AFRICANA VOTES & VIEWS #14
The reconnaissance of the Great Lakes Region and the sources of the Nile form an engrossing chapter in the exploration of the Dark Continent. The great river, which was the parent of the Egyptian civilization, has intrigued men from ancient times. The Greeks and Romans tried to travel up its length, but were defeated by the papyrus swamps of the Sudd, and during Ptolemy’s rule it was recorded that another probe was turned back by the gorges that cut through the Ethiopian highlands.
It was those redoubtable voyageurs, the Portuguese, who penetrated into the hinterland of Ethiopia in search of the fabled Prester John during the 15th and 16th centuries. One of them, the Jesuit Pedro Paez, correctly identified a stream which flowed north into Lake Tana as the highest source, although there are many more affluents and tributaries that join the lake and the river that issues from it to become the Blue Nile. The Scottish traveller James Bruce of Kinnaird followed in their footsteps and journeyed the length of the Blue Nile to it confluence with the White Nile in 1770. His five-volume work Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, In the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772 and 1773 (J & G Robinson, 1790) describes his experiences, but I have not read anything more than a very short summary of its contents due to its length. His larger-than-life adventures were received with some incredulity by his readers; it is said that they even inspired the Baron Munchausen stories as a satire of his work, but except for ridiculing the Portuguese accounts as phantasy, Bruce made a valuable contribution to the knowledge of the river and the region.
The next was Burton, an explorer and traveller of note, a scholar and fine linguist, as well as a competent writer of dozens of books. On the other hand he often acted in high-handed fashion and thought his opinions and findings as the only ones worthy of consideration – even though he was proven wrong in several of his geographical deductions. He offered a place on his staff to the relatively inexperienced Speke, who had already accompanied him on a disastrous short inland expedition which was described in the book First Footsteps in East Africa, during which their expedition was attacked and both men suffered grievous wounds.
On their second, more successful journey, during which they headed too far south, they became the first Europeans to see Lake Tanganyika. While Burton was incapacitated by illness, Speke did a little exploring on his own, first roaming across and up Lake Tanganyika, and on a second sally, he chased down reports of another large lake – known as the Nyanza, or Ukerewe. Speke was ecstatic about his find. He interrogated a number of Arab traders and slavers, local chiefs and tribesmen, did a few calculations about the altitude of this immense body of water which stretched to the northern horizon, and came to the not entirely erroneous conclusion that he had found the source of the Nile. After and absence of six weeks, the two explorers got together again and Burton would have none of it. He notes: “.difference of opinion was allowed to alter companionship. After a few days it became evident to me that not a word could be uttered upon the subject of the lake, the Nile and his trouvaille generally without giving offence. By tacit agreement it was therefore, avoided, and I should never have resumed it had my companion not stultified the results of the expedition by putting forth a claim which no geographer can admit, and which is at the same time so weak and flimsy that no geographer has yet taken the trouble to contradict it.” Burton was outraged on their return to read that Speke had pipped him into print with a quite readable account in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Sept/Oct/Nov 1859 issues, entitled variously, Journal of a Cruise on the Lake Tanganyika, and Capt. J H Speke’s Discovery of the Victoria Nyanza Lake – the supposed Source of the Nile in two parts in which he described his momentous find and expounded his theories.
Stealing Burton’s thunder enraged the latter to incandescence and coloured his entire account of Speke’s contribution to the expedition. In his second work on the sources of the Nile, The Lake Regions of Central Equatorial Africa (Harper Bros, 1860), he continually derides his companion’s weak state, lack of linguistic capability and ability to carry out tasks such as mapping. The latter book is not an easy read. Burton is fond of judgemental pontification on the people he meets with, their customs and character, on even the slightest acquaintance, and even on the evidence of travellers’ tales. His books are laced with obscure classical references, horrendous Victorian verbosity and strange words – thus we read about “horripilatory tale of the dangers” and “ichthyophagous people” and suchlike.
Hard on the heels of the aforementioned book, I worked my way through Speke’s tome, entitled Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (W Blackwood, 1864). Speke was certainly a better raconteur than his companion Grant and he had the added advantage of better health during the two-and-a-half year expedition, which enabled him to get about, hunt and explore the countryside. On the other hand, as leader of the great endeavour, he bore the brunt of the endless negotiations and hold-ups with rapacious warring chieftains, whom he had to placate with endless extorted gifts to make progress. This became so serious that he ended up almost completely impoverished in the three kingdoms of Karague, Uganda and Unyoro, and during their stay the explorers had to rely on masquerading as the ‘Great Queen’s children’ to gain enough status to impress the kings Ruwanika, M’tesa and Kamrasi, to ensure their safety as well as their eventual release to complete their mission down the Nile. Their lengthy enforced stays at each of these three courts describe much interesting detail of the people’s lives, as well as the despotic rule, especially of the homicidal tyrant M’tesa, whose casual killings were reminiscent of the worst excesses of Chaka in the latter part of his rule in Natal. Speke’s findings on this journey, though confirming the egress of a large river at the northern end of the lake, did not manage to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s of the problem, since he did not follow its entire course to confirm that this river became the sole source of the Nile – as it proved not to be in the end Curiously, Speke’s book contains appendixes with data on the geographical fixes, their Zanzibari staff (many of whom deserted), lists of all the animals killed during the journey, as well as the collection of plants made by Grant – which one would have expected in the latter’s book.
His companion, Grant, on the other hand, is a poor writer. The first half of his book, A Walk Across Africa (William Blackwood & Sons, 1864) is a jumble of diary entries, notes on native customs, elementary natural history, bare-bones hunting incident, and above all, difficulties with the native tribes and his porters. All these are seen through a haze of Indian army experiences that the writer compares them to. In one sentence he can jump from elephants via serpents to beeswax – with very little connective tissue. Often his stray sentences seem to have no foundation in what he has been relating, nor does he build further on the subject matter proffered. He is portrayed by some biographers as a loyal companion to Speke; a man with winning ways who used his personal magnetism or charm to smooth their passage through the warring clans of inland East Africa. I could find very little evidence of that – rather that his men deserted repeatedly en masse, he had endless disputes with his bearers as well as the tribespeople. Admittedly he had the misfortune to be seriously ill for many months of the journey in addition to which he and his partner Speke often split the party, so that each lacked the other’s support, and this may have had an unfortunate influence on his writing.
The latter half of the book, once he reaches Ruanda and the kingdoms that make up Uganda, is much better. He develops a reasonable narrative style, his observations are in some semblance of order and actually paint a coherent and informative panorama of these interesting tribes and their customs, as well as depicting the personalities of their tyrannical rulers. Grant’s contribution to botany was apparently very significant on the journey, but very little mention is made of it at first, and it is only in the latter chapters that this becomes somewhat more evident, as do the descriptions of the fauna and the countryside. Grant did not see the egress of the great Nile from lake Victoria via the Ripon Falls himself, but he hastens to explain that this was due to his ill-health, not because Speke did not want to share the glory. The two explorers were fortunate in managing to complete their expedition down the great river with relative speed and good fortune, compared to their painful progress up to Lake Victoria Nyanza. The last part of the long journey down the Nile, mostly by boat, is glossed over in Speke’s book, and is more fully described in Grant’s. They meet up with a number of missionaries, traders, as well as three European ladies, and Samuel Baker (accompanied by his ‘unmentionable’ wife Florence, to whom he was not yet married), who helps them out of their impecunious state and whose party takes up the standard, so to speak, and carries on the exploration of the Great Lakes region.
The Albert N'Yanza Great Basin Of The Nile; And Exploration Of The Nile Sources. (Macmillan And Co., 1866) is one of my favourite books on the subject. Samuel Baker’s descriptions of people, places, hunting experiences, as well as mutinies, tribulations and illnesses are an engaging read. In his preface Baker pays tribute to his companion (later wife) Florence, or ‘Flooey’, as she was affectionately dubbed. He writes ‘Should anything offend the sensitive mind, and suggest the unfitness of the situation for a woman's presence, I must beseech my fair readers to reflect, that the pilgrim’s wife followed him, weary and footsore, through all his difficulties, led, not by choice, but by devotion; and that in times of misery and sickness her tender care saved his life and prospered the expedition.’ – well said. What emerges from the book is that Florence saved her man’s life on several occasions, when she outfaced his attackers, and on occasions even took to arms in his defence. Baker, on the other hand, returns his wife’s devotion and tenderly cares for his gravely ill wife when she lapses into a coma, probably due to a severe attack of malaria when almost at their goal. Of their arrival at the lake he writes movingly: “My wife in extreme weakness tottered down the pass, supporting herself upon my shoulder, and stopping to rest every twenty paces. After a toilsome descent of about two hours, weak with years of fever, but for the moment strengthened by success, we gained the level plain below the cliff…. it was with extreme emotion that I enjoyed this glorious scene. My wife, who had followed me so devotedly, stood by my side pale and exhausted - a wreck upon the shores of the great Albert lake that we had so long striven to reach.”
Their discovery of Lake Albert Nyanza slotted another jigsaw piece into the puzzle of the source of the Nile, as the Bakers took some time to travel around the lake. However, they did overestimate the contribution that this reservoir of water made to the flow of the Nile, and a further piece of the puzzle was only found some years later. This intrepid pair of explorers bore great difficulties and onslaughts on their health and physical safety, before returning to a rather lukewarm reception in Europe. Sam married his Flooey, and he received his knighthood a short time later, but good Queen Victoria could never bring herself to approve wholeheartedly of the Bakers’s ‘irregular liaison’. Some years later he returned to the Nile and led a military expedition to wipe out the slave trade along the upper reaches of the river – a task in which he was partially successful.
Between Lake Albert and Lake Victoria, there was, of course, yet another body of water. The shallow, digitate Lake Kyoga is covered mostly by waterlilies, hyacinths and papyrus – easy to overlook, and quite difficult to find reliable information about. The Britannica can’t make up its mind whether it was discovered in 1875 by one Charles Chaillé-Long, an American, who was the second western explorer of Lake Victoria, or an Italian explorer of the upper Nile River system, one Carlo Piaggia. In any case, a chunk of the Victoria Nile flows through it.
Enter John Rowlands, aka Henry Morton Stanley. Probably my most un-favourite explorer, this American journalist already had one unsuccessful expedition under his belt by the time he was dispatched to find Livingstone – of whom more later. He had the funds to travel in style with all the equipment an explorer could wish for, as well as two hundred porters to carry it all. Stanley made himself a name for brutality and less than exemplary respect for human life – which reputation is being re-examined in later times; I can’t imagine why. After uttering his famous remark, he joined Livingstone in exploring Lake Tanganyika and he did make a contribution in that he decisively proved that Lake Tanganyika had no connection to the Nile. How I Found Livingstone; Travels, Adventures, and Discoveries in Central Africa (Sampson, Low, Marston and Company, 1872) describes this little venture. A couple of years later he took on the mighty Congo River – but that is another story – except that I could mention that he wiped out better than two thirds of his expeditionary force. A few more years on and we see this intrepid voyageur in the Congo once more, this time in the service of that indescribable excuse for a human being, King Leopold, to wrest a private fiefdom for the monarch from the locals.
In 1886 he once more entered the fray when he led an expedition from the Congo to ‘rescue’ Emin Pasha, the governor of Equatoria on the other side of the continent, in the Sudan. With just short of a thousand men our hero tackled the forests, rivers and mountains; rescued the unwilling Pasha and emerged with a vastly curtailed retinue some four years later. Several scandals resulted from this expeditionary tour de force, but there were also two important geographical findings: the existence of the Ruwenzori Mountains, and the presence of yet another lake in the chain, Edward, which empties itself via the Semliki River into Lake Albert. The whole fiasco is ably described in two volumes of In Darkest Africa (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1890), as well as a whole slew of other books by other expeditionaries and later critics. Thankfully he gave up exploration, became a British MP and was knighted for his services to humanity and the British Empire. Wow!
One of the later explorers of note in the Great Lakes region of East Africa was Joseph Thomson. He graduated as a geologist from Edinburgh and found employment as assistant to Keith Johnston who was to lead the Royal Geographical Society’s expedition to explore the region between Lakes Nyassa (Malawi) and Tanganyika which would establish the answers to several outstanding questions of catchment areas and drainage from the lakes. Johnston died of dysentry a few months into the journey, leaving Thomson, then a stripling of some twenty-one years of age, to tackle the journey with his 150-odd porters. With remarkable coolness and tact he led the expedition across some five thousand miles in fourteen months, without the loss of a single further life, nor did his party have to fire a shot in anger. His journey is described in the book To the Central African Lakes and Back (Sampson Low, Marston & Co, London, 1881) in a most readable fashion. His writing paints a vivid picture of a young adventurer on the loose, marvelling at nature, struggling with problems and loneliness, but supported in the main by his African staff, and a generally hospitable population.
He only ran into trouble at the far end of the journey, while investigating the outlet of Lake Tanganyika into the Lukuga River, which drains into the Congo and finally the Atlantic. Here the warlike Warua tribe robbed him and some thirty followers of almost all they possessed and it was only with extreme personal courage that he managed to extricate his party without bloodshed. Thomson’s motto was said to be He who goes gently, goes safely; he who goes safely, goes far – and gently he did go. On his return journey he was also the first European to see Lake Rukwa, though from the heights of the precipitous bank he was on, he was not able to do a full survey before returning to the coast at Bagamoyo.
By the early eighties European traders were clamouring for the exploration of the shortest route from the sea to the headwaters of the Nile. Thomson had acquired a taste for adventure and exploration. In 1882 the Royal Geographical Society asked him to report on the practicability of trekking through the Masai country, which no European had yet been able to penetrate beyond Mt Kilimanjaro. A little earlier a German expedition, led by Gustav Fischer, set off with the same route in mind. By great courage and resourcefulness he succeeded while Fischer failed in his attempt. He describes a half-hearted attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, reaching 9,000 feet, from where he turned back after 7 hours’ climbing, compelled to give up his intention of penetrating above the forest region. Thomson then left. Chaggaland and travelled through what is now Kenya, giving us the first description of the north face of Kilimanjaro. He carried on through Laikipia to Mt Kenya, crossed the Njiri desert and explored the eastern rift-valley, traversing the unknown region lying between Lakes Baringo and Victoria Nyanza, which he reached in1883 The account of this adventurous journey was published as Through Masai Land (Sampson. Low & Marston, 1885)and it is a classic of modern travel. His later career was to take him to West Africa, as well as entering the employ of Rhodes, for whom he explored the region north of the Zambezi, making treaties with the local chiefs on behalf of the British South Africa Company.
Last but by no means least one has to mention that Beau Geste of the Victorian era of exploration, David Livingstone, in the context of the discovery of the great lakes and rivers. After he had already made a very significant trek across the width of Africa from Sesheke to Luanda, and returning from Luanda to Quelimane, described in Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (John Murray, 1857) he led an ill-fated expedition to open up the Zambezi River. He was not the ideal man for the job, being better suited to tackle the wilds on his own with a small band of followers, than being in charge of an unwieldy band of explorers with differing opinions and priorities. In 1859 they were the first Europeans to reach the shores of Lakes Shirwa (Chilwa) and Nyassa (Malawi), the most southerly of the Great Lakes, and though they could not succeed in opening up any river routes, a number of important contributions were made to several branches of science. The book Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and its Tributaries (John Murray, 1865) is more of a defensive work of this failed venture.(brother Charles collaborated allegedly, but he was mpore of a disruptive element)
The exploration bug had bitten Livingstone, and in 1866 he also felt he had to try to put his mark on the origins of the Nile as he believed the source of the great river to be further south than Burton, Speke, Grant and Baker had established as being from Lakes Albert and Victoria. He consequently set out along the Rovuma river and did valuable work in exploring and mapping the region for a number of years, reaching Lakes Mweru, Tanganyika and Bangweulu, near which latter place he died. The posthumously-published volume entitled The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa (John Murray, 1874) concludes the famous explorer’s life work.
This, then, is a summary of a great chapter of African exploration. The full course of the Blue Nile was only explored in the 1960’s by the Brit, Blashford Snell; the first to navigate the entire length of the White Nile was a South African, Hendri Coetzee, in 2004. Satellite images and other modern technology have solved all but the few riddles hidden in the dark depths of two of the world’s deepest lakes, Tanganyika and Malawi, but there is romance in all of these tales.