One of the greatest legends associated with Africa concerned the source or sources of the River Nile. Since the second century A.D. , Ptolemy’s depiction of the great river had been taken as the central reference point for discussions on the source of the Nile, and it was not really until the mid-nineteenth century and the race to “grab Africa”, that serious efforts were made to scientifically explore the river’s origins. Channel 4's documentary 'Walking the Nile' brought the virility of the river that great explorers discovered right to us.
This is not to say that there had been no exploration before the 19th Century and one glorious example is the very readable account by the larger-than-life Scotsman, James Bruce, who set off to explore the Nile in 1768, setting off from Alexandria. His party arrived in the Ethiopian capital city of Gondar in February 1770. Bruce won favour from the local rulers by instituting sanitary measures that stemmed an outbreak of smallpox. Exploring the region around Lake Tana, he came upon the Springs of Geesh on 14 November 1770, which he mistakenly took as the source of the Nile. What he named the Fountains of the Nile were in fact the sources of the Blue Nile - The world’s longest river has two main branches – the White Nile, which flows 4,230 miles from its remotest central African sources to the Mediterranean, and the Blue Nile, which rises high up on the Ethiopian plateau and flows for 1,450 miles. The two parts then join at Khartoum.
Forward to the mid-nineteenth century, and the search for the White Nile sources involved some of the most famous explorers of all time –Richard Burton, who shocked Victorian England with his explicit accounts of sexual behaviour around the world; John Speke, a tragic figure who went exploring with Burton and with whom discovered Lake Tanganyika, before later discovering, along with James Grant, what was widely accepted as the Source, Lake Victoria. Speke fell out with Burton over this, and died of a probably stress-induced, self-inflicted gunshot wound. Samuel Baker, another great Victorian character, was another of the great Nile adventurers. He went exploring accompanied by his Hungarian-born wife, Florenz, who amazed Africans with her blonde hair, and shocked Europeans by refusing to ride side-saddle. Baker discovered the third great Nile lake, the Albert N’Yanza, and explored in great detail the Abyssinian tributaries of the Nile. David Livingstone, The Scottish missionary died in 1873 whilst engaged on the search for the Source around what proved to be the headwaters of the Congo; Henry Stanley, the Welsh-born American who coined the phrase “The Dark Continent” was to confirm the truth of these discoveries in the 1870’s.
Featured image by Emil Hoppe