Dane Kennedy, “The Search for the Nile”


This essay examines the social and cultural contexts that informed British explorers’ efforts to discover the source of the Nile. It highlights the relationship of these expeditions to existing systems of trade and power in East Africa, British imperial interests in the region, and the development of a celebrity culture in Britain.

Few geographical mysteries stirred as much interest among the Victorians as the question of where the Nile River—specifically its longest branch, known as the White Nile—originated.  The decades-long search for its source involved some of the most famous figures in African exploration, including David Livingstone, John Hanning Speke, Richard Burton, Henry Morton Stanley, and Samuel Baker.  Much of the literature on the subject has focused on its human drama, highlighting the hardships these explorers endured and the rivalries they stirred in their determination to claim the prize of discovery.[1]  Yet the story of the search for the Nile’s source is also about Victorian society’s engagement with African societies and the impact it had on both parties.  The ramifications of this famed adventure involve the reach and limits of empire, the ambitions and ambiguities of humanitarianism, and the creation and costs of a celebrity culture.

The expeditions sent in search of the origins of the White Nile were, first and foremost, expressions of a much broader agenda—the expansion of British power and influence across the globe.  Whether the purpose was commerce, conversion, colonization, or conquest, Victorians of various stripes—merchants, missionaries, migrants, military men, and more—were traveling to the most distant parts of the planet.  Over the course of the nineteenth century, they contributed to the establishment of a global system of trade and empire that was centered in Britain.

Leading the way into many of the more remote and hard-to-penetrate regions were the explorers, mainly men of middle-class origins and professional ambitions who presented themselves for the most part as the disinterested agents of scientific inquiry. They mapped terrain, measured meteorological phenomena, and collected botanical, zoological, geological, and ethnographic specimens and artifacts.  Upon their return to Britain, they reported their findings to government bodies and other sponsoring agencies, handed over their collections to specialists in scientific societies, museums, and botanical gardens, and wrote narrative accounts of their adventures for public consumption.[2]  Victorian explorers ventured into Australia’s outback, South America’s rainforests, Central Asia’s high plains and mountains, the Arctic’s ice-clogged seas, and various other harsh environments.  But few regions attracted as much interest as sub-Saharan Africa.  Given the importance of the African slave trade to Britain’s global power and economic prosperity in the eighteenth century, and the subsequent centrality of Africa to Britain’s moral campaign against slavery and the slave trade in the nineteenth century, it is hardly surprising that the continent became the object of such intense and sustained scrutiny.[3]  Through the first half of the nineteenth century, the main focus of British attention was the interior of West Africa, which remained the principal source of the dwindling transatlantic traffic in slaves.  A series of expeditions were launched into the region, many of them intended in part to persuade African rulers to renounce the slave trade for “legitimate” commerce.  After mid-century, British explorers redirected their efforts to Central and East Africa.  This happened as the region was being opened up by Arab traders in search of slaves and ivory, giving British abolitionists a new cause célèbre.  East Africa also assumed strategic significance for Britain with the rise of Bombay as India’s western gateway and the opening of the Suez Canal as a commercial passageway, which gave new importance to the lands bordering the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.  These developments provided the backdrop for explorers’ search for the source of the Nile.

Determining where the White Nile had its ultimate point of origin was such an elusive goal that it permitted the British to probe the region’s vast system of lakes and rivers with little risk of ever arriving at a definitive source or answer.  Even today, the issue of the Nile’s furthermost source is in some respects unresolved.  For the Victorian explorers who sought this holy grail, its very elusiveness was simultaneously a source of opportunity and a cause for controversy.  No matter who claimed discovery of the river’s source—Speke, Livingstone, Baker, and Stanley all did so at various points—enough uncertainties persisted to keep the debate alive.  This was important not simply because it encouraged further exploration but because it attracted the interest of the British public.

Map of Africa, 1874

Figure 1: Map of Africa, 1874

There were two ways to reach the region where the headwaters of the Nile were believed to be located.  One was to start in Cairo and travel some 4,000 miles south, sailing as far as possible up the Nile itself.  The other was to start on the coast of East Africa and march some 600 miles westward by foot.  (See Fig. 1.) Access to each route was controlled by an expansionist Muslim state with political and economic interests of its own in the African interior.  Egypt ruled much of Sudan; Zanzibar controlled the East African coastline and portions of its hinterland.  Traders operating under the aegis of both states had pushed well into the vicinity of the Great Lakes.[4]  When British explorers made their way into the region, they did so with the active support or passive consent of these two Islamic states and their agents.  The explorers often carried a firman (a royal decree issued by Islamic rulers) granting them right of passage and access to credit from Arab traders.  They usually followed established caravan routes, frequently in the company of Arab trade caravans.  Whose interests were being served by this cooperative relationship?  While we know that the British would end up as the eventual beneficiaries, claiming the region as their own during the Scramble for Africa, Egyptian and Zanzibari authorities clearly believed at the time that they had much to gain from the explorers’ efforts.  The Burton/Speke expedition of 1857-59 actually marched under the Zanzibari flag and the protection of Zanzibari troops.  The prominent Zanzibari trader Tippu Tip provided Henry Morton Stanley with porters and guards in return for easier access to ivory and slaves in the Upper Congo River basin.  Samuel Baker returned to Africa four years after his discovery of Lake Albert as the commander of an Egyptian army tasked with imposing Egyptian rule over the region’s  inhabitants.[5]

Explorers’ involvement in existing networks of trade and power complicated their heroic personas.  It was not merely their personal courage and determination that provided them access to the interior of Africa, but the institutional structures of states like Egypt and Zanzibar and the organizational skills of Africans and Arabs.  Every expedition that set out from Zanzibar and its mainland base at Bagamoyo was dependent on the caravan system that the Nyamwezi people had pioneered and Afro-Arabs had expanded.  Every expedition, in turn, came to rely on experienced caravan leaders who knew how to recruit and manage porters, negotiate hongo (transit fees) with local rulers, and carry out the various other tasks necessary to keep the caravan moving.[6]  So essential were these local intermediaries to the operations of expeditions that the explorers sometimes felt like little more than spectators to their own expeditions.  “I can claim but little merit” in the success of his first venture into East Africa, a disarmingly frank Joseph Thomson privately admitted, “as the [head]men were all imbued with the idea that I was put specially under their care . . . to be taken carefully & safely round and shown the sights of Central African [sic] and then safely returned.”[7]

Photo of David Livingstone

Figure 2: Photograph of Stanley Livingstone (by Thomas Annan)

Explorers also found that their dependence on African and Arab allies and intermediaries made it more difficult to distance themselves from the slave trade and other activities that the Victorians considered morally reprehensible.  All of the leading explorers apart from Richard Burton were vociferous in their condemnation of the slave trade, but they all shared an uneasy complicity in its practice.  David Livingstone (Fig. 2), John Hanning Speke, Samuel Baker, and Henry Morton Stanley turned at various points in their expeditions to Arab slave traders for porters, supplies, protection, intelligence, and other forms of assistance.  Baker and Stanley contributed directly to the opening of previously remote portions of Central Africa to Arab slave raiders.  Moreover, almost every explorer’s caravan included a contingent of slaves, many of them porters hired out by their owners, others acquired by headmen along the way as investments and camp followers.

None of this was widely known in Britain.  Explorers presented themselves in public as adamant opponents of African slavery and the Arab slave trade.  They minimized the moral ambiguities of their experiences in Africa for domestic consumption.  Only Richard Burton suggested that slavery, along with polygamy and other practices deemed deviant by the Victorians, might have some function and value for African societies, and he was widely condemned for his views.[8]  Baker insisted that the purpose of his expedition to the upper Nile on behalf of the Egyptian government was—as the subtitle of his book on the subject proclaimed—“the Suppression of the Slave Trade,” though it demonstrably did the opposite.  Livingstone’s public standing as the great enemy of the Arab slave trade was bolstered by the dramatic dispatches he sent back to Britain during his final expedition, and Horace Waller insured that his reputation remained unblemished after his death by sanitizing his posthumously published journals.[9]   And Henry Morton Stanley did his best to claim Livingstone’s mantle as the moral leader of the campaign to end the African slave trade, though his proclivity for violence during his expeditions led many critics to question his judgment and character.[10]

Above all, however, it was by casting their efforts as a race to discover the source of the Nile that Stanley and his rivals were able to mitigate the moral ambiguities of their actions in Africa.  They were aided and abetted in this enterprise by church and chapel, the popular press, the Royal Geographical Society, and various other domestic institutions, each of which had its own reasons to promote the search for the Nile’s source—to inspire parishioners, to sell newspapers, to bolster membership, and the like.  These interest groups helped transform explorers into celebrities.  Livingstone’s heroic exploits in the heart of Africa were recounted at Sunday services and Sunday schools and disseminated in countless religious periodicals.  Large crowds gathered around him on London’s streets, and the biographer Tim Jeal describes his appearance at church services as causing “chaos, with people clambering over the pews to try and shake his hand” (Livingstone 163).   When the British Association for the Advancement of Science announced that Burton and Speke would air their bitter differences of opinion about the Nile’s source at a debate during its annual meeting, the event was so highly anticipated that nearly 1,500 people bought tickets; the Times referred to it as “a gladiatorial exhibition.”[11]  Stanley’s books became bestsellers—In Darkest Africa (1890) sold 150,000 copies—and he went on highly lucrative lecture tours that attracted large audiences.  Victorian celebrity culture, like our own, became inseparable from consumerism. Images of Livingstone appeared on matchbook covers, commemorative plates, and other items.  Stanley marketed his name with endorsements for various products.[12]  Victorian society rewarded its best known explorers with fame and profit, and few explorers were more richly rewarded than those who took part in the search for the source of the Nile.

For all the acclaim they achieved at home, the explorers who searched for the source of the Nile engaged in a far more ambiguous enterprise than the Victorian public ever appreciated.  Although they cast themselves as the opponents of slavery and the slave trade, they often used slave labor and collaborated with slave traders.  Although they presented their efforts as advancing the economic and political interests of Britain, most of them helped to extend Egyptian or Zanzibari influence into the African interior.  And although they made confident claims concerning the source of the Nile, the answer to this geographical mystery proved to be remarkably elusive.

Dane Kennedy is the Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he teaches modern British and British imperial history.  He has written four books on the British imperial experience, most recently The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World (2005).  His newest book, The Challenge of the Continents: Exploring Africa and Australia, will be published by Harvard University Press in 2013.


Kennedy, Dane. “The Search for the Nile.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Baker, Samuel W. Ismailia: A Narrative of the Expedition to Central Africa for the Suppression of the Slave Trade. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1874. Print.

Bennett, Norman Robert. Arab Versus European: Diplomacy and War in Nineteenth-Century East Central Africa. New York: Africana Publishing Co., 1986. Print.

Driver, Felix. Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. Print.

Helly, Dorothy O. Livingstone’s Legacy: Horace Waller and Victorian Mythmaking. Athens: Ohio UP, 1987. Print.

Ibrahim, Hassan Ahmed. “The Egyptian Empire, 1805-1885.” Ed. M.M. Daly. Modern Egypt, From 1517 to the End of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998: 198-216. Vol. 2 of The Cambridge History of Egypt. 2 Vols. 1998. Print.

Jeal, Tim. Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. Print.

—. Livingstone. New York: Putnam, 1973. Print.

Kennedy, Dane. The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

—. The Challenge of the Continents: Exploring Africa and Australia. Cambridge: Harvard UP, forthcoming 2013. Print.

Moorehead, Alan. The White Nile. New York: Harper Perennial, 2000. Print.

Pederson, Derek R., ed. Abolition and Imperialism in Britain, Africa, and the Atlantic. Athens: Ohio UP, 2010. Print.

Pettitt, Claire. Dr. Livingstone, I Presume? Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.

Powell, Eve M. Troutt. A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan. Berkeley: U of California P, 2003. Print.

Rockel, Stephen J. Carriers of Culture: Labor on the Road in Nineteenth-Century East Africa. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2006. Print.

Sheriff, Abdul. Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Empire into the World Economy, 1770-1873. Oxford: James Currey, 1987. Print.

Simpson, Donald. Dark Companions: The African Contribution to the European Exploration of East Africa. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976. Print.

The Times 14 Sept. 1864. Print.

The Times 19 Sept. 1864. Print.

Thomson, Joseph. Letter to the Secretary, Royal Geographical Society. 9 July 1880. MS. CB6/2173. Royal Geographical Society Archives. Print.


Matthew Rubery, “On Henry Morton Stanley’s Search for Dr. Livingstone, 1871-72″


[1] See Alan Moorhead, The White Nile; Tim Jeal, Explorers of the Nile; and the countless biographies of the leading explorers.

[2] See Dane Kennedy, The Challenge of the Continents.

[3] Derek R. Pederson, ed., Abolition and Imperialism in Britain, Africa, and the Atlantic.

[4] Eve M. Troutt Powell, A Different Shade of Colonialism; Hassan Ahmed Ibrahim, “The Egyptian Empire, 1805-1885”; Abdul Sheriff, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar; and Norman Robert Bennett, Arab Versus European.

[5] Samuel W. Baker, Ismailia.

[6] See Stephen J. Rockel, Carriers of Culture, and Donald Simpson, Dark Companions.

[7] Joseph Thomson to the Secretary, Royal Geographical Society (19 July 1880).

[8] See Dane Kennedy, The Highly Civilized Man, especially chapter 5.

[9] Dorothy O. Helly, Livingstone’s Legacy.

[10] Felix Driver, Geography Militant, especially chapter 6.

[11] The Times, September 14 & 19, 1864.

[12] Claire Pettitt, Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?.