John Hanning Speke (May 4, 1827 – September 15, 1864) was an officer in the British Indian army, who made three voyages of exploration to Africa.
In 1844 he joined the British Indian Army where he served in the Sikh War under Sir Colin Campbell. He spent his leave exploring the Himalaya Mountains and once crossed into Tibet.
In 1854 he made his first voyage, joining the already famous Richard Francis Burton on an expedition to Somalia. 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 Crimea War.
In 1856, Speke and Burton made a voyage to East Africa to find the great lakes which were rumoured to exist in the center of the country. Both men clearly hoped that their 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 had to remove it with a knife. He also later went temporarily blind. After an arduous journey the two became the first Europeans to discover 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 voyage. Speke thus went alone, and found the lake, which he christened Lake Victoria. It was this lake which 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, and made their voyage famous in a speech to the Royal Geographical Society where he claimed to have discovered the source of the Nile. Burton was angered by his actions 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 the subsequent expedition without Burton.
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 July 28 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 Rippon 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, then he returned to England.
An obelisk dedicated to Speke stands in Hyde Park, London
Speke's voyage did not resolve the issue, 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. A debate was planned between the two before the Royal Geographical Society on September 16, 1864, but Speke died just one day before from a self-inflicted gun-shot wound. It remains uncertain whether the shot was an accident or suicide. Speke was buried in Dowlish Wake, Somerset, the ancestral home of the Speke family.
The film Mountains of the Moon (1990) (starring Scottish actor Iain Glen as Speke) related the story of the Burton-Speke controversy. The film hints at a sexual intimacy between Burton and Speke. It also vaguely portrays Speke as a closeted homosexual. This was based on the William Harrison novel Burton and Speke.
Mount Speke in the Ruwenzori Range, Uganda was named in honour of John Speke, as an early European explorer of this region.
Biographies and Other Books about Speke
- Burton and Speke by William Harrison (St Martins/Marek & W.H. Allen 1984).
- A Walk Across Africa by J. A. Grant (London, 1864)