Secret book revealing feud between Victorian explorers acquired by National Library of Scotland

A private edition of a book detailing a feud between two great Victorian explorers which was never intended to be made public has been acquired by the National Library of Scotland.

John Hanning Speke

It tells of how John Hanning Speke solved one of the world’s greatest mysteries when he discovered the source of the Nile in 1858. However, Speke’s claim was contested by his fellow explorer, Sir Richard Burton, creating a bitter dispute between the two men that never healed.

Speke was the first European to reach the shores of a great lake in east Africa which he named in honour of Queen Victoria and which he rightly identified as the main source of the White Nile. He wrote about this in 1864 in his book What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile.

This originally included the text of what later became an eight-page supplement which Speke called the “Tail.” It contained the description of his first public announcement to the Royal Geographical Society on the source of the Nile and his grievances with Burton. In it, he castigates Burton for refusing to pay the local workers who carried Burton’s equipment during his explorations in Africa.

After pressure from his family and his Edinburgh publisher and friend, John Blackwood, Speke agreed to omit this text from the final publication. As a compromise, Blackwood included the “Tail” in a special edition of 12 extra copies for Speke to distribute to his family. Of these 12, only five are known to have survived.

Sir Richard Burton

The copy which the National Library has bought from the antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch is inscribed by the author’s brother Benjamin Speke.

The National Library also houses the archive of William Blackwood & Sons which contains ledgers that document the production of the 12 ‘Tail’ copies. It also contains a letter from William Blackwood to Speke which highlights the sensitivities surrounding this secret edition. It urges Speke “to be very cautious, & not let any of these copies be sent about beyond your family circle.”

The announcement of the discovery of the source of the Nile was a huge event in Victorian Britain and Speke was hailed a hero on his return to London.

However, his achievement continued to be undermined by Burton, leading to the special addendum to his book. The existence of these extra copies was little known until 2004 when one came up for sale.

Photograph by: National Library of ScotlandSpeke – the Tail added after the end of the book

Dr Graham Hogg, a rare books curator in the National Library of Scotland, said: “We are delighted to acquire this special edition of Speke’s book for our collections in view of the fact that the Blackwood’s archive provides the key to the history of this long-forgotten suppressed text, and we also hold correspondence between the Blackwoods and John and Benjamin Speke.

“Moreover, this example is, as far as we know, the only one of the five recorded copies to be held in any institution internationally and thus freely available to scholars.”

The book had previously been owned by a private collector.

Photograph by: National Library of ScotlandSpeke binding

Burton’s refusal to accept that it was Speke and not himself who discovered the source of the Nile led to years of acrimony between the two men.

Speke was due to debate the matter with Burton at the British Association on September 16th in 1864.

The day before the debate, Speke was shooting partridges in Wiltshire when he climbed over a wall with his gun cocked and shot himself. Although his death is considered an accident, the rumour spread that he had committed suicide rather than face Burton in debate.