Explorers of The Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure, By Tim Jeal

New light shed on what we all presumed
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The Independent Culture

The story of the search for the elusive Nile source is well known and, you might think, amply covered – not least by Alan Moorehead's hugely influential The White Nile.

And yet, as Tim Jeal is quick to assert, there has been no attempt to examine in depth the array of published and unpublished material that has appeared since The White Nile's publication in 1960, notably Quentin Keynes's extensive collection, released after his death in 2003. There have been biographies of the seven principal players – Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, Samuel and Florence Baker, Captain Grant, Stanley and Livingstone – the latter two subjects of Jeal himself. But while recent years have seen Christopher Ondaatje's examination of the physical terrain, Journey to the Source of the Nile, and Guy Yeoman's posthumous The Quest for the Secret Nile, a clarification of the geography of the source complex, a "return to the Victorian Nile story", as Jeal says, "seems long overdue".

Jeal settles to his task with acc-ustomed diligence. Burton is further exposed as duplicitous, forever seeking how Africa might be best worked into his stage. Admirers of the brilliant Orientalist will be disappointed to learn that for 11 months, his leadership of the first exploration of the Nile source complex was conducted not by him steadfastly on foot, as we have been rather led to believe, but flat on his back, barely conscious and carried in a litter by porters. We also learn much that is new about his hapless companion Speke, referred to pointedly by Burton as his "subordinate". He emerges as a better geographer than we have supposed, with a perennial interest in first-hand observation rather than Arab hearsay. That he, not Burton, was the discoverer of a major Nile source we have long known, but not until now did we know the extent of his superior's shenanigans to belittle and thwart him.

Jeal, unlike Burton, marches on briskly, adjusting the reputations of each protagonist. We learn that Florence Baker proved an admirable asset, loading weaponry under fire, and so on through to Livingstone (less of the saint that Moorehead portrayed) and Stanley (less of a villain), whose travels closed the debate – and prepared the "Dark Continent" for colonisation.

This engrossing book is a great feat, important not only for shedding fresh light on a tale of Victorian endeavour and pride but also for reminding us of the far-reaching consequences of this European intrusion into the heart of African affairs.