Unraveling Speke: The Unknown Revision of an African Exploration Classic

By Finkelstein, David | History In Africa, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Unraveling Speke: The Unknown Revision of an African Exploration Classic


Finkelstein, David, History In Africa


I

In late 1990 I found myself in the Department of Manuscripts at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh working on what was supposed to be a short-term project. The aim was to create a listing of uncataloged archival material relating to the eminent Edinburgh publishers William Blackwood & Sons. Famous for publishing George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, John Buchan, and Anthony Trollope, as well as for their monthly Blackwood's Magazine, the firm was a major presence in Edinburgh from 1805 to 1980. Over the years, most of their papers have accumulated in the National Library of Scotland, making the Blackwood Papers one of the most complete archives of publishing activity to be found anywhere in Britain. I spent nine months trying to tackle this mountain of correspondence, financial records, ledgers and ephemera. Over a decade and several academic posts later, I am still in Edinburgh, and still digging through this mound of historical documentation.

One of the most intriguing of untold tales, and one of extreme importance for historians of Africa, is to be found scattered throughout the correspondence files of the firm, and centers round three items innocuously labeled in the NLS catalog as "MS. 4872-4. John Hanning Speke. Manuscript and proofs of Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile." Speke's role in African exploration is well known. His connection with Richard Burton in the attempt to find the source of the Nile in the late 1850s led to success and spectacular conflict. His return in the early 1860s to prove his initial assertions led to controversial claims, a best-selling account of his journeys, and a mysterious, self-inflicted death on the eve of a major debate with his now rival Burton on his findings in 1864. Speke was one of many African explorers and colonial officers whose travel narratives were featured in either the Blackwood firm's publishing lists or in Klackwood's Magazine. Others with connections to the firm included Richard Burton, James Augustus Grant, Henry Murchison, Henry Baker, and F.D.Lugard.

Historians often take at face value the texts published by these individuals, combing them for facts about such individuals and clues as to the manner in which Africa was explored and then interpreted for Victorian audiences. Alternatively, as in the case of Mary Louise Pratt's well received Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, the language and imagery in these texts is used to speculate and form general conclusions about the estheticization and infusion of psychologically dense reactions to Africa, its people, and its scenery. Thus Pratt comments on a passage from Speke's text, describing his first sighting of Lake Victoria, that "in the final paragraph, Speke moves out of the monarchic trope to find meaning for his act in a series of Oedipcan images; old father Nile, his religious forbear Jesus, and the unmentioned, unforgiving father, Burton."1 The meaning here is one that is assigned specifically to Speke-he is taken uncritically to be the author and master of the published text, therefore justifying the type of psychologically derived analysis she goes on to make of the text in general.

What is problematic about this type of approach, and also problematic for those who use published explorers' narratives as primary evidence for analysis of colonial history, is the failure to account for the process of publication in shaping the explorers' "words" to begin with. And in Speke's case, as the records in the National Library show, the process of production and publication was of great significance, creating in the end something very different from what Speke had originally intended to publish. The details form a tale of intrigue and revision, concerning John Hanning Speke's battle to trace the original source of the Nile, the consequent difficulties encountered by the Blackwood directors in turning an explorer into an author, and the previously unknown ghost-writer who made Speke's book a reality. …

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