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 Nile. Its choice as Burton’s geographical talisman was apt, for his character tics veered toward the sensual. The accomplished linguist had a fondness for Arab prostitutes and would someday write the first English translation of the Kama Sutra. In 1845, as a young army officer stationed in India, he’d been ordered to investigate Karachi’s homosexual brothels. Burton’s detailed reportage implicated fellow officers and evinced suspicion about his own sexuality—both of which combined to ruin his career. So he’d become an explorer. His knowledge of languages and Islam allowed him to infiltrate cities like Mecca and Harar, which were forbidden to non-Muslims. The resulting books about those escapades were best-sellers in the mid-1850s, earning Burton a reputation for daring while introducing Oriental thoughts and words to his readers. It was Burton who made the term safari—Swahili for “journey”—familiar to the English-speaking world.
The mob packing the auditorium, so eager for spectacle and rage, knew the Burton and Speke story well. The time had come for resolution. When the eleven o’clock starting time came and passed, the crowd “gave vent to its impatience by sounds more often heard from the audience of a theater than a scientific meeting,” sniffed the Bath Chronicle. The audience gossiped loudly about Speke’s whereabouts and stared at the stage, scrutinizing Burton with that unflinching gaze reserved for the very famous. In an era when no occupation was more glamorous than African explorer, Burton’s features were already well known through photographs and sketches from his books. But for many in the audience, seeing his face up close, in person, was why they’d come. They felt the same about Speke.
There was a third explorer many hoped to glimpse, a man whose legend was arguably greater than any living explorer. “The room,” the Chronicle noted of the auditorium, “was crowded with ladies and gentlemen who were radiant with the hope of seeing Dr. Livingstone.” The British public hadn’t caught a glimpse of their beloved Livingstone since the halcyon days of 1857 when he seemed to be everywhere at once. His exploits had been a balm for the wounds of the Crimean War, the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, and the bloody slaughter of British women and children during the Indian Mutiny. Livingstone reminded Victorian Britain of her potential for greatness. The fifty-one-year-old Scot was their hero archetype, an explorer brave, pious, and humble; so quick with a gun that Waterloo hero the Duke of Wellington nicknamed Livingstone “the fighting parson.” Livingstone was equally at home wandering the wilds of Africa and making small talk over tea with the Queen. The public made his books best-sellers, his speeches standing room, his name household. Livingstone was beloved in Britain, and so famous worldwide that one poll showed that only Victoria herself was better known.
Livingstone, though, wasn’t scheduled to appear at the Nile Duel [debate about the origins of the Nile]. His first public appearance since returning from an exploration of Africa’s Zambezi River six months earlier was officially supposed to take place the following Monday. He would lecture the British Association on the details of that journey. Ticket demand was so enormous that Livingstone, standing before a massive map of Africa, would give the speech live in one theater as Clements Markham of the Royal Geographical Society read it concurrently to the overflow crowd in a second auditorium. The Chronicle‘s special edition would publish the text in its entirety. Rumors, however, said Livingstone would make an appearance at the Nile Duel as moderator. His appearance would confirm the Duel’s heft and counterbalance smirks of innuendo. For celebrity gazers and scientists alike, Livingstone, Burton, and Speke on the same stage would elevate the proceedings from grudge match to intellectual field day. Those three greats hurling geographical barbs would make the long hours in the rain more than worthwhile.