April 23, 2008 at 1:37 am | Posted in Africa, Development, Globalization, History, World-system | Leave a comment










Born May 4, 1827

Died September 15, 1864

Occupation Officer and Explorer

Hamitic Myth

John Hanning Speke (1827-1864)

John Hanning Speke (1827-1864) was a colonial explorer and officer in the British army and the ingenious architect of the Hamitic myth: the idea that Rwanda’s Tutsi minority is racially superior to its Hutu minority.

When Speke arrived in what was then the Kingdom of Rwanda, he came to the rather inane conclusion that the Tutsis must be a superior race and were not native to Rwanda.

The evidence?

Tutsis, which he supposed to be descendants of the Biblical figure, Ham, had lighter skin and more “European” features than the Bantu-featured Hutu that they ruled.

Speke’s hypothesis became widely held fact by the time the Belgians came to rule Rwanda, give Tutsis special privileges, and begin issuing identity cards, forever relegating the Hutu and the Tutsi to separate castes.

The Hamitic Myth would be central to the Hutu extremists’ efforts to mobilize ordinary citizens to commit the mass murder of the Tutsi “invaders.”

John Hanning Speke (May 4, 1827September 15, 1864) was an officer in the British Indian army, who made three voyages of exploration to Africa and who is most associated with the search for the source of the Nile.


In 1844 he joined the British Indian Army where he served in the Sikh War under Sir Colin Campbell. He spent his leave exploring the Himalaya Mountains and once crossed into Tibet.

In 1854 he made his first voyage, joining the already famous Richard Francis Burton on an expedition to Somalia. The expedition did not go well. The party was attacked and Burton and Speke were both severely wounded. Speke was captured and stabbed several times with spears before he was able to free himself and escape. Burton escaped with a javelin impaling both cheeks. Speke returned to England to recover and then served in the Crimean War.

In 1856, Speke and Burton made a voyage to East Africa to find the great lakes which were rumoured to exist in the center of the continent. Both men clearly hoped that their expedition would locate the source of the Nile. The journey was extremely strenuous and both men fell ill from a variety of tropical diseases. Speke suffered severely when he became temporarily deaf after a beetle crawled into his ear and he had to remove it with a knife. He also later went temporarily blind. After an arduous journey the two became the first Europeans to discover Lake Tanganyika (although Speke was still blind at this point and could not properly see the lake). They heard of a second lake in the area, but Burton was too sick to make the voyage. Speke thus went alone, and found the lake, which he christened Lake Victoria. It was this lake which eventually proved to be the source of the river Nile. However, much of the expedition’s survey equipment had been lost at this point and thus vital questions about the height and extent of the lake could not be answered.

Speke returned to England before Burton, on 8 May 1859 and made their voyage famous in a speech to the Royal Geographical Society where he claimed to have discovered the source of the Nile. When Burton returned on 21 May, he was angered by Speke’s precipitous announcements believing that they violated an agreement that the two men would speak to the society together. A further rift was caused when Speke was chosen to lead a subsequent expedition without Burton.[1] The two presented joint papers concerning the expedition to the Royal Geographical Society on 13 June 1859.[2]

Together with James Augustus Grant, Speke left from Zanzibar in October 1860. When they reached Uganda Grant travelled north and Speke continued his journey towards the West. Speke reached Lake Victoria on July 28 1862 and then travelled on the west side around Lake Victoria without actually seeing much of it, but on the north side of the lake, Speke found the Nile flowing out of it and discovered the Ripon Falls. Speke then sailed down the Nile and he was reunited with Grant. Next he travelled to Gondokoro in southern Sudan, where he met Samuel Baker and his wife, continuing to

Speke’s voyage did not resolve the issue, however. Burton claimed that because Speke had not followed the Nile from the place it flowed out of Lake Victoria to Gondokoro, he could not be sure they were the same river.[4] A debate was planned between the two before the geographical section of the British Association in Bath on 18 September 1864, but Speke died that morning from a self-inflicted gun-shot wound while hunting. It remains uncertain whether the shot was an accident or suicide. Speke was buried in Dowlish Wake, Somerset, the ancestral home of the Speke family.[5]

The film Mountains of the Moon (1990) (starring Scottish actor Iain Glen as Speke) related the story of the Burton-Speke controversy.

Mount Speke in the Ruwenzori Range, Uganda was named in honour of John Speke, as an early European explorer of this region.

Biographies and books about Speke

  • Burton and Speke by William Harrison (St Martins/Marek & W.H. Allen 1984).

  • A Walk Across Africa by J. A. Grant (London, 1864)

  • The Travelling Naturalists by Clare Lloyd. (Study of 18th Century Natural History – Includes Charles Waterton, John Hanning Speke, Henry Seebohm and Mary Kingsley) Contains colour and black and white reproductions. [6]

  1. Stephen, Leslie (1898). Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder, 325.

  2. Burton, R. F.; J. H. Speke (13 June 1859). “Explorations in Eastern Africa”. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 3 (6): 348-358.

  3. Twelfth Meeting, Monday Evening, May 11th, 1863” . Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 7 (3): 108-110.

  4. Burton, R. F. (14 Nov 1864). “Lake Tanganyika, Ptolemy’s Western Lake-Reservoir of the Nile”. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 9 (1): 6-14.

  5. Stephen, Leslie (1898). Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder, 327.

  6. Published by Croom Helm (UK) in 1985 with ISBN 0 7099 1658 2

Hamitic Myth

John Hanning Speke (1827-1864)

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