John Hanning Speke

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John Hanning Speke
Born(1827-05-04)4 May 1827
Bideford, Devon, England
Died15 September 1864(1864-09-15) (aged 37)
Neston Park, Wiltshire, England
OccupationOfficer and Explorer
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John Hanning Speke
Born(1827-05-04)4 May 1827
Bideford, Devon, England
Died15 September 1864(1864-09-15) (aged 37)
Neston Park, Wiltshire, England
OccupationOfficer and Explorer

John Hanning Speke (4 May 1827 – 15 September 1864) was an officer in the British Indian Army who made three exploratory expeditions to Africa and who is most associated with the search for the source of the Nile and the discovery and naming of Lake Victoria. He is also known for propounding the Hamitic hypothesis in 1863 - his writings are an example of scientific racism.[1][2] In this hypothesis, he supposed that the Tutsi ethnic group were descendants of the biblical figure, Ham, and had lighter skin and more “European” features than the Bantu-featured Hutu over whom they ruled.[1][3]


Speke was born on 4 May 1827 at Orleigh Court,[4] Buckland Brewer near Bideford, North Devon.[5] In 1844 he was commissioned into the British army and posted to India, where he served under Sir Colin Campbell during the First Anglo-Sikh War. He spent his leave exploring the Himalayan Mountains and Mount Everest and once crossed into Tibet.

In 1854 he made his first voyage to Africa, joining an expedition to Somalia led by the already famous Richard Burton. The expedition did not go well. The party was attacked and Burton and Speke were both severely wounded. Speke was captured and stabbed several times with spears before he was able to free himself and escape. Burton escaped with a javelin impaling both cheeks. Speke returned to England to recover and then served in the Crimean War.

JH Speke.jpg

In 1856, Speke and Burton went to East Africa to find the Great Lakes, which were rumoured to exist in the centre of the continent. It was hoped that the expedition would locate the source of the Nile. The journey was extremely strenuous and both men fell ill from a variety of tropical diseases. Speke suffered severely when he became temporarily deaf after a beetle crawled into his ear and he tried to remove it with a knife. He also later went temporarily blind. After an arduous journey, the two became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika (although Speke was still blind at this point and could not properly see the lake). They heard of a second lake in the area, but Burton was too sick to make the trip.[citation needed] Speke went alone[citation needed] and became the first European to visit Lake Victoria.[6] It was this lake that eventually proved to be the source of the River Nile. However, much of the expedition's survey equipment had been lost at this point and thus vital questions about the height and extent of the lake could not be answered.

Routes taken by the expeditions of Burton and Speke (1857-1858) and Speke and Grant (1863).

Speke returned to England before Burton, on 8 May 1859, and made their trip famous in a speech to the Royal Geographical Society, in which he claimed to have discovered the source of the Nile. When Burton returned on 21 May, he was angered by Speke's precipitous announcements, believing that they violated an agreement that the two men would speak to the society together. A further rift was caused when Speke was chosen to lead a subsequent expedition instead of Burton.[7] The two presented joint papers concerning the expedition to the Royal Geographical Society on 13 June 1859.[8]

Together with James Augustus Grant, Speke left from Zanzibar in October 1860. When they reached Uganda, Grant travelled north and Speke continued his journey towards the west. Speke reached Lake Victoria on 28 July 1862 and then travelled on the west side around Lake Victoria without actually seeing much of it; but on the north side of the lake, Speke found the Nile flowing out of it and discovered the Ripon Falls. Speke then sailed down the Nile and he was reunited with Grant. Next he travelled to Gondokoro in Southern Sudan, where he met Samuel Baker and his wife, continuing to Khartoum, from which he sent a celebrated telegram to London: "The Nile is settled."[9]

An obelisk dedicated to Speke stands in Kensington Gardens, London

Speke's expedition did not resolve the issue, however. Burton claimed that because Speke had not followed the Nile from the place it flowed out of Lake Victoria to Gondokoro, he could not be sure they were the same river.[10]

Scientific works[edit]

Much of Speke's Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile is description of the physical features of Africa's races, in whose condition he found "a strikingly existing proof of the Holy Scriptures."[1] Living alongside the "negroes", Speke found a "superior race" of "men who were as unlike as they could be from the common order of the natives" due to their "fine oval faces, large eyes, and high noses, denoting the best blood of Abyssinia" - that is, Ethiopia.[1][11] This "race" comprised many tribes, including the Watusi (Tutsi). Speke described their physical appearances as having retained — despite the hair-curling and skin-darkening effects of intermarriage - "a high stamp of Asiatic feature, of which a marked characteristic is a bridged instead of bridgeless nose".[1][12]


A debate was planned between the two before the geographical section of the British Association in Bath on 18 September 1864, but Speke had died the previous afternoon from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while shooting at Neston Park in Wiltshire.[13] A contemporary account of the events surrounding his death appeared in the Times:

Speke set out from his uncle's house in company with his cousin, George Fuller, and a gamekeeper, Daniel Davis, for an afternoon's shooting in Neston Park. He fired both barrels in the course of the afternoon and about 4 p.m. Davis was marking birds for the two guns who were about 60 yards apart. Speke was seen to climb onto a stone wall about 2 feet high: for the moment he was without his gun. A few seconds later there was a report and when George Fuller rushed up Speke's gun was found behind the wall in the field into which Speke had jumped. The right barrel was at half-cock: only the left barrel was discharged. Speke who was bleeding seriously was sensible for a few minutes and said feebly, "Don't move me." George Fuller went for assistance leaving Davis to attend him; but Speke survived for only about 15 minutes, and when Mr. Snow, surgeon of Box, arrived he was already dead. There was a single wound in his left side such as would be made by a cartridge if the muzzle of the gun—a Lancaster breech-loader without a safety guard—were close to the body; the charge had passed upwards through the lungs dividing all the large blood vessels over the heart, though missing the heart itself.

An inquest concluded that the death was accidental, a conclusion supported by his only biographer, though the idea of suicide has appealed to some.[14] Bearing in mind, however, that the fatal wound was just below Speke's armpit, suicide seems most unlikely. Speke was buried in Dowlish Wake, Somerset, the ancestral home of the Speke family.[7]


The film Mountains of the Moon (1990) (starring Scottish actor Iain Glen as Speke) related the story of the Burton-Speke controversy, portrayed as having been unjustifiably incited by Speke's publisher to stimulate book sales.[15][16]

Speke was also portrayed in four of the six episodes of the 1971 BBC television mini-series Search for the Nile.

Mount Speke, Uganda[edit]

Mount Speke in the Ruwenzori Range, Uganda was named in honour of John Speke, as an early European explorer of this region.

Biographies, books and articles about Speke[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Philip Gourevitch (1998). We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. ISBN 978-0312243357. 
  2. ^ Edith R. Sanders. The Hamitic Hypothesis: Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective," Journal of African History. 
  3. ^ John Speke: Race Theory
  4. ^ Rogers, W.H. "Buckland Brewer", 1938, p.53
  5. ^ BBC Historic Figures
  6. ^ "The Victoria Nyanza. The Land, the Races and their Customs, with Specimens of Some of the Dialects". World Digital Library. Retrieved 18 February 2013. 
  7. ^ a b  "Speke, John Hanning". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  8. ^ Burton, R. F.; J. H. Speke (13 June 1859). "Explorations in Eastern Africa". Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London (Blackwell Publishing) 3 (6): 348–358. doi:10.2307/1799169. JSTOR 1799169. 
  9. ^ Britain), Royal Geographical Society (Great; Shaw, Norton; Galton, Sir Francis; Spottiswoode, William; Markham, Sir Clements Robert; Bates, Henry Walter; Keltie, Sir John Scott (1863). "Twelfth Meeting, Monday Evening, 11 May 1863". Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 7 (3): 108–110. 
  10. ^ Burton, R. F. (14 November 1864). "Lake Tanganyika, Ptolemy's Western Lake-Reservoir of the Nile". Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London (Blackwell Publishing) 9 (1): 6–14. doi:10.2307/1799295. JSTOR 1799295. 
  11. ^ Journals of John Hanning Speke
  12. ^ John Hanning Speke: Encyclopedia Britannica
  13. ^ Roy Bridges, Speke, John Hanning (1827–1864) (subscription or library card required), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006. Accessed 15 August 2008.
  14. ^ Sly, Nicola (2010). A grim almanac of Somerset. Stroud: History Press. p. 32. ISBN 9780752458144. 
  15. ^ "Mountains Of The Moon". Cinema de Merde. Retrieved 14 November 2010. 
  16. ^ "Relocating Burton: Public and Private Writings on Africa". The Journal of African Travel Writing. University of North Carolina. Retrieved 22 August 2009. 
  17. ^ Published by Croom Helm (UK) in 1985 with ISBN 0-7099-1658-2

External links[edit]