Sunday, September 4, 2011

September 15, 1864 --- The Nile Debate

The Nile explorer John Hanning Speke is killed in a shooting accident.  He was 37.  The tragedy comes on the eve of the much anticipated debate between former colleagues now bitter rivals in the search for the source of the mighty Nile.

Speke was to debate Richard Burton before a group of geographers meeting at Bath. Speke believed Lake Victoria was the font of the Nile, Burton believed it was Lake Tanganyika, and their former friendship, forged through incredible hardships shared in their joint travels, had ended in bitterness. Speke had been quoted as vowing that if Burton showed up in Bath, he would kick him. Both men appear for the morning's preliminary session, refusing to acknowledge the other's presence. Speke blurts out as the meeting drones on, "I can't stand this any longer," and bolts the hall only increasing the anticipation for the morrow's debate.

That afternoon, while shooting on his uncle's estate at nearby Neston Park, Speke is killed by a shotgun blast. His death was announced in the morning as the crowd gathered for the debate. Amid general cries of disbelief, Burton shouted, "By God, he's killed himself," and broke down, sobbing the name "Jack." The inquest found that Speke, an experienced gunman, was standing atop a stone wall and pulling up his loaded shotgun by the muzzle when it discharged; shot in the chest, Speke is dead in minutes. The Illustrated London News observed the irony of his death, a man who had hunted in the wilds of Africa "had fallen victim to his own heedlessness whilst engaged in the chase of a partridge." Burton wrote a friend, "The charitable will say he shot himself, the uncharitable will say I shot him."

Speke remains the forgotten man in the pantheon of Victorian explorers; his name pales beside Livingstone, Burton or Stanley. At Ripon Falls, where on 28 July 1862, Speke found the waters of Lake Victoria spilling into the great river, the plaque bearing his name has long been submerged in deep waters, held back for a hydro-electric project.

Speke sketch from History Today.

1 comment:

  1. I'd never heard of him sadly! Pretty much proves your point.