- Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Gr
From the book
The Nile Duel
Two Years Earlier - September 16, 1864
The catalyst for the saga of daring took place shortly after eleven in the morning on Friday, September 16, 1864. Richard Francis Burton stood alone on the wooden speaker's platform at the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual convention, awaiting his debate opponent. His wife, Isabel, sat a few feet behind. He clutched a sheaf of arguments. He was strong but narrow in the shoulders and hips, like a matador. His eyes were so dark brown they were often described as black. His mustache, truly black, flowed over and around his lips to his chin. The legendary Somali scars ran up his cheeks like slender compass arrows pointing north. He remained calm as he watched the doors for John Hanning Speke's entrance. The fair-haired geographical hero with the cold blue eyes was Burton's opposite, and Burton had waited six years to settle their rivalry. A few minutes more meant little.
The audience felt differently. It had been a wet, cramped morning and they were lathering into a righteous fury. There had been rumors of a cancellation due to some sort of injury to Speke, but the almost two thousand adventurers, dignitaries, journalists, and celebrity gazers came anyway. They braved a howling rain to get seats for what the newspapers were calling the Nile Duel, as if the debate were a bare-knuckle prizefight instead of a defining moment in history. Burton and Speke would argue who had discovered the source of the Nile River--the most consuming geographic riddle of all time. Curiously, Burton and Speke made their conflicting source discoveries during the same expedition. They had been partners. And even as they made plans to destroy one another, Burton and Speke suppressed deep mutual compassion.
They were former friends--lovers, some whispered--turned enemies. Theirs was a "story of adventure, jealousy and recrimination, which painted their achievements in bright or lurid lights and tragic shades," in the words of Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of Bombay. Each man's aim was not just claiming the Nile, but destroying the other socially, professionally, and financially. The winner would know a permanent spot in the history books. The loser would be labeled a delusional, presumptuous fool, with all the public ridicule that implied.
Speke was a thin loner whose family home, Jordans, was just forty miles from Bath. He was childlike, entitled, wealthy, bland, deaf in one ear. At thirty-seven, he doted on his mother but had never courted any other woman. Critics acknowledged his prowess as a sportsman, but puzzled over his penchant for slaughter and fondness for eating the unborn fetus of a kill. They wondered about the character of a man who once gave a rifle as a gift to an African chief fond of shooting subjects for fun, and who allowed a live human child to be steamed like a lobster during a tribal ritual in his honor. Speke felt that the ends justified the means--in this case, finding the source was worth the loss of inconsequential African lives. The source, Speke claimed, was a massive rectangular body of water the size of Scotland. He named it Victoria Nyanza--Lake Victoria--for the Queen.
The dark-haired Burton claimed Lake Tanganyika as the source. That body of water lay 150 miles southwest of Victoria Nyanza, separated by mountainous, unexplored jungle. Burton did not dispute that the Nile flowed from Victoria, but he believed that another, yet undiscovered, river flowed from Tanganyika through the mountains, into Victoria.
Lake Tanganyika's shape was slender and vertical on the map, like a womb parting to give birth to the great...