“Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile” (by John Hanning Speke, 1863).
Captain Speke’s account of his great exploit will no doubt obtain the popularity which its author’s courage and perseverance deserve, but it must be owned that, though the main result of the journey itself will always be a well-marked point in the history of geographical science, the book itself, considered merely as a book, is hardly of commensurate interest. This is no fault of Captain Speke’s. It would be hard, under any circumstances, upon a soldier and explorer to require him to have, in addition, all the gifts of an author; and if Captain Speke wrote with the pen of men and angels it would be impossible for him to attach much interest to most of the incidents of his journey. His style is by no means a bad one. He tells what he has to tell in a manly, straightforward way, altogether free from affectation or efforts after effect, and he gives to any one who takes the trouble to read through his book a very clear notion of the nature of the regions in which he travelled; but it is undeniable that the journey itself was dull—dull no doubt in the travelling, and far from lively to read of in most of its details. Still it was successful. It did solve the problem which its author undertook to solve, and that in the way which he had predicted that it would be solved.
The main incidents of the journey which Captain Speke took, and the broad features of the state of things which he saw, may be very shortly described. He started from Zanzibar, or rather from the mainland opposite the island of that name, on the 3rd of October, 1860. His party consisted of himself, Captain Grant, and a considerable number of natives, of whom a body of Wanguanas, or liberated slaves, formed a sort of nucleus. These Wanguanas are described by Captain Spoke as forming the rowdy part of the negro population. They are exactly like great babies. They have nothing to bind them to one place more than another. They can always supply such trifling wants as they have, and they possess a perfectly inexhaustible stock of animal spirits. There is no sort of puerile mischief which they will not commit, and they are quite unable to understand that it is mischief. When he does wrong, this description of black says to his master:—
“You ought to forgive and forget, for are you not a big man who should be above harbouring spite, though for a moment you may be angry? Flog me if you like, but don't keep count against me, else I shall run away, and what will you do then?"It was in company with a gang of these people, and with a. great store of all manner of articles, of which loads of cloth, beads, and brass-wire; (the currency of that part of the world), formed the most prominent feature, that Captain Spoke set out on his expedition. For some 700 or 800 miles his journey appears to have been extremely dreary. The country through which he passed is populous and fertile, though troubled with occasional famine. It is traversed in some districts by roads used by the ivory merchants, and there are a number of native villages which, but for slavery and slave-hunting, would in their rough way be prosperous enough. The curse of the country, for all travellers and for all readers of books of travels, is the government. In every district there is a sort of head man, who allows no traveller to pass through his dominions without paying toll in the shape of cloth, beads, and wire. This toll is called a hongo, and the first third of Captain Speke‘s thick volume is filled by little more than an enumeration of the different bargains which he had to drive with different local rulers. Very likely, if we had a journal of a tour on the Rhine in the days of feudal tolls, it would be to much the same purpose. The most vexatious of these extortioners was a fellow called Lumerési, who seems to have been a sort of deputy to the great king Suwarorm When Captain Spoke got to Lumerési’s hospitable abode, he was separate from his friend Captain Grant, who had been left behind with part of the caravan; and the battles which took place between him and Lumerési upon the question whether or not the hongo was to include a déolé or silk scarf are fearful to read about. Poor Captain Speke was very ill at the time, and this wretched savage used to come and badger him for more wire, more cloths, and, above all, for this déolé—every now and then offering him a cow, and then retracting his offer—till the Englishman became light-headed, and almost died before he managed at last to get “the drums of satisfaction” (a sort of oral receipt in full) beaten, as a sign that he might go. This scene comes over and over again every few pages, till the reader shares to some extent, and on a small scale, in the tedium suffered by the writer.
These preliminary troubles being over (their history fills nearly two hundred pages in the book, and they themselves consumed thirteen months in point of time, namely, from October 1860 till November 1861), Captain Speke arrived at the abode of Rumanika, the King of Karagué, a province bordering on the great Lake Nyanza. He stayed with this potentate about two months, and found him by far the most interesting person whom his African travels brought to light. Both he and his family appeared to Captain Spoke to deserve the description of thorough gentlemen. They were most in inquisitive, very intelligent, and perfectly well behaved, as they made no attempt to beg or extort. Rumanika at first wanted a magic charm to kill his brother, who owned the romantic name of Rogero; but on being reproved, he saw the error of his ways, admitted that fratricide was an unnatural crime, and declared that, even if he caught his brother, he would not kill him; he “would merely gouge out his eyes and set him at large again, for without the power of sight he could do them no harm." The rest of his conduct showed equal openness to good impressions. He was never tired of inquiring into European institutions and inventions, and in return gave a vast deal of very useful and accurate geographical information, and explained all his own manners, customs, and opinions. Neither he nor his tribe had any notion of religion. They know nothing of a God or of a future state, but they had a quantity of superstitions. For instance, Ruinanika said he should instantly retreat with his army if he heard a fox bark, and they used to present a large stone on the hill side with beer and grain. One of their oddest peculiarities was their passion for fat women. The Court beauties are fed on milk only in order to fatten them. They are kept constantly sucking at immense milk-pots, till at last they reach a size which prevents them from rising. 0f one woman Captain Speko says, “she could not rise, and so large were her arms that between the joints the flesh hung down like large loose stuffed puddings.” One of these beauties measured 1ft. 11in. round the arm; 4ft. 4in. round the chest; 2ft. in. round the thigh; 1 ft. 8 in. round the calf; and 5 ft. in. in eight. With infinite difficulty Captain Spoke got her on or feet, but when she stood up, the blood rushed to her head and she fainted away. Her daughter sat by sucking a milk-pot, and the fortunate husband and father kept her to her work stick in hand.
From the hospitable Rumanika Captain Spoke proceeded to the far less satisfactory Mtésa, the King of Uganda. Mtesa is a young man, scarcely grown up, and the most powerful king of those parts. Both he and Rumanika belong to the race of Wahuma or Abyssinians. They are tall, well-made men, with Roman noses, and the traces of Asiatic descent in many of their features, though, of course, the negro blood has greatly modified both their colour and their figures. At some not very remote time, this race was at the head of a considerable kingdom in Central Africa, which has now been broken up into a variety of territories of which Uganda and Karagué are parts. A king of the name of Kimera set up a strong government in Uganda, which would seem to have been intends as a sort of step towards civilization. It is a most wonderful government indeed. Uganda has fleets of canoes, armies, highways, and a Health of Towns Act, according to which every home must have “its necessary appendages for cleanliness.” The people are obliged to be not merely decent, but prudish. The women go stark naked; but if a man shows his legs when he squats on the ground, or ties his bark petticoats wrong, he is sentenced to death and executed there and then, unless he is allowed to pay a fine. There is the strangest contrast between the vague notion of civilization shown by the objects of the laws themselves and the inordinate and even horrible brutality with which they are put in force. Captain Speke passed seven or eight months (January to August 1862) at Uganda, and nearly every day one or more of the king’s innumerable wives was led past to execution for some petty offence. He gives one or two horrible instances of this. On one occasion he was out on a shooting excursion with the king and a number of his wives. As they passed through a wood of fruit trees, one of the wives, by way of an act of courtesy, picked some fruit and offered it to the king. For some inexplicable reason, it is a crime for a woman to offer the king anything whatever, and she was ordered to instant death. The other wives begged for her pardon, and tried to drive off the little imps of boys who were to act as executioners, and at last, to settle the dispute, the king took a thick stick and began himself to beat out her brains. Captain Speke, at the risk of his own life, interfered and saved her. The king, Mtésa, is just like a spoilt schoolboy, cruel from thoughtlessness and ignorance, attracted like a child by any novelty, incapable of serious attention, and passionately fond of noisy amusements. He levied a grievous toll on Captain Speke's property, and detained him for months at his court. Indeed it required as much diplomacy to get from Uganda to the point where the Nile flows out of the Nyanza, and thence through the territories of a Wretched savage called Kramrasi, down to Gondokoro, the first known town on the river, as would settle the Polish question. The constant worrying with all sorts of persons, the evasions of the native kings, the squabbles with various petty tribes, and the other obscure toils which Captain Speke and his companion had to undergo, must have required wonderful energy on his part. Merely to read about them is not the lightest of tasks. All difficulties were at last triumphantly overcome, and the party descended the Nile to Cairo without any important misadventure.
Such was the journey. The geographical results of it, though simple, were of the highest possible interest. It appears that the part of Africa in which the Nile rises is a table-land gradually rising from the sea—to use Captain Speke‘s illustration—like an inverted dish (though of a very deficient shape), to a height of near 4,000 feet above the sea-level. One hill reaches 5,148 feet, and another 4,090, but the level, which is apparently of enormous extent, is between 3,000 and 4,000. The equator passes right through this tract of country, and for five degrees of latitude on each side the soil is extremely fertile, gradually decreasing in fertility as the distance from the equator increases. It is a wonderfully tine country, producing abundance of cattle and. every sort of agricultural produce, and is healthy and by no means too hot. Captain Speke says—“The general temperature of the atmosphere is very pleasant, as I found , from experience; for I walked every inch of the journey dressed in thick woollen clothes, and slept every night between blankets." About 1,000 miles west of the Indian Ocean, and 50 miles south of the equator, and in 30° east longitude, lie a range of mountains, some of the peaks of which are said to be 10,000 feet high. Their form is semicircular, and from these mountains and the other high grounds the water drains east and north—and, indeed, west and north from the other side of the table-land—into three great lakes. One of these—a round piece of water about 50 miles by 30—is said to lie in the semicircle formed by the Mountains of the Moon. Some distance south of this lies a much larger one, between 300 and 400 miles long, and varying in width from 30 to 60 miles. It is pear-shaped, the larger end being at the south, and the direction nearly due north and south. The 20th parallel of longitude runs along it for a considerable distance. The third and most important of the three lakes is the Victoria Nyanza (Nyanza means pond). Its level is 3,740 feet above the sea—which is nearly as high as Zermatt—and its shape is very nearly that of an equilateral triangle of which each side is about 200 miles in length. The lines are, of course, a little irregular; but if the north side were represented by a straight line, that straight line would be furnished by the equator. The best possible notion of the lake will be obtained by taking 200 miles of the equator, and describing upon it an equilateral triangle with the point to the south. At the east corner of that triangle there is another long and somewhat irregular body of water imperfectly known. The Nile flows out of the north side of the lake in three separate channels. Two of them appear to be rather swamps or (as Captain Speke calls them) rush drains than rivers, but the third is a noble stream. It flows out of an arm of the Nyanza with a noble rush of water over a fall about 12 feet high and 400 or 500 feet wide, which must be rather like Schaffhausen. The Nile is thus one of the very few rivers to which a definite beginning can be assigned, for from this point it pursues an independent course of upwards of 2,000 miles to the sea, having on its way only three or four tributaries, none of which can be compared to it in importance. No other river in the world has such a splendid individual career. The American rivers are the outlet of a thousand streams, and the same may be said of the great rivers of India and China; but the Nile is the Nile from its source to the Mediterranean. Captain Spoke describes the stream as 600 or 700 yards wide some way further down. The banks are exquisitely rich and beautiful:—
‘It was the very perfection of the kind of effect aimed at in a highly-kept park, with a magnificent stream from to 700 yards wide, dotted with islets and rocks, the former occupied by fishermen's huts, the latter by sterns and crocodiles basking in the sun, flowing between line high grassy banks, with rich trees and plantains in the background, where herds of the nsunnu and hartebeest could be seen grazing, while the hippopotami were snorting in the water, and florikan and guinea-fowl rising at our feet.’The discovery was certainly as beautiful in itself as it was historically interesting. After the head of the Nile had been hid for thousands of years, it would have been a sad disappointment to find that it had no head in particular. It is a great satisfaction to learn that it leaps vigorously into existence out of a noble lake over a waterfall 400 feet wide.
Besides the Nyanza, which he actually saw, and to a great extent explored, Captain Speke obtained information of two other remarkable lakes. One of these is a very large one, called Lake Uniamesi, and said to lie east and somewhat to the south of the Victoria Nyanza; the other is a singular lake, called the Luta Nzigé, said to be about 200 miles long and 50 broad, running from S. to N.E., which communicates with the bile at its north-eastern extremity. It is supposed by Captain Spoke to be a more back— water which the Nile fills by its overflow when the Victoria Nyanza receives an extra supply of water from the mountains. He supposes (as we understand him) that, when this reservoir is filled, and the Nile begins to fall, the water runs back into the Nile and produces the floods down to Egypt. Mr. Baker, well known for his sporting exploits in Ceylon, met Captain Spoke on his arrival at Gondokoro, and was urged by him to explore this curious place. If the opinion expressed by Captain Spoke is realy correct, he will be entitled to the credit of having solved, either by personal inspection or by collecting trustworthy information, a more ancient, more famous, and much more useful problem than that of the North-West passage. The fact that the centre of Africa is populous, healthy, rich, and fruitful, and that, in order to be happy and useful to the rest of the world, it wants nothing but a decent government to reduce to order the overgrown babies who live in it, and to prevent them from stealing each other for slaves, is of the very highest importance. Ever sort of produce might come down the Nile if men like Kramrasi and Mtésa were kept in order, and men like Rumanika favoured and advised; and, by the some movement which would enrich Europe, the slave trade which devastates one continent and degrades part of another would receive a mortal blow.
One of the most curious things in Captain Speke’s volume is a small map printed in red and blue, which stands near the beginning. The blue represents the actual state of things. The red represents the same country as depicted in certain ancient Hindoo documents, first published in Europe in 1801 by Lieutenant Wilford. It is impossible to look at them without seeing that the Hindoos had excellent information upon the geography of the country. The name “Mountains of the Moon” is to taken from the Hindoo map, and the situation of the mountains so called is laid down not incorrectly, while the lake system of the country is represented, not by three lakes, but by one large one, which is called the Lake of the Gods, and which might naturally be supposed to exist by any one who supposed that the Anganyika communicated with the Victoria Nyanza. Captain Spoke supposes that in very ancient times there was a considerable trade; between Hindostan and the interior of Africa, and that this was the source from which the authors of the map in question derived their information. That they had such information somehow, no one who looks at the two maps can possibly doubt.
Saturday Review, January 2, 1864.