Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure
Reviewed by Eamonn Gearon

Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure.
by Tim Jeal. Faber and Faber, 2011. 528 pp, ISBN 978-0571249756. £25.00.

In a previous work—Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer (2007)—Tim Jeal demonstrated his ability to produce a fresh study of an ostensibly well-known story. Stanley was a tightly written and engaging example of non-fiction at its best. In Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure, Jeal has repeated his earlier achievement, even more successfully. Here, the story of 19th-century European exploration in Africa is written with such verve that readers can race through its more than 500 pages as easily as though they were handling a magazine.

As remarkable as it seems today, in 1850 the source of the River Nile remained unknown to Europeans. This ignorance, which likewise troubled Ptolemy in the 2nd century, proved irksome to the Victorians, who found themselves better placed than their forebears to do something about abolishing this gap in geographical knowledge. The journe towards wisdom was by no means an easy one, with local conflicts, gross geographical obstacles, adverse climatic conditions—both sweltering summers and rainy seasons—and attendant tropical diseases killing off most of those who set off to search for the Nile’s source.

While the main thrust of Jeal’s story may be the rivalry between Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, he also allots room to other imperial greats of geographical and other exploration. These include Samuel Baker, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, Mungo Park, Richard Lemon Lander and Alexine Tinné.

The rivalry between Burton and Speke is sure to be familiar to ASTENE members, who may already find themselves in the camp of one or the other of the two men. Regardless of any imagined familiarity with the material, there is much in Jeal’s account that will appeal, not least the first full-throated defence of Speke for a generation or more.

Explorers of the Nile The shooting accident that saw the death of Speke in advance of his public debate with Burton as to the route of the Nile was tragic; the behaviour of Burton in its wake was unforgivable. The passage of time and his other achievements do not exculpate Burton’s guilt in spreading the rumour that Speke had committed suicide, which suggestion was far more disgraceful then than it might be today. Had Speke lived, it is not clear that he would have convinced the world that he was right about the source of the Nile. After his death he had no chance against the publicityhungry machine that Burton drove through Victorian London and beyond. Burton seemed to relish the free hand fate ha dealt him, never passing up an opportunity to speak ill of Speke.
In 1886, two years after Speke’s death, a granite obelisk was erected in Hyde Park, with the rather insipid inscription: ‘In memory of Speke, Victoria Nyanza and the Nile 1864’. While not carved in granite, Jeal’s book is in many ways a more fitting memorial, and one upon which, one hopes, more readers will cast their eyes, rather than passing by the stone in Hyde Park.

Eamonn Gearon