The Search for the Nile

J.H. Plumb shows how, between 1857 and 1888, after much controversy, the mystery of the Nile’s source was finally solved by the successive discoveries of Speke, Burton, Livingstone and Stanley.

From the days of Herodotus, the rise and fall of the Nile waters was a mystery upon which generations of men speculated— usually in vain. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Blue Nile, and its influence upon the flow of the Nile itself, had been discovered by Jesuit missionaries and by the great Scots traveller, James Bruce. About the origin of the White Nile there was infinite surmise. Snow-capped mountains, the mythical mountains of the moon, or a vast inland sea were the most favoured sources. All geographers endowed the river with enormous length, placing its source in the heart of South Africa. French interest in this problem, stimulated by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, was at first greater than the British. After Napoleon’s defeat, many French officers entered Egyptian service; others returned later to help Mohammed Ali in his exploitation of the Sudan; and by 1840, the French had travelled to within four degrees of the Equator, where the Nile was still a wide, smooth-flowing stream, obviously far from its source.

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