Eminent Biography: Tim Jeal on Explorers of the Nile

Tim Jeal, credit Joyce Jeal

After his acclaimed biographies of Livingstone and of Stanley, Tim Jeal explains what still draws him to Africa and the deeds of the great Victorian explorers, who feature in Explorers of the Nile, his definitive account of the contest to discover the Nile’s source. To be published November 1, this “engrossing” story of Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, James Augustus Grant, Samuel Baker, Florence von Sass, David Livingstone, and Henry Morton Stanley sheds light on the nineteenth-century obsession with African exploration, and discovering the origins of the Nile was the greatest prize of all. Inaugurating our “Eminent Biography” column, Jeal recounts the perils of the African continent and how the competitive spirit of these seven explorers drove them in their quest for glory, drawing conclusions that overturn previously held ideas about their daredevil lives.

Tim Jeal—

When I was seventeen, before I went to university in 1963, I travelled overland from Egypt to South Africa by Nile steamers, trucks and buses. I never felt seriously in danger but I was overawed by the size of Africa and the sense of being marooned in its vastness. Yet though I sometimes had to wait a week or so to find new transport, I always knew where I was going, along known roads, to places marked on maps.

As my truck juddered over ruts and into potholes, I noticed narrow tracks disappearing into the bush on either side of the highway.  It occurred to me that if I were to walk along any of these paths, I would get lost and probably be dead within days, unless lucky enough to find a village first. I would run out of water and food, perhaps ending up in the stomach of a wild beast, unless I collapsed sooner from heat exhaustion. Yet the Victorian explorers had crossed the entire continent on just such twisting tracks, on their feet. The achievement of these men, who discovered the source of the White Nile and navigated the great lakes, suddenly dazed me. What horrendous problems they had faced when looking for the headwaters of a four thousand-mile-long river.

Not only had there been no roads to travel on and no maps to study, but the tsetse fly had killed their oxen and horses, ruling out the transport of goods in wagons. Many explorers died without knowing why: Livingstone suffered twenty-six attacks of malaria on his great trans-Africa journey of 1853-6. He vomited blood and lay insensible for weeks. Samuel Baker and his mistress, Florence von Sass, also came as close to death from malaria as human beings can, without actually dying. The mosquito’s role in the transmission of this disease would not be discovered till the 1890s. During Mungo Park’s West African expedition, forty out of forty-four Europeans died of fever and he himself was forced from his boat at spear-point and drowned. Because the Arab Swahili slave trade had made many Africans hostile to strangers, Livingstone experienced several attacks by spear-wielding warriors.  He survived these, and thanks to his novel use of quinine, he recovered from repeated bouts of malaria. Yet, despite quinine, all five of Stanley’s white companions died on his first and second journeys.

Without beasts of burden, African explorers needed dozens of porters to carry the beads, cloth and brass-wire essential for the purchase of food and for paying chiefs for the right to pass through their territory. If deserted by these carriers, a traveller’s fate would resemble that of a shipwrecked mariner on a remote atoll.

Naturally I wanted to know what made Speke and Burton, Baker and Stanley take such appalling risks.  Why on earth was nineteenth century Africa so attractive to them?  Among some very mixed motives I found that love of adventure and hatred of boredom mattered to most of them more than the desire for fame or wealth. Life in the industrial societies was becoming regimented and anonymous. Prosperous Samuel Baker worked briefly in a City of London bank, but longed to be “a wandering spirit” and plunge “into the Unknown.”  Workhouse boy, Henry Stanley was desperate to escape from snobbish, urban Britain “where a man is not permitted to be real and natural.”    “Man wants to wander,” declared Richard Burton, “and he must do so, or he shall die.”  Famously, he described: “Starting in a hollowed log of wood – some thousand miles up a river, with an infinitesimal prospect of returning!  I ask myself ‘Why?’ and the only echo is ‘damned fool!  … The Devil drives.”’

Daredevilry was certainly a key factor, and all the Nile explorers were supreme risk-takers. Because the stakes were so high and they had to sacrifice so much in health and peace of mind to achieve anything at all, they were highly competitive – determined to reach the Nile’s source before their rivals.  One needs to imagine those mid-Victorian maps of Africa showing a vast blank at the continent’s centre – no great lakes and the rivers depicted as trails of uncertain dots dwindling away to nothing. The person who managed to fill in that yawning hole in the map and solve the age-old mystery could expect to become famous in a unique way.  Small wonder that even the former missionary, Dr. Livingstone, longed to “cut out” his rivals and so maintain his position as the world’s greatest explorer. He wrote patronisingly of Speke “as a poor misguided thing” whom he “always pitied”, and he accused Burton of “bestial immorality” for having sex with Africans. Burton despised Livingstone as lower class, saying of Stanley’s search for him that it would be “rather infra dig to discover a mish (missionary)”.

Speke's escape from his captors (frontispiece of Speke's "What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile")

For years I had been fascinated by the rivalry between Speke and Burton, and the latter’s ruthless condemnation of his former travelling companion as a betrayer and incompetent.  Burton’s vitriolic attacks on Speke went on for a dozen years after his tragically early death. But what was the truth about Speke’s alleged betrayal of Burton?  I believe I have produced enough evidence to show that it never happened.  And there were many other questions I was determined to answer.  Why, for instance, did the duo fail to reach the northern end of Lake Tanganyika, having said that “everything – wealth, health, and even life – was to be risked for this prize”?  The fault, as I have shown, was Burton’s. I have also proved that Speke was neither prudish nor a repressed homosexual, as some of Burton’s biographers have suggested.  In fact, he fell hopelessly in love with a former wife of the king of Uganda, as I reveal for the first time, quoting his own very touching words. I have also discovered some shocking things about David Livingstone’s “faithful” servants, several of whom enslaved people and even committed murders. But this does not diminish Livingstone’s immense achievement in exposing the Arab-Swahili slave trade and in obliging the British Government to act against it.

An author can never predict the outcome of his researches when preparing a substantial book like Explorers of the Nile and this one took me on a thrilling journey with many unanticipated twists and turns.  For instance, I discovered that my own naval great-grandfather had rescued the Sultan of Zanzibar’s sister from being stoned to death when she became pregnant with her German lover’s child. This chivalrous act would have momentous consequences for the whole of East Africa twenty years later.  On a greater scale, I had never expected to find such clear evidence of the tragic unintended legacy of the Nile search for the modern peoples of Sudan and Uganda.

Tim Jeal
is the author of acclaimed biographies of Livingstone, Baden-Powell, and Stanley, each selected as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and the Washington Post. He was selected as the winner of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and lives in London.

3 Discussions on
“Eminent Biography: Tim Jeal on Explorers of the Nile”
  • Writing as an 86 year old retired Physician I would like to tell mr Tim Jeal how very much I enjoyed his book on explorers of the Nile. I found his observations in the final chapters very illuminating on the current situation in the Sudan and Uganda.
    On the medical side, I wondered whether the possibility of David Livingstone’s final illness may not have been due to a slowly growing colonic carcinoma. The blood-clot the size of a fist may well have been the tumour as such a feature is not usually noted in the various forms of inflammatory bowel disease. Peter Fleischl FRCP Lond., FRACP

    P.S. would you kindly pass on this comment to Mr Jeal.

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