Primary Source Review of “Journal of the discovery of the source of the Nile” by John Hanning Speke

In his book Journal of the discovery of the source of the Nile, John Hanning Speke described the daily trials and tribulations of the journey in search for the source of Africa’s Nile River. Intended as an essay for the Royal Geographic Society of England and to his professional peers, Speke’s scientific record keeping and empirical observations also served as a catalog of the people, flora and fauna, and geography of eastern Africa to the greater public. Remarkable in scope and rich in thought, the book chronicles not only Speke’s daily determination to pursue the ultimate goal of finding the lake that acts as the source for Africa’s longest river, but also his insights as to how and why his observations should be considered correct.  Speke makes considerable effort to explain the reasoning behind his thoughts, whether they are based on theory or fact, which in turn produces a volume of work that is not simply a journal of scientific and measured observation, but also one that provides a window into the mind of a 19th century educated British scientist, writer and explorer.  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 with him the Christian, political and technological values of his people.

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[1].”  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.

Speke continues by writing “If my account should not entirely harmonise with preconceived notions as to primitive races, I cannot help it[2]” 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 an explorer, and instead one of a missionary, sent by God to rid Africa of it’s anti-Christian malaise.  It is difficult to believe that an atheist or anarchist would receive funding for such an expedition, much less be a member of the Royal Geographical Society.

Considering white colored humans to be more in God’s favor than black colored humans was a defense mechanism created to embolden the discoverers and investors of Africa to continue onward. Certainly, the belief that Africans were superior to Europeans would not have produced the enormous efforts to navigate and document Africa in the 19th century.  Enabling racist dogma and tendencies provided groups and individuals a mandate to initiate and continue exploration in search for the source of the Nile and would give them license to commit major atrocities and genocidal acts.

Obtaining the location of the source of the Nile not only meant world fame for its discoverers, it also greatly increased the probability of controlling this waterway by the British Empire.  Control would require massive amounts of resources and human labor – expensive human labor so long as Europeans had to be shipped in to do it.

Speke mentions freed slaves, known as the Wanguana, because they constituted the bulk of the group of laborers who carried the expedition supplies on their backs. He writes, “…it is to these singular negroes acting as hired servants that I have been chiefly indebted for opening this large section of Africa.[3]” However, rather than highlighting their work ethic and loyalty (the several hostile tribes encountered did not result in total desertion, for example) he instead belittles them, “Laziness is inherent in these men, for which reason, although extremely powerful, they will not work unless compelled to do so[4]” and indicates they require “Great forbearance, occasionally tinctured with a little fatherly severity, is, I believe, the best dose for him;[5]” 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, they are either fit for duty or beyond reproach.  Speke sets the tone for the world to view all Africans as potential slaves when he writes again about the freed slaves and their 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 into slavery with as much zest as ever[6].”


[1] Speke, John Hanning. Journal of the discovery of the source of the Nile. New York: Harper, 1864.

[2] Speke, Journal, 1.

[3] Speke, Journal, 10.

[4] Speke, Journal, 12.

[5] Speke, Journal, 14.

[6] Speke, Journal, 12.



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