Exploration of East Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the East African interior was the African region least known to the outside world. That situation changed after growing European interest in finding the source of the Nile River spurred extensive exploration.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, East Africa;coastal trade towns on the eastern coast of Africa maintained important commercial relations with the interior of the continent and with Arab communities lying across the Indian Ocean. Trade routes stretched from the coast far inland, where Arab and Swahili merchants traded in such commodities as ivory Ivory East Africa;slave trade and slaves. To Europeans, however, the interior of East Africa was largely a mystery, and with the encouragement of their governments and the help of Africans themselves, they proceeded to explore the region. Exploration;East Africa East Africa;exploration of Missionaries;in East Africa[East Africa] Africa;exploration of Livingstone, David [p]Livingstone, David;explorations of Nile River;source of British Empire;and East Africa[East Africa] [kw]Exploration of East Africa (1848-1889) [kw]East Africa, Exploration of (1848-1889) [kw]Africa, Exploration of East (1848-1889) Exploration;East Africa East Africa;exploration of Missionaries;in East Africa[East Africa] Africa;exploration of Livingstone, David [p]Livingstone, David;explorations of Nile River;source of British Empire;and East Africa[East Africa] [g]Africa;1848-1889: Exploration of East Africa[2550] [g]Kenya;1848-1889: Exploration of East Africa[2550] [g]British Empire;1848-1889: Exploration of East Africa[2550] [g]Tanzania;1848-1889: Exploration of East Africa[2550] [g]Uganda;1848-1889: Exploration of East Africa[2550] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1848-1889: Exploration of East Africa[2550] [c]Exploration and discovery;1848-1889: Exploration of East Africa[2550] [c]Geography;1848-1889: Exploration of East Africa[2550] Stanley, Henry Morton Burton, Sir Richard Francis Speke, John Hanning Grant, James Augustus Baker, Sir Samuel White Thomson, Joseph Krapf, JohannLudwig Rebmann, Johann

The Missionaries;in East Africa[East Africa] East Africa;missionaries in German cleric Johann Ludwig Krapf tried to establish missions in northeastern Africa before undertaking a more successful attempt in what is now Kenya. Hoping to thwart the Arab slave trade by establishing Christian missions, and intrigued by accounts of the great lakes and snow-capped mountains of the East African interior, the German laid the groundwork for an expedition into the interior. However, he became stricken with malaria Malaria;in Africa[Africa] and sent a fellow missionary, Johann Rebmann, in his place in April, 1848. As a result, Rebmann became the European who is known to have seen Africa;mountains Mount Kilimanjaro Kilimanjaro, Mount , the highest mountain in Africa. After rejoining his young colleague in 1849, Krapf himself became the first European to see Mount Kenya Kenya, Mount , the continent’s second highest mountain.

In 1855, Krapf Krapf, Johann Ludwig published a map detailing his discoveries and conjectures about the East African interior. The ancient Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy Ptolemy, Claudius had suggested that the great Nile River had its source in a range he called the Mountains of the Moon Mountains of the Moon . Krapf’s map seemed to confirm Ptolemy’s claim, and spurred Great Britain’s Royal Geographical Society Royal Geographical Society (RGS) to commission the famous explorer Richard Francis Burton Burton, Sir Richard Francis [p]Burton, Sir Richard Francis[Burton, Richard Francis];explorations of and the young army officer John Hanning Speke Speke, John Hanning to seek out the source of the Nile. After outfitting in Zanzibar Zanzibar , the pair set out westward from the coast of what is now Tanzania in June, 1857, and reached the inland town of Tabora in early November. On February 13, 1858, after a grueling journey, they became the first Europeans to lay eyes on Lake Tanganyika Tanganyika, Lake . Burton believed that this lake—which is now known to be the second largest in Africa—was the source of the Nile.

Burton and Speke retraced their route to Tabora in late June, 1858, at which time Speke turned north to investigate stories of another large body of water. That body turned out to be the largest lake in Africa. Speke gave it the name Victoria Nyanza, or Lake Victoria. According to local informants, the lake was the source of a large river flowing to the north—in the direction of the Nile. In Speke’s estimation, Lake Victoria was the true source of the Nile. Speke returned to England ahead of Burton Burton, Sir Richard Francis [p]Burton, Sir Richard Francis[Burton, Richard Francis];explorations of and, contrary to an agreement with his partner, proclaimed his discovery.

In the light of Speke’s persuasive, but inconclusive, evidence, the RGS sponsored a second expedition. In 1860, it sent Speke back to East Africa in the company of fellow army officer James Augustus Grant Grant, James Augustus . On this expedition, Speke Speke, John Hanning was able to see the river that empties from Lake Victoria’s northern reaches. He and Grant Grant, James Augustus subsequently descended the river along most of its course, arriving at the mouth of the Nile on the Mediterranean Sea.

Many accepted Speke’s conclusion that Lake Victoria Victoria, Lake was the source of the Nile, but among his detractors was Burton. Burton pointed out that Speke had not been able to follow the river flowing out of Victoria along its entire length from Lake Victoria and therefore could not be certain of his claim. A public debate to settle the matter was scheduled for September 16, 1864, but on the day before the meeting, Speke killed himself in what was believed to be a hunting accident. It was later established beyond any doubt that Lake Victoria is the major source of the Nile. Thus, in one of history’s great ironies, Speke Speke, John Hanning , a much less accomplished explorer than Burton, solved the greatest geographical puzzle of his age.

Explorers’ Routes in East Africa





The search for the source of the Nile inspired other exploring expeditions. In one of the most notable efforts, Samuel White Baker Baker, Sir Samuel White and his wife decided upon a seemingly direct approach. They attempted to follow the Nile from its lower reaches in Egypt to its headwaters. The Bakers had already entered what is today Sudan when they were asked by the RGS to search for Speke and Grant Grant, James Augustus , who were feared dead. After setting out in December, 1862, they eventually located the explorers near Gondokoro on the Upper Nile. Although Baker was disappointed to learn that Speke had apparently solved the mystery of the Nile’s source, he continued his journey and in 1864 became the first European to see another of the great East African lakes, northwest of Lake Victoria. That lake he named Albert Nyanza, or Lake Albert, after Queen Victoria’s recently deceased consort, Prince Albert Albert, Prince .

During the 1850’s, the Scottish missionary David Livingstone Livingstone, David had made his way from south-central Africa to Luanda, an Atlantic port in Angola. Angola He then retraced his route and subsequently followed the Zambezi River Zambezi River eastward to the Indian Ocean. The British government asked him to continue his explorations of the Zambezi River. Hoping to use his exploratory work to forward European colonization and the eradication of slavery, Livingstone set out again in 1858 in the company of his wife. Although much about the expedition went awry, Livingstone became the first European to see Lake Nyassa Nyassa, Lake (also known as Lake Malawi), the southernmost of East Africa’s great lakes. His wife fell ill and died on April 27, 1862. Meanwhile, Livingstone became upset by the evidence he observed of the predations of Arab and Portuguese East Africa;slave trade slave traders in the region.

The goal of what would be Livingstone’s final expedition was ambitious in the extreme: to identify the sources of three of Africa’s greatest rivers, the Zambezi, the Congo, and the Nile. Backed by the RGS, he set out from the east coast in early 1866. He reached Lake Nyassa in early August, by which time most of his porters had deserted him. Weakened by hunger and illness, Livingstone was rescued by traders and taken to the town of Ujiji on the east shore of Lake Tanganyika Tanganyika, Lake . He set out once more, traveling north, but was forced to return to Ujiji, ill and dejected. There, on November 10, 1871, journalist Henry Morton Stanley Stanley, Henry Morton [p]Stanley, Henry Morton;and David Livingstone[Livingstone] Livingstone, David [p]Livingstone, David;and Henry Morton Stanley[Stanley] found the presumably lost explorer and uttered the now famous greeting, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”

Contemporary engraving of Henry Morton Stanley’s meeting with David Livingstone at Ujiji.

(Arkent Archive)

After Livingstone recovered, he and Stanley explored the northern banks of Lake Tanganyika in the hope of identifying a source for the Nile, but the prize continued to elude him. Livingstone refused to leave Africa with Stanley, instead making one last effort to trace the origin of the great river, and was to die of dysentery on May 1, 1873, in what is now northeastern Zambia. Stanley Stanley, Henry Morton [p]Stanley, Henry Morton;explorations of went on to make a number of discoveries in eastern and central Africa in later expeditions. He circumnavigated Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika, Tanganyika, Lake confirming that the latter was not part of the Nile system. In 1888, he became the first European to see Lake Edward, which lies on the border between what are now Uganda Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Although the issue of the Nile’s source was largely settled, European exploration of East Africa continued on a somewhat smaller scale. The Scottish geologist Joseph Thomson Thomson, Joseph traveled through much of what is today Kenya in 1882-1883, while Hungarians Ludwig von Hoehnel Hoehnel, Ludwig von (1857-1942) and Samuel Teleki Teleki, Samuel (1845-1916) carried out explorations in the borderlands of Kenya and Ethiopia Ethiopia;exploration of in 1886-1889. The latter explorers became the first Europeans to see Lakes Rudolf (now Turkana) in northern Kenya and Stefanie (now Chew Bahir) in southern Ethiopia.


John Hanning Speke (with beard) and James Augustus Grant interviewing the Ganda king Mutesa I in what is now Uganda in 1862.

(Arkent Archive)

In little more than four decades, European explorers filled in the previously empty map of East Africa with myriad details and broadcast their findings through their books and lectures. The knowledge they obtained was bought at great cost, however, as the explorers routinely risked their health and their lives. Burton Burton, Sir Richard Francis [p]Burton, Sir Richard Francis[Burton, Richard Francis];explorations of and Speke Speke, John Hanning , for example, lost their pack animals, were deserted by their porters, and fell gravely ill during their search for the Nile. Livingstone underwent the same experiences before he was found by Stanley, and he ultimately died on a similar quest. Speke may have committed suicide under the strain of his efforts in Africa and his fear of confronting the formidable Burton.

As time passed, the quest for geographical knowledge in Africa gave way to the desire for commerce, the drive for colonization, and a growing Western intolerance for slavery. The indefatigable Livingstone had been motivated by all of these concerns and is properly remembered as one of the most humane of European explorers. By the time of Thomson’s Thomson, Joseph explorations during the early 1880’s, the East African slave trade was on the wane and the colonization of Africa was well under way. Believing themselves entitled to occupy the lands they had crisscrossed and mapped, Europeans—British, Germans, Portuguese, and Italians—divided East Africa among themselves.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burton, Richard F. The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration. 1860. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1995. Burton’s lively account of his controversial expedition with Speke during the 1850’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dugard, Martin. Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Popular account of Henry Morton Stanley’s search for the lost explorer David Livingstone. Map, illustrations, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lovell, Mary S. A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. Dual biography of the brilliant explorer and his wife. Illustrations, map, chronology, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLynn, Frank. Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992. Revisionist history detailing the psychological drives of the explorers and surveying their methods. Illustrations, maps, bibliographical essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moorehead, Alan. The White Nile. Purdys, N.Y.: Adventure Library, 1995. First published in 1960 and often reprinted, this engaging history surveys the major explorations of East Africa through the end of the nineteenth century. Maps, illustrations, and bibliographical notes.

Exploration of West Africa

Exploration of North Africa

France Conquers Algeria

Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls

British Expedition to Ethiopia

Exploration of Africa’s Congo Basin

Zanzibar Outlaws Slavery

Berlin Conference Lays Groundwork for the Partition of Africa

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Sir Richard Francis Burton; David Livingstone; Saՙīd ibn Sulṭān; John Hanning Speke; Henry Morton Stanley. Exploration;East Africa East Africa;exploration of Missionaries;in East Africa[East Africa] Africa;exploration of Livingstone, David [p]Livingstone, David;explorations of Nile River;source of British Empire;and East Africa[East Africa]

Categories: History