Burton and Speke

Harrison, William. Burton and Speke. New York: St. Martin’s, 1982.

Reason read: September is National Curiosity Month. What better way to satisfy curiosity than to go exploring the source of the Nile?

Richard Francis Burton was a legendary adventurer who also had a reputation for being a great lover. John Hanning Speke also had a reputation for being an adventurer and a lover, albeit of a different kind. When they first met, Speke needed Burton in order to get to Africa. Luckily, Burton was already going that way. Burton’s mission in Somaliland was in four parts:

  1. Discourage slavery
  2. Establish a camp for later use
  3. Search for gold
  4. “Examine” the women to study their sexual practices

As with any expedition into the unknown, Burton and Speke encounter many trials and tribulations. More often than not, their equipment and supplies were either being broken or getting lost. Crews and guides were constantly deserting them. It didn’t help that Burton and Speke couldn’t be more different from one another when it came down to leading the expeditions. Burton prided himself on his intellect, especially when it came to native languages across the regions. (He would go on to translate Arabian Nights and  The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana.) He had an understanding of the necessity of breaking down language barriers. Instead of brains, Speke valued his brawn, his hunting capabilities and his sheer physical strength. While Burton sought the company of many different beautiful women, Speke wouldn’t turn away a pretty boy. Their differences soon drove them apart and made them fierce rivals. In the end, it was Speke who discovered the source of the Nile but because he lacked the scientific evidence to explain how this came to be he was ridiculed and almost discredited. Richard Burton became faithful to one woman and became an anthropologist.

As an aside, I liked manservant End of Time’s name. That’s it – End of Time.
A cringe worthy moment – when the beetle crawled deep inside Speke’s ear and he went mad trying to dig it out with a knife.

Quote I liked, “Aloofness was a bore – especially when practiced amidst life’s frailties” (p 133).

Author fact: Harrison has written a bunch of other works, but this is the only one I am reading.

Book trivia: Confessional: I thought this was a nonfiction before I received the book.
It’s actually a historical novel.

Nancy said: Burton and Speke tries to solve an age-old debate of who found the source of the Nile.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Explorers” (p 85). Pretty straightforward.



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