Into Africa: The Search for the Source of the Nile

By the time Karen Blixen wrote her critically acclaimed book Out of Africa in the 1930s, untold thousands had perished going into Africa. While its familiar shape had been determined with  surprising accuracy by Portuguese seafarers looking for a trade route to India in the late fifteenth century, little was actually known about the interior of the Dark Continent until the mid-1800s. Early maps marked large expanses simply “Terra Incognita” or, more ominously, “Anthropophagi” (cannibals).

It was seen as a hostile and dangerous place; and though many had set out to explore its uncharted lakes and forests, few had returned. By the nineteenth century the geopolitical interests of the major European powers, the zeal of early missionaries, and the Victorian hunger for scientific knowledge conspired to create the equivalent of a gold rush in African exploration. Belgium was in the Congo, Livingstone walked across South Africa, and the newly formed African Association sponsored numerous expeditions to determine the course of the Niger River.

As noble as some of these objectives may have been – to bring Christianity to Africa or to fill in the blanks on maps of a strange new land – the expeditions were often led by men who wanted nothing more than fortune and fame. The key was to be the first: first to get there and, of course, first to make it back. Mungo Park and Hugh Clapperton set off to the West, while James Bruce, Richard Burton, and Henry Morton Stanley stomped through East and Central Africa. From Timbuktu to the Mountains of the Moon, it was Africa’s mysteries that drove them to hack their way through impenetrable rain forests and crawl across blazing deserts facing starvation, diseases, and hostile natives, only to stagger out years later, half-dead and half-mad.

The source of the River Nile – without a doubt the greatest of Africa’s mysteries – was one of the strongest attractions for those seeking to make a name for themselves. Approximately 4,150 miles long, the Nile is the longest river in the world, edging out both the Amazon in South America and the Chang (Yangtze) in China by about a hundred miles. For thousands of years it has flowed from somewhere in the heart of Africa north to the Mediterranean, its annual floodwaters bringing life to the Nile Valley.

Ancient Egypt, one of the oldest and most remarkable civilizations in history, evolved on the banks of the river in 3,000 B.C. Powerful beyond measure, the land of pyramids and Pharaohs, hieroglyphics and deadly curses owed its survival to the rise and fall of this fantastic river. It is only a slight exaggeration to say the source of the Nile is the source of civilization itself.

Ptolemy’s Map of Africa

From earliest times the source of the Nile fascinated kings, conquerors, and philosophers. Many tried to unlock its secret. The Greek historian Herodotus made it as far as the first cataract at Aswan. But because he could get no farther he declared the source to be beyond Egypt in what he called the “wild beast region.” In 332 B.C. Egypt fell to Alexander the Great, but while he cut the Gordian Knot he could not solve the mystery of the Nile. Nero sent an expedition in 50 A.D., but it could not get past The Sudd, a great swamp of almost incomprehensible size at the end of the desert. All of which makes the accuracy of Ptolemy’s map of Africa all the more inexplicable.

An example of Ptolemy's map, from a 1548 Italian edition of Geographia.

Claudius Ptolemaeus, known to us as  Ptolemy, is one of the most famous scholars of the ancient world. Ptolemy is to geography what Euclid is to mathematics, his Geographia much like Euclid’s Elements, a great synthesis of knowledge and one of the most influential classical texts in history. In the second century Ptolemy depicted the Nile’s source as two great inland seas deep in Africa’s interior at the foot of the Lunae Montes or Mountains of the Moon. It is not known with any certainty how he came to this conclusion because his sources are lost in the mists of antiquity. However, as is often the case, where there are no facts, there is legend. It is said that in the first century a Greek merchant named Diogenes landed on the east coast of

Africa on his way back from India and “traveled inland for a twenty-five-days’ journey and arrived in the vicinity of two great lakes and the snowy range of mountains whence the Nile draws its twin sources.” This was recorded by the Syrian geographer Marinus of Tyre, and it is likely Ptolemy based his representation of the Nile on Marinus’s records. How close Ptolemy was to the truth is nothing short of astounding.

Equally astounding is that his map would go essentially unchanged for 1,500 years. There were two reasons for this. First, the map was lost – figuratively, if not literally. Shortly after Ptolemy’s death the world plunged into the Dark Ages and much of the ancient Greek and Roman knowledge was lost until the Renaissance (his Geographia was not translated into Latin until 1400). Just how the entire world managed to lose everything that was known at the time (only to find it again in the fifteenth century as if it had been accidentally misplaced for a thousand years) is not exactly clear. In his book The Discoverers, Daniel Boorstin calls this period the Great Interruption and, as he readily admits, it is easier to describe what happened than to explain how or why it happened.

In any event, for the next millennium (300-1300 A.D.) the very point of geography changed. The objective was no longer to describe the world as it was, but rather as it was believed to be. Maps no longer reflected voyages but scriptures, and with clarity as the most important goal, simplicity became the most important feature. Gone were the details so painstakingly gathered through the ages. Gone were the hard-won facts that had cost so many lives. Scientific maps of the real world were replaced by symbolic maps of the Biblical world. Ptolemy was, for the moment, forgotten.

But even when the world finally stumbled back out into the light and rediscovered the Geographia, the map of Africa still changed very little. Geographers could dispute Ptolemy’s map but not disprove it because those who went into Africa seldom returned. Early African explorers faced many dangers from wild animals to poison arrows, but by far the greatest threat was malaria. Most would-be explorers died soon after they arrived on the continent. For good reason, West Africa was known as White Man’s Grave. Now and then someone would miraculously return from the unexplored reaches of Africa with fantastic stories of gold and ivory or gruesome tales of cannibalism, but the information was too vague to be of value or too fabulous to be believed. The interior was no better known by Europeans in the seventeenth century than by Ptolemy himself in the second.

The Blue Nile

Finding the source of the Nile was more complicated than anyone realized at the time because there is not one, but two Niles. At Khartoum in Sudan, they converge – the Blue Nile from Lake Tana in Ethiopia and the White Nile from deeper in the interior. The Blue Nile is the shorter of the two (which is why the source of the White Nile is considered to be the true source), but the Blue is more powerful. Every year it crashes down from the mountains, falling almost 5,000 feet on its way to the Sudan and cutting a huge gash in the Ethiopian plains. It is the Blue that causes the great floods in the Nile Valley. Its source would be discovered first.



Although records survive of earlier expeditions in West Africa (Ibn Battuta reaching Timbuktu in the 1300s), not much was learned about the interior of East Africa – and thus the source of the Nile – until the early 1600s when Portuguese missionaries took the first real steps into Ethiopia.  Jesuit Priest Pedro  Paez built a church at Gorgora at the north end of Lake Tana and even converted the African Emperor Susenyos to Roman Catholicism in 1621 (albeit, not for long). Paez was followed by Father Jerome Lobo. However, the works of Paez and Lobo were not widely read (it would be more than a hundred years before Lobo’s A Voyage to Abyssinia was even translated into English). The next century saw a few attempts to penetrate the Ethiopian interior – the French doctor Jacques Poncet made it as far as Gondar – but then once again a silence fell over this part of Africa. It was not until 1768 when a temperamental but determined

Scotsman named James Bruce set out to find the source of the Nile that the world got a glimpse of this fascinating, and at times barbaric, comer of the world.

Bruce started in Cairo and took the same route as Poncet, following the Nile south. This plan was soon abandoned, however, when he was unable to get past warring tribes near Aswan. He detoured to Kosseir and made his way to Jedda and then Massawa via the Red Sea. In 1769 he headed into the interior. His first opportunity to find the source of the Nile, which he believed  to be at Geesh south of Lake Tana, came when the Emperor of Ethiopia decided to attack the rebel chief Fasil. Bruce was allowed to join the expedition and they left Gondar on April 4, 1770.

They marched to the south of Lake Tana but turned back before Bruce could reach Geesh. He did, however, visit Tisisat Falls, and this is where Bruce’s darker side emerges. It was not enough that Bruce made it to the falls, he also needed to prove no one else had. In his book Travels to Discover the Sources of the Nile he attacks and attempts to discredit Father Lobo’s account by declaring that the falls were 40 feet high, not 50 as Lobo claimed. (In fact, they are 150 feet high.) He also asserted that one could not sit under the falls as Lobo claimed he did. (You can in the dry season, which is when Lobo was there.) Going only by the two descriptions, one might think neither of the two explorers had visited Tisisat Falls, or at best that they had been in two different places. Bruce concluded by saying, “It was one of the most magnificent, stupendous sights in the creation, though degraded and vilified by the lies of a groveling, fanatic peasant.”

Back in Gondar, after peace was unexpectedly made with chief Fasil, Bruce was given permission to once again set out toward Lake Tana. He and a small party reached Geesh on November 4, 1770, where he found the spring he believed to be the source of the Nile. He  writes in Travels, “Kings had attempted this discovery at the head of armies, and each expedition was distinguished from the last, only by the difference of the numbers which had perished ….” Although this was all perfectly true, what follows was not. Bruce went to great length to attack Paez, who claimed to have visited Geesh in 1618. Referring to Athanasius Kircher’s translation of Paez, Bruce points out incorrect place-names and inaccurate geographical descriptions, but they are all minor discrepancies. What is most striking about Paez’s account is how similar it is to Bruce’s: “I discovered two round fountains, each about four palms in diameter, and saw, with the greatest of delight, what neither Cyrus, king of the Persians, nor Cambyses, nor Alexander the Great, nor the famous Julius Caesar, could ever discover.”

In the end, the discovery of Geesh must go to Paez, but neither he nor Bruce had found the true source of the Nile. Experts might argue they had not even found the source of the Blue Nile, since Lake Tana itself is more properly considered its source (Geesh is the source of the Little Abbai that flows into Lake Tana). But this distinction is not important, particularly since Paez had also visited the lake. Ironically, it was Bruce’s story that no one believed when he returned to England, in part because of his unwillingness to give credit to anyone but himself.

The White Nile

The histories of the Blue Nile and the White Nile are quite different. While there were earlier accounts of the Blue Nile by Paez and Lobo, there was no early information at all about the White Nile. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that reports started coming out of East Africa that would ultimately lead to the discovery of the river’s source. Once again it was missionaries who got things started. Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, two German missionaries based at Mombassa on the east coast, made a number of inland journeys that caught the world’s attention and triggered a new interest in this part of Africa. In 1848 Rebmann headed to Jagga and was the first to see Mt. Kilimanjaro. The same year Krapf traveled north and was the first European to see Mt. Kenya. Another missionary, Jacob Erhardt, produced a map showing a huge inland lake – a claim supported by the stories of Arab slave and ivory traders.

In 1857, Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke set out from Zanzibar to explore the interior and clarify these inconclusive but intriguing reports. Burton was one of the greatest linguists of his time, fluent in twenty-nine languages and dialects. He had traveled throughout India and the Middle East, visited both Mecca and Medina, and even entered the forbidden city of Harar. Burton would later introduce the West to the Kama Sutra and translate the Arabian Nights.

Although Speke had fought in India, he thought of himself as a sportsman and traveler, taking leave whenever possible to go shooting or exploring in the Himalayas or Tibet. Burton and Speke met in Aden, where Speke had come looking to make a name for himself. Together they traveled through Tabora, both dreadfully ill – Burton with malaria that paralyzed his legs to the point that he had to be carried and Speke almost blind from an eye infection and staggered on to Ujiji, Tanzania, where they discovered Lake Tanganyika. They tried for weeks to obtain a boat, but were unsuccessful and consequently could not circumnavigate the lake to  determine whether the river they had heard of at the north end flowed into or out of the lake.

John Hanning Speke and Sir Richard Francis Burton.

With supplies running low they had to turn back. Speke was now almost deaf as well as blind (he had tried to pry a beetle out of his ear with a penknife and had succeeded only in making matters worse). Nevertheless, while Burton rested at Tabora, Speke set out to investigate tales of another lake to the north. There Speke discovered Lake Victoria, which he declared immediately to be the source of the Nile. Burton, however, didn’t think Speke had enough information to make this claim, which would have solved the greatest geographical mystery in the world.

Speke's spectacular manunscript map of the Lake Victoria region showing the track of his second expedition.

But Speke was certain – and correct, as it would turn out. When they returned to Zanzibar, cholera was sweeping East Africa. They stayed only a few weeks before quickly moving on to Aden. From there Speke sailed for England ahead of Burton. Although they agreed Speke would not make any announcements until Burton reached London, Speke addressed the Royal Geographical Society almost the moment he arrived, claiming he had found the source of the Nile.

By the time Burton returned to England in May 1859, plans for a new expedition to be led by Speke had already been made. This angered Burton tremendously and he challenged Speke to prove his reckless claim. For his part, Speke thought Burton had “gone to the devil in Africa,” a reference, no doubt, to Burton’s habit of personally investigating local sex practices wherever he went.

Speke headed out again in 1860 with a gentleman named James Augustus Grant. From Zanzibar they retraced the earlier route to Tabora and headed north along the west side of Lake Victoria into the kingdoms of Karagwe and Buganda. At this point they split up; Grant went to Bunyoro while Speke headed north in search of the source. On July 21, 1862, Speke reached the Nile at Urondogani, 40 miles from Lake Victoria. Marching two days upstream he then discovered Ripon Falls, which he was sure was the source itself. Meeting back up with Grant, they made their way farther north to Gondokoro.  As far as Speke was concerned he had now proved Lake Victoria was the source, declaring, “the Nile is settled.”

Through the Dark Continent

There were several reasons Speke failed to convince the world that he had found the source of the Nile. He had not, in fact, followed the river from Lake Victoria north to Gondokoro, but had traveled instead cross-country most of the way, unable to follow the river because of hostile tribes and treacherous waters. Therefore, he could not actually say he had charted the river from its source to Gondokoro or any other place known to be on the Nile River.

In September 1864, a fierce debate was planned between Burton and Speke at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at which they would both present their arguments. However, the day before the event Speke was killed with his own gun while hunting. Because he was an expert with firearms, many thought it unlikely Speke had shot himself accidentally.

As if the Burton-Speke controversy were not enough, the Bakers came along to complicate things even further. Speke and Grant had met Samuel Baker and his wife in Gondokoro. When Baker expressed his disappointment that all of Africa’s mysteries had been solved, Speke told him he had heard of yet another lake, drawing a rough map so Baker could search for it. Baker was successful, and named the newfound lake, Lake Albert. It, too, had a river that ran out of the lake to the north. Could Lake Albert be the source of the Nile? Could there be two sources, just as Ptolemy said? Rather than helping to clear up the issues, the Bakers had, if anything, added to the confusion. It was time for drastic action. In 1865 the Royal Geographical Society announced that one of England’s most famous African explorers, David Livingstone, would lead a new expedition to explore the lake region and solve the mystery of the Nile once and for all.

In 1866 Livingstone was back in Africa. He traveled throughout the interior visiting Lake Tanganyika and Lake Nyasa to the south. When no one had heard from him for several years, Henry Stanley, a journalist, was sent to find him. They met in 1871 at Ujiji, where Stanley stammered out his famous greeting: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” With new supplies and new hope Livingstone set out again. He thought the Nile’s source was farmer south than either Lake Tanganyika or Lake Victoria. After two years of exploring this southern region, convinced that the source of the Nile was Bangweolo or the Lualaba River, Livingstone died at a small village south of Lake Bangweolo. It would be left to Henry M. Stanley to discover the truth.

Although many characterize Stanley as a madman who stomped through Africa without the slightest concern for native Africans or even his own men, this is a typical revisionist viewpoint. The truth is that by today’s standards, none of the great explorers from Columbus to Frobisher would survive even the most superficial review. Their actions and accomplishments must be looked at in the historical context of their own time. And although many people were shocked by his ruthlessness even then, Stanley was regarded as virtually unstoppable. When the British government finally decided to send an expedition to rescue German explorer Eduard Schnitzer (aka the Emin Pasha), who had been isolated by a Mahdi revolt, there was really no question as to who should lead it.

Indeed, Stanley led a number of major expeditions, including the search for Livingstone (1871); an expedition to establish a Congo State (1879-1884); and the mission to save Emin Pasha (1887-1889). He was also the New York Herald correspondent on Napier’s Abyssinian campaign against King Theodore (1867-1868).

Stanley set out in 1874 to walk across Africa, from Zanzibar to Boma. It would stand as one of the greatest feats in the history of African exploration, captured in all its glory and horror in Stanley’s book Through the Dark Continent. In a single sweep he mapped Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika, completed Livingstone’s quest to determine the course of the Lualaba River, and followed the Congo to the west coast to provide the first definitive record of this great river. By circumnavigating Lake Victoria he proved it was one large lake, and its only outlet was at Ripon Falls, just as Speke had claimed. He showed that the Rusizi River flowed into Lake Tanganyika and could not be the source of the Nile as Burton imagined. By following the Lualaba river until it joined the Congo, he proved it could not be the source as Livingstone had hoped.

Though a few details remained to be worked out, the mystery of the Nile had essentially been solved. Speke was right – Lake Victoria was the source.

It is amazing to think that almost 2,000 years after Ptolemy produced his map of Africa, the answer to its greatest secret would turn out to be just as he predicted. The Nile flows from Lake Victoria to Lake Albert and then north to Egypt – the two great lakes “whence the Nile draws its twin sources.” On his expedition to rescue the Emin Pasha, Stanley also discovered the Ruwenzori, a snow-capped mountain range that rises majestically to 17,000 feet south of Lake Albert: Ptolemy’s Mountains of the Moon.



Baker, Samuel. (1886). The Albert N’yanza, Great Basin ofthe Nile, and Explorations of the Nile Sources (Vols. 1 and 2.). London: Macmillan.

Bierman, J. (1990). Dark Safari, The Life Behind the Legacy of Henry Morton Stanley. New York: Knopf.

Bruce, James. (1790). Travels to Discover the Sources of the Nile, in the Years 1768-1773 (Vols. 1-5). Edinburgh: J. Ruthvan.

Burton, Richard. (1856). First Footsteps in East Africa (Vols. 1 and 2.). London: Longmans, Green.

Burton, Richard. (1860). The Lake Regions of Central Africa (Vols. 1 and 2). London: Longmans,Green.

Hibbert, Christopher. (1982). Africa Explored: Europeans in the Dark Continent 1769-1889. London: Allen Lane.

Johnson, Samuel. (1735). A Voyage to Abyssinia by Father Jerome Lobo. London: Elliot and Kay.

Rice, Edward. (1990). Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. New York: Scribner’s Sons.

Speke, John Hanning. (1863). Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile. Edinburgh and London: Blackwood.

Stanley, Henry M. (1878). Through the Dark Continent (Vols. 1 and 2). London: John Murray.







This article first appeared in Mercator’s World Magazine, Vol 1, No 6, 1996.

5 Responses to Into Africa: The Search for the Source of the Nile

    • David Baker says:

      A most interesting article with extraordinary maps. I would be interested in contacting you as I am the great great grandson of SWB and am giving a lecture to the RGS on Monday 27 October 2014

  1. Tracey says:

    Thank you for this, it was very helpful in preparing a geography lesson on the Nile.

  2. Andrew MacLeod says:

    The problem is that Lake Victoria is not source. the Southern most source is in Burundi and the furthest source is in Myuwenge Forrest Rwanda. See

    • David Baker says:

      Going back to Victorian times, my great great grandfather sir Samuel Baker, only claimed that Lake Albert was the great basin of the Nile. Although he overestimated the size of lake Albert, it is true that the white Nile flows into and out of lake Albert, and other rivers flow into lake Albert. Ptolemy’s map showing two lakes was amazingly accurate for its time!

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