This article was originally published on May 9, 2021.
The quest to discover the source of the Nile River was one of the most important scientific questions of the 19th century in Europe. While it’s difficult to envision such conundrum in the era of Google Maps, the search was nearly as gripping as the race to put a man on the moon, as it was wrapped up in heroics and intrigue.
Expeditions led to the glorification of figures like David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley and Richard Francis Burton — but at the cost of injury, illness and even death in Livingstone’s case. At the same time, the geographic quest, in some ways, sparked European colonial interest in Africa, the legacy of which lives on today.
While several explorers have claimed discovery over the centuries, the source of the Nile River actually remains something of an open question even today, according to modern experts.
Backbone of Empires
The Nile has played a key role in some of the most ancient civilizations to inhabit the planet. Without its vast quantities of water, the ancient Egyptians would likely never have amassed the wealth and power needed to build pyramids and control vast territories starting 5,000 years ago.
Herodotus, the famous Greek historian from the 5th century B.C., well-traveled in his own right, wondered about the source of the massive quantities of water as did figures such as Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great and his son, and Roman leaders like Julius Caesar and Nero.
“Nil caput quoerere was the Roman proverb which loosely translated, meant to ‘search for the head of the Nile,’ or to attempt the impossible,” Ondaatje says in an email to Discover.
Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus was also interested in the 3rd century B.C., sending an expedition far enough to determine the source of the Blue Nile may originate in the Ethiopian mountains.
“Egyptians were also interested in finding the source because it affected their agriculture,” says Angela Thompsell, an associate professor of history at the State University of New York specializing in African and British colonial history.
None of these figures are known to have reached the source, though.
How Many Niles?
Like many rivers of comparable length, the Nile has a number of major tributaries, or upper branches that feed into it. The main two, the Blue Nile and the White Nile, meet in Khartoum before continuing northwards through Sudan and into Egypt.
Scottish explorer James Bruce claimed to be the first European to see the source of the Blue Nile in 1770, reaching a marsh and the falls at Tis Abay in Ethiopia, though Spanish Jesuit Pedro Paez actually beat him by more than 150 years, arriving at Lake Tana in 1618, Ondaatje says.
The Blue Nile, which flows from Lake Tana, actually provides more than 80 percent of the water and sediment that runs through the Nile when the two main parts meet in Khartoum. But the White Nile is longer, and its source was always less understood as it flowed from deeper inland.
Most of the famous 19th century expeditions focused efforts on finding the source of the White Nile.
Heroes in Their Day
It’s a quest that involved a number of larger-than-life characters. Aside from his Nile expeditions, Richard Francis Burton was one of the first Europeans to visit Mecca while in disguise as a Pashtun. Burton supposedly spoke dozens of languages, which he later used to translate a 16-volume edition of the One Thousand and One Nights (often known as The Arabian Nights) and uncensored editions of the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden into English.
Burton’s first attempt to find the source of the White Nile was joined by John Hanning Speke, a naturalist, explorer and officer in the British Indian Army. In 1855, they set out with the support of the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) and hired African bearers, guides, cooks and translators. They barely made it off the coast near Berbera in Somaliland when they were attacked by locals — Speke was briefly captured and wounded before escaping, while Burton got speared through both cheeks.
They returned, and the legend of their first expedition grew in England, despite their failure. They set out on another RGS-sponsored trip in 1856, and similar to the first trip, “it does not start out well,” Thompsell says.
Both Burton and Speke were afflicted with malaria and other illnesses. Furthermore, many of their hired staff abandoned them. Nonetheless, the team pushed all the way to Lake Tanganyika. Burton was the first European to lay eyes on the lake, as Speke had become temporarily blinded.
They discovered that Tanganyika couldn’t be the source as they found a large river flowing into it. Speke recovered his vision, but Burton was then too sick to carry on. Speke continued the journey toward Lake Victoria, but without Burton. Once he made it, Speke claimed the lake as the true source of the White Nile.
Burton disputed him when they were reunited, asking for the proof. “Basically they hate each other from that point on,” Thompsell says. Speke undertook another expedition to Lake Victoria in 1860 with Scottish explorer James Grant but again failed to map the whole area around Lake Victoria, which was thought to be the source of the Nile, to confirm it wasn’t itself fed by other tributaries.
But in 1864, just before Speke was scheduled to publicly debate Burton in England, Speke shot himself in what may have been an accident or may have been suicide.
“It becomes this legend built on legend,” Thompsell says. “Everything comes together to drive this interest in the Nile.”
Soon thereafter, another prominent Nile explorer began an effort to resolve questions about the source of the White Nile. David Livingstone was an abolitionist missionary famed for his explorations through Africa. His books about his trips sold tens of thousands of copies in Britain. But Livingstone hit a snag: he went missing during his expedition to track down the source of the Nile in late 1860s – at least as far as Europe was concerned, as they hadn’t heard from him. Another budding hero, Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh-American explorer, set out to explore the region and find Livingstone. Stanley found Livingstone had been ill for years already at this point. Livingstone’s ill health eventually contributed to his death a couple years later during a final push to find the source of the Nile.
Stanley set out on another expedition in the mid-1870s. He eventually concluded that Lake Victoria had a single outlet that drained into the White Nile River via Rippon Falls and Lake Albert, thereby confirming Speke’s earlier discovery. In the process of exploring the African Great Lakes, he also discovered they were the source of the Congo River.
“For the day, they are celebrities, they are national heroes,” Thompsell says.
The publications and various talks given by these explorers back in Britain, attended by thousands, were only part of the story, of course. Thompsell says that the fascination these explorers brewed for Africa laid the foundations for colonial imperialism, as well as providing geographical intelligence that helped in later conquests. “They’re laying claim to it in their naming,” she says, pointing out that the locals already had names for Lake Victoria, Lake Albert and Lake Edward.
While later famous expeditions to reach the South Pole were often true feats of discovery, people had been living all along the Nile for eons before Europeans arrived.
“They’re following well known trails to places people know about,” Thompsell says. “They are not discovering places that are unknown.”
Ondaatje adds that slave traders from the Middle East had been all through the area from as early as 1811 and had well-established travel routes in these areas. Many Nile explorers came into contact with — and sometimes butted heads with — slave traders during their expeditions.
Furthermore, the Europeans were supported by dozens of Africans — sometimes even hundreds in the case of Stanley – who did all the heavy lifting. “They’re so sick they’re being carried there by people who know the way,” Thompsell says.
The legacies of characters like Speke and Stanley are tainted with the horrors of colonial rule that followed close on the heels of these initial discoveries. Stanley went on to claim the Congo as Belgian territory for Belgian King Leopold II, leading to countless atrocities under the Congo Free State. Speke, on the other hand, was instrumental in beginning a racist line of thinking that considered the Tutsis racially superior to the Hutus in Rwanda. This so-called Hamitic Myth would be later used as justification in racist colonial policies, as well as in the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s.
Despite the self-glorification involved in the published accounts of these various explorers, Thompsell says their writing is among some of the best records of African cultures and societies at the time, next to oral histories. It’s probable that some of these European explorers didn’t understand the nuances of the cultures and politics around them unless it directly related to their ability to cross through territories on their journeys. But explorers like Burton were particularly interested in recording culture and language.
“They did come away with ethnographic knowledge,” Thompsell says.
Ongoing Questions Around the Source of the Nile River
But despite all the fanfare and expeditions, Ondaatje says the source of the White Nile remains dimly understood.
Much like the 19th century Nile explorers, Ondaatje is something of a Renaissance man. He competed on the Canadian bobsled team in the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. After a career in business in Toronto, the Sri Lankan-born began to travel, writing several books and earning a knighthood from the Queen of England for philanthropy work.
In 1996, he spent three months traveling along the Nile and through the African Great Lakes. He says Speke’s claim of Lake Victoria being the source ignores the fact that the lake is a reservoir for the Kagera River that feeds it. The two main tributaries of the Kagera arise from springs in Burundi and Rwanda.
“Either of these springs had a better claim to be the source of the Nile,” Ondaatje says in an article for Geographical, adding that Speke even crossed the Kagera River in his journeys but avoided giving too much attention to it in his published account.
But in speaking to locals during his own travels, Ondaatje made another important discovery. Lake Victoria’s water flows through Rippon Falls, which Speke had claimed as the source (the former falls are now submerged due to a dam), then into Lake Albert. The White Nile flows directly out of Lake Albert. But Ondaatje says 85 percent of Lake Albert’s water is supplied not from Lake Victoria, but from the Semliki River, which he traced to the Ruwenzori Mountains, also known as the Mountains of the Moon, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Whether you count the start of the Nile as coming from the Semliki or the sources of the Kagera, either would put the Nile as the longest river in the world at 4,100 miles, Ondaatje says—just over the length of the Amazon River.
“The Nile is fed by two large lakes, and two mighty rivers, not by any single lake or any single river,” Ondaatje says. “Speke’s ‘discovery’ is only part of the solution to the riddle of the source of the Nile.”
Just the same, he says “it would not be possible to re-trace my footsteps today because of political problems and unrest.”
So, in some sense, the source of the Nile remains unsettled.
“I would say the romance is still there,” Thompsell says.