Somerset has produced few people who have changed the way we see and understand the world. Among them was the explorer John Hanning Speke (1827-1864), the man who discovered the source of the world’s longest river, the Nile.

John Hanning Speke pictured at the outflow of the River Nile

A Taste for Exploration

Speke came from an old Somerset family long associated with Whitelackington near Ilminster. As a child he was a reluctant scholar but a keen natural historian, and when he became a young army officer in India he soon developed a taste for exploration.

In 1855 he met the seasoned explorer and orientalist Richard Burton, and despite strong temperamental differences they decided to travel together in Africa. In 1856 they began a long and arduous journey into east central Africa, hoping that the Nile’s source might be among their discoveries.

John Hanning Speke

The Source of the Nile

In 1858 they became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika, and on the return journey to the east African coast, while Burton was laid up with illness, Speke discovered a vast lake which he named after Queen Victoria. He was convinced at once that the lake was the source of the Nile, a conclusion which Burton hotly disputed. Not until Speke returned to Africa with a new travelling companion, James Grant, was the matter settled. On 28 July 1862, having travelled around the west side of Lake Victoria, he finally reached the outfall of the Nile on the lake’s northern shore. It was one of the greatest moments in the history of African exploration.

Speke Had Indeed Been Right

The story ended tragically. On 16 September 1864 Speke and Burton, now wholly estranged, were due to share a platform in Bath to debate whether the source of the river had truly been found. But on the day before the encounter Speke died by the discharge of his gun as he was crossing a stile at Neston Park, near Bath. An inquest decided that his death was an accident, though Burton later encouraged the idea that his former friend had committed suicide.

Speke was brought home for burial in the family vault at Dowlish Wake, where those who came to mourn him included James Grant and David Livingstone. Richard Burton did not attend the funeral, and only at the end of his own life did he accept that Speke had indeed been right.

Monument to John Hanning Speke in Kensington Gardens