Speke & Livingstone in Africa

Speke & Livingstone in Africa

11/01/2023     General, Books & Autographs

NEW YORK, NY -- Until the mid-nineteenth century, the interior of Africa remained largely unmapped, terra incognita. The terrain remained almost as mysterious as it was in late medieval times, when huge tracts of the continent were believed to be ruled by the mythical Prester John. Though the Scottish explorer James Bruce had visited one of the sources of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia in 1770, the larger river system of the White Nile, which forms the backbone of the continent, remained largely unexplored by outsiders until the travels of Captain John Hanning Speke (4 May 1827 – 15 September 1864).

Speke made three voyages of exploration to Africa. On the first, begun in 1854, he joined a party bound for Somalia that was led by Richard Burton, who was already a seasoned adventurer. A brilliant orientalist who had converted to Islam and who had the entire Qu’ran memorized, he had previously journeyed alone to Mecca, at that time forbidden to Westerners on pain of death. On the Somaliland expedition, Speke, Burton and his party were beset by Somali warriors. One of the expedition’s number was killed on the spot and Speke was captured and severely wounded, later escaping. Burton received a javelin wound that pierced both his cheeks and only just escaped the scene of carnage, the weapon still transfixed.

The rare first issue of Burton’s 'First Footsteps in East Africa,' with the cancelled appendix IV still partly present, is lot 137 in the November 7 auction. His translation of the Thousand and One Nights is lot 136, and an important letter (about David Livingstone), is lot 139. There are other works by Burton in addition.

Undiscouraged by these setbacks from this first round of African exploration, in 1857 the pair mounted an expedition together to the African Great Lakes, well-funded by the Royal Geographical Society. At that time this portion of Equatorial Africa was largely unknown in the West. Both men were severely ill at various times during their nearly two-year sojourn, but Speke (without Burton) ultimately located Lake Victoria, which he believed (accurately, as it turned out) to be the true source of the Nile. However, he lacked supplies for further explorations, and his surveying instruments had been lost or stolen earlier in the journey, so he could not easily substantiate this judgment. Unfortunately, the differences which had been festering between these two redoubtable men were by that time pronounced, and they returned separately to London at the end of their journey. From that time forward, Burton volubly disputed Speke over the claim of the source of the Nile.  

Burton’s book The Lake Regions of Central Africa contains the first public airing of this quarrel, and is lot 138 in the present auction.  

In part to substantiate this claim, Speke, along with James Augustus Grant, made a third African journey, between 1860 – 1863. Again, Speke’s party met with many adventures and misadventures (including a romantic interlude in the court of Muteesa, the king of Buganda). He mapped Lake Victoria, but was not able to map the northern flow of the Nile in its entirety. In consequence, despite his claim by telegram from Khartoum that “The Nile is settled,” on his return to London he found that the matter was anything but closed. His now avowed enemy Burton seized (with some justice) on this one weakness in his field observations, and—an eloquent propagandist—undercut Speke and his reputation where he could. Just before an 1864 debate on the matter between Speke and Burton before the Royal Geographical Society, Speke died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while out hunting.  

Speke’s account of his last expedition is lot 203; Grant’s account is lot 165; the botanical account of the expedition is lot 204; and a group of Speke’s letters to Sir Francis Galton are lot 205. 

Speke was well-born—his family had been wealthy landowners in Devon for time out of mind—but David Livingstone, whose name is almost synonymous with African exploration, was born in a tenement and spent his formative years in a cotton mill in Blantyre. His father was profoundly religious, and encouraged his son to read solely theological works, but the young Livingstone had a deeply inquiring mind and had far broader interests. Ultimately, he studied medicine and chemistry, attending a Glasgow university to this end, and afterwards trained as a missionary, under the London Missionary Society. In 1840, the weaver’s son became an ordained minister and a licensed physician. 

He left for Africa as a missionary that same year. He had already mastered Latin, and had studied Greek and Hebrew, and this facility for languages assisted him in Africa when it came to speaking the native languages. Though he proved indifferent as a missionary (it has been said that in his career he made but one convert, though that one—Sechele, the king of the Bakwena—converted innumerable others in turn), as a traveler he proved consummate. He crossed the Kalahari Desert to Lake Ngami in 1849, a feat which earned him initial recognition from the Royal Geographical Society, and in 1852 he travelled down the Zambezi to what he named Victoria Falls, the first European to see this spectacle. 

His mapping of the Zambezi (Zambese) can be seen in lot 178, a presentation map made shortly after his return from this journey that shows for the first time the geography of this area. This is likely the earliest obtainable map of a vast tract of Southern Africa. 

His fame in Britain was by this time considerable, and it was cemented by the publication of his Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, published in 1857. His exploration was driven by the underlying idea that by establishing trade routes he could displace the slave trade. He had written “In talking with my companions over these matters, the idea was suggested that, if the slave-market were supplied with articles of European manufacture by legitimate commerce, the trade in slaves would become impossible. It seemed more feasible to give the goods, for which the people now part with their servants, in exchange for ivory and other products of the country, and thus prevent the trade at the beginning, than to try to put a stop to it at any of the subsequent steps. This could only be effected by establishing a highway from the coast into the centre of the country.” He felt a profound moral repugnance to the trade, which he felt debased the slaveholders as much as the slaves, and that that freeing Africa from that yoke spurred much which he did.   

See lot 177 for the copy of Missionary Travels that Livingstone presented to Lord Shaftesbury, a patron and the chairman of the London Missionary Society, under whom he had trained. 

Between 1858 and 1864 he led the Zambezi expedition, a major effort that was backed by the British Foreign Office. This was a less than successful affair, marred by disagreements, criticisms of Livingstone by expedition members and, tragically, the death of his wife from malaria in 1862. Still, Lake Nyasa was reached and navigated, and large portions of the region explored and mapped, with a great deal of scientific research materials gathered by the scientists accompanying him.  

See lot 179 for an exceptional Livingstone letter written just before his voyage up the Rovuma River on this expedition, which would lead him to rediscover Lake Nyasa; and lot 150 for his account of this expedition. 

His last great exploration, a Nile journey, was begun in 1866 and was intended to identify the true source of the Nile. It was attended by considerable sufferings as he traveled, as he was seriously ill for much of the time, and the conditions were dire. His medical supplies were stolen early on, and in 1871 he witnessed a massacre of Africans by slavers which left him profoundly shaken and depressed. His dispatches failed to reach Zanzibar, and concern rose in Britain as to whether he was still alive. It was under these circumstances that a New York newspaper commissioned Henry Morton Stanley to find Livingstone. While Stanley did locate Livingstone in November 1871, the latter had no intention of leaving Africa just yet. Though ultimately his Nile researches were not attended with great success, he had written to the New York Herald (that had employed Stanley) “And if my disclosures regarding the terrible Ujijian slavery should lead to the suppression of the East Coast slave trade, I shall regard that as a greater matter by far than the discovery of all the Nile sources together.”  

He died, of fatigue, malaria and dysentery, on May 1, 1873, in what is present day Zambia, and his body (less the heart, which appropriately was buried on the spot) was carried a thousand miles to the coast, and was thence conveyed to London, where he lies buried in Westminster Abbey. 

For one of Livingstone’s final letters, written to the President of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Henry Rawlinson, see lot 180. For a previous account of the hardships experienced by Livingstone, including the theft of his medical stores, see lot 182. 


Rare Books, Autographs & Maps

Auction Tuesday, November 7 at 10am
Exhibition November 4 - 6

Featured in the November 17 auction is property from The Esmond Bradley Martin Collection comprising lots 129 - 216.

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Edward Ripley-Duggan

Edward Ripley-Duggan

VP/Director, Rare Books, Autographs & Photographs