The Quest for the Nile

A Map of the Nile

Hel-hama / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-nineteenth century, European explorers and geographers were obsessed with the question: where does the Nile River begin? Many considered it to be the greatest geographic mystery of their day, and those who sought it became household names. Their actions and the debates that surrounded them intensified public interest in Africa and contributed to the colonization of the continent.

The Nile River

The Nile River itself is easy to trace. It runs northward from the city of Khartoum in Sudan through Egypt and drains into the Mediterranean. It is created, though, from the confluence of two other rivers, The White Nile and the Blue Nile. By the early nineteenth century, European explorers had shown that the Blue Nile, which supplies much of the water for the Nile, was a shorter river, arising only in neighboring Ethiopia. From then forward, they fixed their attention on the mysterious White Nile, which arose much further south on the Continent.

A Nineteenth-Century Obsession

By the mid-nineteenth century, Europeans had become obsessed with finding the source of the Nile. In 1857, Richard Burton and John Hannington Speke, who already disliked each other, set out from the east coast to find the much-rumored source of the White Nile. After several months of acrimonious travel, they discovered Lake Tanganyika, though reportedly it was their headman, a formerly enslaved person known as Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who first spotted the lake (Bombay was essential to the success of the trip in many ways and went on to manage several European expeditions, becoming one of the many career headmen on whom explorers heavily relied.) As Burton was ill, and the two explorers were constantly locking horns, Speke proceeded north on his own, and there found Lake Victoria. Speke returned triumphantly, convinced he had found the source of the Nile, but Burton dismissed his claims, beginning one of the most divisive and public disputes of the age.

The public at first strongly favored Speke, and he was sent on a second expedition, with another explorer, James Grant, and nearly 200 African porters, guards, and headmen. They found the White Nile but were unable to follow it up to Khartoum. In fact, it was not until 2004 that a team finally managed to follow the river from Uganda all the way to the Mediterranean. So, once again Speke returned unable to offer conclusive proof. A public debate was arranged between him and Burton, but when he shot and killed himself on the day of the debate, in what many believed was an act of suicide rather than the shooting accident it was officially proclaimed to be, support swung full circle to Burton and his theories. 

The quest for conclusive proof continued for the next 13 years. Dr. David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley searched Lake Tanganyika together, disproving Burton’s theory, but it was not until the mid-1870s that Stanly finally circumnavigated Lake Victoria and explored the surrounding lakes, confirming Speke’s theory and solving the mystery, for a few generations at least.

The Continuing Mystery

As Stanley showed, the White Nile flows out of Lake Victoria, but the lake itself has several feeder rivers, and present-day geographers and amateur explorers still debate which of these is the true source of the Nile. In 2013, the question came to the fore again when the popular BBC car show, Top Gear, filmed an episode featuring the three presenters trying to find the source of the Nile while driving inexpensive station wagons, known in Britain as estate cars. Currently, most people agree the source is one of two small rivers, one of which arises in Rwanda, the other in neighboring Burundi, but it is a mystery that continues.

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Thompsell, Angela. "The Quest for the Nile." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Thompsell, Angela. (2020, August 26). The Quest for the Nile. Retrieved from Thompsell, Angela. "The Quest for the Nile." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).