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|John Hanning Speke
discoverer of Lake Victoria
John Hanning Speke was born near Bideford, Devon, England, on May 4, 1827. Commissioned into the British Army in 1844, he was posted to India, where he served in the Punjab. He used his leaves to travel the Himalayas and Tibet.
In April 1855, Speke was asked to join an expedition into Somaliland by Richard Burton, with whom he had served in India at one time. During the expedition Speke was severely wounded in an attack by Somalis. Invalided home, he subsequently volunteered for service in the Crimea, where he served with a regiment of Turks.
In December 1856, Burton invited Speke to join another expedition, this time to search for great lakes in east central Africa that were supposed to be the source of the Nile River. The expedition left Zanzibar in June 1857, and subsequently spent six months exploring the coast looking for the best route into the interior. In February 1858, they became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika. Burton contracted a fever before the expedition began its return journey, but Speke obtained Burton's permission to continue northward on his own. In July he reached the southern shore of a huge lake, which he named in honor of Queen Victoria.
After making his way back to England, Speke published a description of his travels in which he claimed that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile. Burton, however, publicly disputed Speke's claim, saying that there was actually a series of lakes that fed the Nile. Despite the dispute, the Royal Geographic Society, which had sponsored the expedition, honored Speke for his accomplishment and commissioned him to lead another expedition.
Speke's expedition left Zanzibar in October 1860, travelled inland to Kazeh, and then ventured northwest to Lake Victoria. After mapping the western shore of the lake, Speke eventually made it to present-day Uganda, where a local king detained him for several months. When Speke finally convinced the king to let him continue his journey, he was led to where the Nile flows out of the lake. Following the river northward a short distance he next came to a great waterfall, which he named Ripon Falls (now obscured by the Owen Falls Dam). Speke tried to follow the river even farther, but the expedition's progress was hampered by tribal warfare and he was eventually forced to make his way to Egypt. Along the way he met up with fellow explorers Samuel and Florence Baker, to whom he provided enough information for them to later discover Lake Albert. He and his party made it back to England in 1863.
Soon after returning to England, Speke published Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile. Once again Burton disagreed with Speke's claim, and the two men finally agreed to a public debate on the subject. On September 15, 1864, just before the scheduled debate, Speke was killed by his own gun while on a hunting trip.
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This page was last updated on 06/13/2017.