the true victorian daredevils

After his acclaimed biographies of David Livingstone and H.M. Stanley, Tim Jeal explains what still draws him to Africa and the great Victorian explorers

When I was 17, before I went to university in 1963, I travelled overland from Egypt to South Africa by Nile steamers, trucks and buses. I never felt seriously in danger but I was overawed by the size of Africa and the sense of being marooned in its vastness. Yet though I sometimes had to wait a week or so to find new transport, I always knew where I was going - along known roads, to places marked on maps.

As my truck juddered over ruts and into potholes, I noticed narrow tracks disappearing into the bush on either side of the highway. It occurred to me that if I were to walk along any of these paths, I would get lost and probably be dead within days, unless lucky enough to find a village first. I would run out of water and food, perhaps ending up in the stomach of a wild beast, unless I collapsed sooner from heat exhaustion. Yet the Victorian explorers had crossed the entire continent on just such twisting tracks - on their feet. The achievement of these men, who discovered the source of the White Nile and navigated the great lakes, suddenly dazed me. What horrendous problems they had faced when looking for the headwaters of a 4,000-mile-long river.

Not only had there been no roads to travel on and no maps to study, but the tsetse fly had killed their oxen and horses, ruling out the transport of goods in wagons. Many explorers died without knowing why: Livingstone suffered 26 attacks of malaria on his great trans-Africa journey of 1853-6. He vomited blood and lay insensible for weeks. Samuel Baker and his mistress, Florence von Sass, also came as close to death from malaria as human beings can, without actually dying. The mosquito’s role in the transmission of this disease would not be discovered till the 1890s. During Mungo Park’s West African expedition, 40 out of 44 Europeans died of fever and he himself was speared to death. Because the Arab slave trade had made many Africans hostile to strangers, Livingstone experienced several attacks by spear-wielding warriors. He survived these, and thanks to his novel use of quinine, he recovered from repeated bouts of malaria. Yet, despite quinine, all five of Stanley’s white companions died on his first and second journeys.

Without beasts of burden, African explorers needed dozens of porters to carry the beads, cloth and brass-wire essential for the purchase of food and for paying chiefs for the right to pass through their territory. If deserted by these carriers, a traveller’s fate would resemble that of a shipwrecked mariner on a remote atoll.

Naturally I wanted to know what made Speke and Burton, Baker and Stanley take such appalling risks. Why on earth was 19th-century Africa so attractive to them? Among some very mixed motives I found that love of adventure and hatred of boredom mattered to most of them more than the desire for fame or wealth. Prosperous Samuel Baker worked briefly in the City, but longed to be a "wandering spirit" and plunge "into the Unknown". Workhouse boy Henry Stanley was desperate to escape from snobbish, claustrophobic urban Britain "where a man is not permitted to be real and natural". While, "Man wants to wander" declared Richard Burton "and he must do so, or he shall die.’" Famously, he described: "Starting in a hollowed log of wood – some thousand miles up a river, with an infinitesimal prospect of returning! I ask myself 'Why?' and the only echo is 'damned fool!... The Devil drives.'"

The risk-takers

Dare-devilry was certainly a key factor, and all the Nile explorers were supreme risk-takers. Because the stakes were so high and they had to sacrifice so much in health and peace of mind to achieve anything at all, they were highly competitive – determined to reach the Nile’s source before their rivals. Even the former missionary, Dr Livingstone, longed to "cut out" his rivals and so maintain his position as the world’s greatest explorer. He wrote patronisingly of Speke as "a poor misguided thing" whom he "always pitied", and he accused Burton of "bestial immorality" for having sex with Africans. Burton despised Livingstone as lower class, saying of Stanley’s search for him that it would be "rather infra dig to discover a mish (missionary)".

For years I had been fascinated by the rivalry between Speke and Burton, and the latter’s ruthless condemnation of his former travelling companion as a betrayer and incompetent. Burton’s vitriolic attacks on Speke went on for a dozen years after his tragically early death. But what was the truth about Speke’s alleged betrayal of Burton? In my book Explorers of the Nile I believe I have produced enough evidence to show that it never happened. And there were many other questions I was determined to answer. Why, for instance, did the duo fail to reach the northern end of Lake Tanganyika, having said that "everything – wealth, health, and even life – was to be risked for this prize"? The fault, as I have shown, was Burton’s. I have also proved that Speke was neither prudish nor a repressed homosexual, as some of Burton’s biographers have suggested. In fact, he fell hopelessly in love with a former wife of the king of Uganda, as I reveal for the first time, quoting his own very touching words. I have also discovered some shocking things about David Livingstone’s ‘faithful’ servants, several of whom enslaved people and even committed murders. But this does not diminish Livingstone’s immense achievement in exposing the Arab-Swahili slave trade and in obliging the British Government to act against it.  

My most unexpected discovery was that my own naval great-grandfather rescued the Sultan of Zanzibar’s sister from being stoned to death when she became pregnant with her German lover’s child. This chivalrous act would have momentous consequences for the whole of  East Africa 20 years later.  

An author can never predict the outcome of his researches when preparing a book like Explorers of the Nile and this book took me on an exciting journey with many unanticipated twists and turns. I certainly did not expect to find such clear evidence of the tragic unintended legacy of the Nile search for the modern peoples of Sudan and Uganda.


Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal is published by Faber.