Captains Speke and Grant

Henry Stanley

From “Four Great African Travelers,” Century Magazine/May, 1873


Captain John Hanning Speke, the companion and successor of Burton in Africa, possessed a true heroic soul, and a real heroic nature. His large book on the Nile and its sources reveal him and his inner nature but too well, and we see glimpses of his heroic spirit on almost every page. His bold, fearless bearing before minacious savages, his indomitability, persistency, and quick, springy, elastic movements over thorny plain, through jungle and forest, are seen also, as well as the eager face peering from summits of mountains and various coignes of vantage for the prominent physical features of the strange new land spread before him. Unfortunately, too, the hasty, crude judgments which he passes upon the geography of the country are to be seen. On coming to the end of his Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, readers are compelled to admit that though Speke was a brave man, possessing many excellent qualities, such as endear him to easy natures, that though he was a born traveler, he was not—in the truest sense of the term—a great explorer.

Speke lacked the fortitude and the sober, sagacious judgment of Livingstone; the literary instincts, ambition, and pride, as well as the scientific attainments, which distinguish his former associate, Burton. Speke was more of a seeker after natural wonders, such as would excite a high-spirited boy, while the minutiae of nature remained as a dull book to him. Grand mountains, large lakes, Nile rivers, fierce and large game, are the sensations to him, while all else is tedious and uninteresting.

The one darling passion of his nature was hunting. In the pursuit of venery he was untiring, and the more dangerous the sport, the more spice it possessed. As a hunter, he was the equal of Gordon Gumming and Sir Samuel Baker.

In person Speke was tall and stalwart. His head was covered with a mass of tawny hair, which spoke a Saxon descent; by the natives his hair was said to resemble a lion’s mane. He possessed regular features, a well-shaped nose, and a high, narrow forehead. His deep blue eyes had a steely gleam in them, which, with the settled composure of the lower parts of the face, betrayed sufficiently that he was quick to resent and resolute to execute.

His companion, Captain Grant, an Indian officer, is the beau-ideal of a well-drilled soldier and a polished gentleman. His figure is tall and well-shaped, and displays great power of endurance. His face, of a sanguine complexion, with a quiet, kindly look beaming from the eyes, proves him to be, as he was with Speke, a sociable and excellent companion.

The second East African Expedition, led by Captains Speke and Grant, arrived at Zanzibar on the 17th August, 1860. Its object was to find the outlet of the large lake— the Victoria N’Yanza, which Speke discovered in 1858, when, leaving Burton at Unyanyembe, he made that famous march to the north.

On the 21st September, 1860, the expedition left Zanzibar for Bagamoyo, and the march towards the interior was commenced twelve days later. The following description of the departure is found in Speke’s book:

“Starting on a march with a large mixed caravan, consisting of one corporal and nine privates; Hottentots, one jemadar and 25 privates, Balochs—one Arab, Cafila Bashi, and 75 freed slaves—one kirangozi or leader, and 100 negro porters—12 mules untrained, three donkeys, and 22 goats—one could hardly expect to find everybody in his place at the proper time for breaking ground; but at the same time, it could hardly be expected that ten men, who had actually received their bounty money, and had sworn fidelity, should give one the slip the very first day. Such, however, was the case. Ten out of the thirty-six given by the Sultan ran away, because they feared that the white men, whom they believed to be cannibals, were only taking them into the interior to eat them; and one pagazi, more honest than the freed men, deposited his pay upon the ground, and ran away too. Go we must, however, for one desertion is sure to lead to more; and go we did. Our procession was in this fashion: the moon shone full on his flank, I raised mykirangozi, with a load on his shoulder, led the way, flag in hand, followed by the pagazis, carrying spears or bows and arrows in their hands, and bearing their share of the baggage in the shape either of bolster-shaped loads of cloth and beads covered with matting, each tied into the fork of a three-pronged stick, or else coils of brass or copper wire tied in even weights to each end of sticks which they laid on the shoulder; then, helter-skelter, came the Wanguana, carrying carbines in their hands, and boxes, bundles, tents, cooking pots—all the miscellaneous property on their heads; next the Hottentots, dragging the refractory mules laden with ammunition boxes, but very lightly, to save the animals for the future; and, finally Sheikh Said and the Baloch escort, while the goats, sick women and stragglers brought up the rear. From first to last some of the sick Hottentots rode the hospital donkeys, allowing the negroes to tug their animals, for the smallest ailment threw them broadcast on their backs.”

It is needless to recapitulate in detail what I have before written of the trials that beset a traveler marching to Unyanyembe. Those which Speke and Grant labored under were of the same nature as those which Burton and Speke endured.

By the end of October they had crossed the maritime region, and about the middle of November had entered upon a region called the “Fiery Field,” which separates torrid Ugogo from that garden of Africa, the Land of the Moon.

In the “Fiery Field” began Speke’s most notable adventures. He treats in this manner of shooting his first rhinoceros:

“Having learned that the rhinoceros frequented a bitter pool in the neighborhood, I set forth with a guide and two of the boys, each carrying a single rifle, and ensconced myself in the nullah, to hide until our expected visitors should arrive, and there remained until midnight. When the hitherto noisy villagers turned into bed, the silvery moon shed her light on the desolate scene, and the Mgogo guide, taking fright, bolted. He had not, however, gone long, when, looming above us, coming over the horizon line, was the very animal we wanted. In a fidgety manner, the beast then descended, as if he expected some danger in store—and he was not wrong; for, attaching a bit of white paper to the flysight of my Blissett, I approached him, crawling under cover of the banks, until within eighty yards of him, when, finding that the moon shone full on his flank, I raised myself upright and planted a bullet behind his left shoulder. Thus died my first rhinoceros.”

Soon after he shot a large buffalo, which, however, got away, and hid in the bushes. When Speke approached the place, he sprang out of his ambush and made a sudden and furious charge upon the hunter. Speke says: “It was a most ridiculous scene. Suliman by my side, with the instinct of a monkey, made a violent spring and swung himself by a bough immediately over the beast, while Faraj bolted away and left me single-gunned to polish him off. There was only one course to pursue, for in one instant more he would have been into me: so, quick as thought, I fired the gun, and, as luck would have it, my bullet, after passing through the edge of one of his horns, stuck in the spine of his neck, and rolled him over at my feet as dead as a rabbit.”

After encountering several disheartening impediments during the transit of the “Fiery Field,” the travelers reached Unyanyembe on the 16th of December. The losses of the expedition during the journey from Zanzibarto to Unyanyembe were—one Hottentot dead, and five discharged and returned as useless, one Zanzibari sent back with the Hottentots, and one flogged and turned off, 25 servants and 98 Wanyanmezi porters deserted, besides which 12 mules and 3 donkeys had died, more than half of the property had been stolen, while the traveling expenses had more than doubled, owing to a severe famine which was in the land.

The travelers were delayed several months at Unyanyembe, but finally they set out towards the northwest with a considerably diminished force. They were met with wars and rumors of wars, desertions became frequent, they lost over $5,000 worth of goods, and during the march through Uzinza and Usui, the expedition seemed doomed to failure. Day after day calamities overtook it; “blue-devil” frights seized the blacks which composed its members, and Speke was often at his wits’ end to know what to do.

But by and by came relief, and a happy ending of these trials. The travelers reached the romantic kingdom of Karagwah about the middle of November, 1861, and a few days afterwards they arrived at the palace of the king, Rumanika. Speke thus describes his reception: “As we entered, we saw sitting cross-legged on the ground, Rumanika the king, and his brother Nnanaji, both of them men of noble appearance and size. The king was plainly dressed in an Arab’s black choga, and wore, for ornament, dress-stockings of rich-colored beads, and neatly-worked wristlets of copper. Nnanaji, being a doctor of very high pretensions, in addition to a check cloth wrapped round him, was covered with charms. At their sides lay huge pipes of black clay. In their rear, squatting quiet as mice, were all the king’s sons, some six or seven lads, who wore leather middle-coverings, and little dream-charms tied under their chins. The first greetings of the king, delivered in good Kisuahili, were warm and affecting, and in an instant we both felt and saw we were in the company of men who were as unlike as they could be to the common order of the natives of the surrounding districts. They had fine oval faces, large eyes and high noses, denoting the best blood of Abyssinia. Having shaken hands in true English style, which is the peculiar custom of the men in this country, the ever-smiling Rumanika begged us to be seated on the ground opposite to him, and at once wished to know what we thought of Karagwah, for it had struck him his mountains were the finest in the world; and the lake, too, did we not admire it?”

Speke’s chapters upon Karagwah and his life read like a veritable romance. The country was charming; it abounded with small mountain lakes and streams, and on a hill overlooking a lake which Speke called the Little Windermere, Rumanika’s palace was built.

The people have many curious customs and superstitions. Among the former may be mentioned the fashion of having fat wives. Being introduced to a great chief’s wife, Speke thus describes her: “I was struck with the extraordinary dimensions yet pleasing beauty of the immoderately fat fair one. She could not rise, and so large were her arms that the flesh between the joints hung down like large loose stuffed puddings.” The chief, pointing to his wife, “This is the product of our milk pots; from early youth upward we keep those pots to their mouths, as it is the fashion at court to have very fat wives.”

A sister-in-law of the king was a perfect wonder of hypertrophy. She was unable to stand except on all fours. Speke unblushingly requested permission to measure her. This is the result: “Round the arm 23 inches; chest 52 inches; thigh 31 inches; calf 20 inches; height 5 feet 8 inches. All of these are exact except the height, and I believe I could have obtained this more accurately if I could have had her laid on the floor. Not knowing what difficulties I should have to contend with in such a piece of engineering, I tried to get her height by raising her up. This, after infinite exertions on the part of us both, was accomplished when she sank down again fainting, for her blood had rushed into her head. Meanwhile, the daughter had sat stark-naked before us, sucking at a milk pot, on which the father kept her at work by holding a rod in his hand; for, as fattening is the first duty of fashionable female life, it must be duly enforced by the rod, if necessary.”

From the fascinating kingdom of Karagwah the expedition commenced their journey to Uganda on the 11th of January, 1862. One hardly knows to which country to award the palm for the greatest interest. Rumanika was a humane king, ruling his people mildly; Mtesa, king of Uganda, was a very fiend, and slaughtered his people upon a mere whim, yet with Speke, though he often exhibited the usual native greed for everything he saw, he was invariably kind.

King Mtesa was a spoiled child in his whims and fancies—one day all friendship, the next cold and haughty. He constantly importuned Speke to shoot birds for his amusement, and every attempt to introduce the former’s real object, which was that of discovering the outlet of Lake Victoria N’Yanza, was put aside by this most wayward of barbarians.

On the 25th March he indites in his diary a description of a scene, one of many such of which he was a spectator : “I have now been for some time within the court precincts, and have consequently had an opportunity of witnessing court customs. Among these, nearly every day since I have changed my residence, incredible as it may appear to be, I have seen one, two, or three of the wretched palace women led away to execution, tied by the hand, and dragged along by one of the bodyguard, crying out, as she went to premature death, ‘Hai minangé!’ (Oh, my lord!) ‘Kbakka!’ (My king!) ‘Hai n’yawo!’ (My mother!) at the top of her voice, in the utmost despair and lamentation; and yet there was not a soul who dared lift hand to save any of them, though many might be heard privately commenting on their beauty.”

After a long detention in the strange land, exposed daily to the caprice of the king, the goal of so many struggles and dangers was attained on the 28th of July, 1862. The falls over which Father Nile escapes from the Lake Victoria N’Yanza was called the Ripon Falls, in honor of the President of the Royal Geographical Society. Then bidding adieu to the scene which had cost him so much labor to see, the explorer turned his face towards home, congratulating himself that his journey was almost ended.

On the 15th February, 1863, the two friends arrived at Gondokoro, where, to their great delight, they met Baker—Sir Samuel Baker—who was en route to the land they were then in such a hurry to leave, determined to pluck one laurel leaf at least to deck his brow as a Nile Explorer.

Eleven days later Speke and Grant floated down the Nile towards Cairo, which place they reached in safety, and where they parted finally with their devoted adherents— Bombay and his party, who had clung to them with fidelity through all their troubles. They were received with great enthusiasm by the Royal Geographical Society, and by their countrymen. Speke published the record of his travels under the title, Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile; and Grant, who had been welcomed by Lord Palmerston on his return, with a “You have had a long walk, Captain Grant,” adopted for his book the title of A Walk Across Africa. Both books are thoroughly readable, and they reflect the travelers’ natures faithfully as amateur explorers, gentlemen hunters—nothing more.

Poor Speke’s travels are ended. He will charm us no more with his graphic descriptions of hunting feats, or with accounts of strange African lands. Shortly after he had finished writing his book, and during the sitting of the British Association at Bath, he shot himself, by accident, while out hunting birds.

Grant’s career has been prosperous since his advent in England as the companion of Speke in his discovery of the Nile’s sources. He has married a wealthy lady, and lives at his ease in Scotland, near Inverness. The writer of this article saw him in Abyssinia, and was much charmed with his suavity and polished exterior. He will shortly publish an interesting book on the “Flora and Fauna of Central Africa,” a book that is sadly needed upon a subject to which he can do ample justice.