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The Nile Duel
Two Years Earlier - September 16, 1864
The catalyst for the saga of daring took place shortly after eleven in the morning on Friday, September 16, 1864. Richard Francis Burton stood alone on the wooden speaker's platform at the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual convention, awaiting his debate opponent. His wife, Isabel, sat a few feet behind. He clutched a sheaf of arguments. He was strong but narrow in the shoulders and hips, like a matador. His eyes were so dark brown they were often described as black. His mustache, truly black, flowed over and around his lips to his chin. The legendary Somali scars ran up his cheeks like slender compass arrows pointing north. He remained calm as he watched the doors for John Hanning Speke's entrance. The fair-haired geographical hero with the cold blue eyes was Burton's opposite, and Burton had waited six years to settle their rivalry. A few minutes more meant little.
The audience felt differently. It had been a wet, cramped morning and they were lathering into a righteous fury. There had been rumors of a cancellation due to some sort of injury to Speke, but the almost two thousand adventurers, dignitaries, journalists, and celebrity gazers came anyway. They braved a howling rain to get seats for what the newspapers were calling the Nile Duel, as if the debate were a bare-knuckle prizefight instead of a defining moment in history. Burton and Speke would argue who had discovered the source of the Nile River--the most consuming geographic riddle of all time. Curiously, Burton and Speke made their conflicting source discoveries during the same expedition. They had been partners. And even as they made plans to destroy one another, Burton and Speke suppressed deep mutual compassion.
They were former friends--lovers, some whispered--turned enemies. Theirs was a "story of adventure, jealousy and recrimination, which painted their achievements in bright or lurid lights and tragic shades," in the words of Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of Bombay. Each man's aim was not just claiming the Nile, but destroying the other socially, professionally, and financially. The winner would know a permanent spot in the history books. The loser would be labeled a delusional, presumptuous fool, with all the public ridicule that implied.
Speke was a thin loner whose family home, Jordans, was just forty miles from Bath. He was childlike, entitled, wealthy, bland, deaf in one ear. At thirty-seven, he doted on his mother but had never courted any other woman. Critics acknowledged his prowess as a sportsman, but puzzled over his penchant for slaughter and fondness for eating the unborn fetus of a kill. They wondered about the character of a man who once gave a rifle as a gift to an African chief fond of shooting subjects for fun, and who allowed a live human child to be steamed like a lobster during a tribal ritual in his honor. Speke felt that the ends justified the means--in this case, finding the source was worth the loss of inconsequential African lives. The source, Speke claimed, was a massive rectangular body of water the size of Scotland. He named it Victoria Nyanza--Lake Victoria--for the Queen.
The dark-haired Burton claimed Lake Tanganyika as the source. That body of water lay 150 miles southwest of Victoria Nyanza, separated by mountainous, unexplored jungle. Burton did not dispute that the Nile flowed from Victoria, but he believed that another, yet undiscovered, river flowed from Tanganyika through the mountains, into Victoria.
Lake Tanganyika's shape was slender and vertical on the map, like a womb parting to give birth to the great Nile. Its choice as Burton's geographical talisman was apt, for his character tics veered toward the sensual. The accomplished linguist had a fondness for Arab prostitutes and would someday write the first English translation of the Kama Sutra. In 1845, as a young army officer stationed in India, he'd been ordered to investigate Karachi's homosexual brothels. Burton's detailed reportage implicated fellow officers and evinced suspicion about his own sexuality--both of which combined to ruin his career. So he'd become an explorer. His knowledge of languages and Islam allowed him to infiltrate cities like Mecca and Harar, which were forbidden to non-Muslims. The resulting books about those escapades were best-sellers in the mid-1850s, earning Burton a reputation for daring while introducing Oriental thoughts and words to his readers. It was Burton who made the term safari--Swahili for "journey"--familiar to the English-speaking world.
The mob packing the auditorium, so eager for spectacle and rage, knew the Burton and Speke story well. The time had come for resolution. When the eleven o'clock starting time came and passed, the crowd "gave vent to its impatience by sounds more often heard from the audience of a theater than a scientific meeting," sniffed the Bath Chronicle. The audience gossiped loudly about Speke's whereabouts and stared at the stage, scrutinizing Burton with that unflinching gaze reserved for the very famous. In an era when no occupation was more glamorous than African explorer, Burton's features were already well known through photographs and sketches from his books. But for many in the audience, seeing his face up close, in person, was why they'd come. They felt the same about Speke.
There was a third explorer many hoped to glimpse, a man whose legend was arguably greater than any living explorer. "The room," the Chronicle noted of the auditorium, "was crowded with ladies and gentlemen who were radiant with the hope of seeing Dr. Livingstone." The British public hadn't caught a glimpse of their beloved Livingstone since the halcyon days of 1857 when he seemed to be everywhere at once. His exploits had been a balm for the wounds of the Crimean War, the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, and the bloody slaughter of British women and children during the Indian Mutiny. Livingstone reminded Victorian Britain of her potential for greatness. The fifty-one-year-old Scot was their hero archetype, an explorer brave, pious, and humble; so quick with a gun that Waterloo hero the Duke of Wellington nicknamed Livingstone "the fighting parson." Livingstone was equally at home wandering the wilds of Africa and making small talk over tea with the Queen. The public made his books best-sellers, his speeches standing room, his name household. Livingstone was beloved in Britain, and so famous worldwide that one poll showed that only Victoria herself was better known.
Livingstone, though, wasn't scheduled to appear at the Nile Duel. His first public appearance since returning from an exploration of Africa's Zambezi River six months earlier was officially supposed to take place the following Monday. He would lecture the British Association on the details of that journey. Ticket demand was so enormous that Livingstone, standing before a massive map of Africa, would give the speech live in one theater as Clements Markham of the Royal Geographical Society read it concurrently to the overflow crowd in a second auditorium. The Chronicle's special edition would publish the text in its entirety.
Rumors, however, said Livingstone would make an appearance at the Nile Duel as moderator. His appearance would confirm the Duel's heft and counterbalance smirks of innuendo. For celebrity gazers and scientists alike, Livingstone, Burton, and Speke on the same stage would elevate the proceedings from grudge match to intellectual field day. Those three greats hurling geographical barbs would make the long hours in the rain more than worthwhile.
Ironically, the crowd was unaware that the larger-than-life Livingstone was enduring a season of tumultuous upheaval. His problems had begun with the five-year journey up the Zambezi. The expedition had accomplished a great deal. But many of his companions died during the journey--including Livingstone's wife, Mary, who had been so desperate to be with him she left the safety of England to venture into Africa to find him, then joined the expedition halfway through the journey. Because of the deaths, the failure of a highly touted project that would have established Christian missions in the African interior, and reports that Livingstone was an inept leader, the British Government viewed the Zambezi expedition as a debacle. Hence, the Times questioned Livingstone's judgment, he was persona non grata at the Foreign Office--his place of employment--and influential Christian politician William Gladstone quietly severed their relationship.
Financially, Livingstone was almost destitute. Even as friends urged him to retire and spend time with his children, he needed one last great geographical discovery so he could write the best-selling book about his travels that would provide for him and his children. "I don't know whether I am to go on the shelf or not," he wrote to a friend, acknowledging that the Foreign Office might never let him lead another expedition, but vowing to return to Africa nonetheless. "If I do, I make Africa the shelf."
Most devastating of all, however, was that Robert, his prodigal eldest son, had secretly sailed to America to fight for the Union Army in their Civil War. Robert Livingstone had been taken prisoner during the siege of Richmond and been sent to a Confederate prisoner of war camp. There was no news of his whereabouts or physical condition. Livingstone, tragically, had castigated Robert for being aimless and base not long before the boy fled to America and enlisted.
In Bath that morning, the British public knew nothing of Livingstone's personal travails. In its eyes, Livingstone was not a legend in decline, but a luminary whose lined, tanned face they longed to glimpse. As eleven o'clock came and went, however, Livingstone, like Speke, was nowhere to be seen. Burton and the audience watched the doors, straining for a glimpse of their entrance. What would happen in the next few minutes would alter the future of exploration, Africa, and the world.
Broken down to its essence, the Nile Duel was simply a search for water--two hydrogen molecules bonding with a single oxygen molecule in the bowels of the earth, then seeping forth somewhere in the heart of Africa, becoming a trickle, then a stream, then a mighty river. The Nile was longer than any other river in the world, rolling effortlessly from mountains through jungle through Sahara through Cairo and into the Mediterranean. Mankind's most prolific kingdoms had risen and fallen on the Nile's shores. Moses, Cleopatra, and Alexander drank her waters. The Nile never shriveled, despite not having tributaries, substantial rainfall, or other obvious means of replenishment. She even flooded during September, the hottest month of the year in Northern Africa. Farmers planted in her fertile silt once the floods receded. Lush green fields blossomed in the desert as if the Nile was life itself.
The Nile flowed south to north into the Mediterranean, but its source had always been a mystery. Theories ranged from the equator to the bottom of the world--or maybe from an even greater river, fed by an ocean, that sliced like an aqueduct across the entire African continent. In 460 b.c., Herodotus, the Greek "father of history," took it upon himself to find out. He pictured massive fountains spewing the Nile from the earth, and set off alone to witness the spume and mist. Six hundred miles inland from Cairo, however, the Nile turned white at the waterfalls that would someday be labeled the First Cataract. Like sentinels, they guarded the Nile's inner reaches. The desert turned to jungle. The civilized world ended and a land of cannibals began. Herodotus turned back.
The mystery was still unanswered when Ptolemy drew the first conclusive world map in 140 a.d. Basing his speculation on African legends, he said the source lay in snow-covered peaks along the equator, which he dubbed "the Mountains of the Moon." Critics wrongly ridiculed that idea, saying that snow couldn't possibly exist in that latitude. Neither Ptolemy nor those critics traveled up the Nile to see if he was right. Centuries passed. The source became a force unto itself, too great for man to divine or witness. "It is not given to us mortals," the French author Montesquieu wrote in the eighteenth century, "to see the Nile feeble and at its Source."
In 1798, source still undiscovered, Admiral Lord Nelson destroyed Napoleon's navy at the Battle of the Nile. Having established a toehold in Northern Africa, the British set to exploring their new land. The seas mapped and the continents defined, finding the source became the new grail of international discovery. There was no pot of gold, no fountain of eternal youth at the source, just glory--which, for most, was enough. Between 1798 and 1856 an electric collection of loners, thrill seekers, and adventurous aristocrats trekked upriver from Cairo, chasing the source. Most were British. A handful were female. Most died from disease, parasites, animal attack, or murder. None found the source. None came close. And with every failed attempt, Montesquieu's words rang more true.
The grail became more exalted as the failures mounted, as tackling the summit of Everest would become a century hence. Britain's growing sense of empire gave that nation a proprietary interest in finding the source first. The reign of Queen Victoria, which began inauspiciously in 1837 with a botched coronation, had become a time of international expansion for Great Britain. Her citizens and companies controlled colonial outposts around the world, insinuating British ways and words into China, the South Pacific, South America, India, North America, and Africa. The term "the sun never sets on the British Empire" began during those heady times. No empire in history had ever been as vast, and the British were fond of comparing their empire with the Greek and Roman ones. The Nile was a viable connection to that past. Finding the source would heighten that connection.
"In the absence of adequate data we are not entitled to speculate too confidently on the source," Sir Roderick Murchison told Britain's unofficial governing body of exploration, the Royal Geographical Society, in 1852. The eminent geographer and RGS founder's attention focused on the Mountains of the Moon. "It must be said that there is no exploration in Africa to which greater value would be attached than an ascent of these mountains from the east coast, possibly from near Mombasa. The adventurous travelers who shall first lay down the true position of these equatorial snowy mountains and who shall satisfy us that they throw off the waters of the White Nile . . . will be justly considered among the greatest benefactors of this age of geographical science."
It was April of 1855 when Speke and Burton made their first source bid. Their pairing was accidental: Speke was on leave from his regiment, the 46th Bengal Native Infantry, in India. They met in Aden, where Burton was finalizing his journey. Speke had planned to hunt big game, find the source by himself, then float downriver to Cairo. Burton invited him to join his expedition instead. They were accompanied by a pair of British military men, Lieutenants William Stroyan and G. E. Herne, and the usual phalanx of porters vital to African travel. Instead of beginning at the mouth of the Nile in Egypt and working upriver, as explorers had done since Herodotus, Burton and Speke proposed to penetrate Africa from the east, beginning in Somalia then cutting the tangent from the Indian Ocean along the equator to the Mountains of the Moon's theoretical location. The northern regions of Africa were already mapped, as were the continent's southern and coastal fringes, but theirs would be a bold gambit through uncharted land. If the source truly resided in the Mountains of the Moon, the shortcut would save them over two thousand miles of travel in both directions.
From the Hardcover edition.