the story whole and even more interesting. Brodie is magnificent in her inspirational quotes from Burton. She does not condone the inflammatory racist remarks in his journals, but she does defend a contrary position stating Burton was not racist in his own right, but simply regarded all of humanity as scientific and empirical data, fit to be analyzed and documented. According to Brodie, Burton documented the good and the bad traits of the natives, and through this found them simply to be an older and less civilized version of Europeans. Fawn Brodie defends that Burton was the representation of natural science in the expedition, and Speke was the symbol of imperialism.

The process of historical interpretation is born of personal intrigue and forced equity in examination of source documentation. Similar to how “justice is blind” the historian must suspend personal beliefs and reserve judgment for the completeness of supporting evidence. If we are to learn from a history of the past, then we should also learn from historians of the past and strive to comprehend their challenges and empower ourselves to do better. To do better in history requires a retraction of religious and cultural bias, a regard and acceptance of the unknown and unknowable, and a drive not just to find the truth, but also to tell the truth.

Gone are the days where having your work published was the only way to make it available for public consumption. The advent of the Internet and search engine index software means any document uploaded to a publically available website or social media outlet will have it’s contents dispersed to anyone searching for the words included, thus creating a greater responsibility and opportunity for all historians to produce accurate representations of historical events.

Much in the same way people who travel to foreign countries gain a greater appreciation for unfamiliar cultures, history introduces us to unfamiliar cultures of the past and endeavors to teach us to recognize our common human identity. I’m often asked why I chose to be a history major. Utilizing my background in information technology, I tell them “History is the source code of the present and future. Out of one, many.”

Leave a Reply