The White Nile – Alan Moorehead

The first time I saw the book ‘The White Nile’ was when I was a probationer in Delhi. One of my fellow probationers was carrying it which I borrowed for a few hours. I immediately became a lifelong fan of the author. I rushed that evening to Connaught Place and bought the book from the Galgotia (an iconic bookshop which had died a few years ago) bookshop. The book has a companion–The Blue Nile – but The White Nile belongs to the ‘classics’ category. Recently, Tim Jeal has come out with a book titled The Explorers of the Nile, which is brilliant and reestablishes the reputation of Speke, but Moorehead has a charm of his own.

The Mystery of Nile

No unexplored region in our times, neither the heights of the Himalayas, the Antarctic wastes, nor even the hidden side of the moon, has excited quite the same fascination as the mystery of the sources of the Nile. For 2,000 years at least the problem was debated and remained unsolved; every expedition that was sent up the river from Egypt returned defeated. By the middle of the nineteenth century — barely a hundred years ago — this matter had become, in Harry Johnston’s phrase, ‘the greatest geographical secret after the discovery of America’. – The Author in his preface

The Nile that flows in Egypt is the ‘full’ Nile. It becomes a single river in Khartoum, Sudan, where the White Nile and the Blue Nile join. The Blue Nile originates from Ethiopia. The source of the White Nile is still being debated. Though the White Nile flows from Lake Victoria, a British explorer, Neil McGregor, claimed in 2006 that he had found the most distant source in Rwanda, at the beginning of the Kagera River.

he book ‘The White Nile’ covers the period between 1856 and 1900 when several exciting incidents took place along the White Nile.

Burton and Speke

Richard Francis Burton was already a big name when the Royal Geographical Society accepted his offer of leading an expedition to trace the source of the White Nile. He was, in addition to being an officer of the East India Company’s Bombay Light Infantry, a great linguist and a translator. He was also a veteran of many expeditions. In 1853, he went on a dangerous journey to Mecca and Medina, dressed as a Muslim Pathan. He chose John Hanning Speke, a fellow officer in the Indian Army, as his companion. The expedition began well and what they thought was a single great lake inland was in fact three separate lakes – today known as Lake Victoria, (a source of Nile) Lake Tanganyika (a source of the river Congo) and Lake Malawi (a source of Zambezi). Burton fell ill meanwhile and Speke who went ahead returned with the news that he had found the source of Nile and it was Lake Victoria. Burton was skeptical (he thought it was Lake Tanganyika) and the rift between the two started, which finally ended in the mysterious death of Speke just before he was to engage Burton in a debate which was due to take place in the city of Bath.

Fame is but ephemeral. The author says:

Later a plaque was placed at the Ripon Falls. It read


                       ‘This source’, one notes: not the source. But it hardly matters. The Ripon Falls have now been submerged beneath a hydro-electric dam, and somewhere in the green depths of the great river the place where Speke’s plaque used to stand has been obliterated for ever.

Dr. Livingstone and Stanley

One of the famous meetings of the 19th century was the one between Livingstone and Stanley when the latter greeted the Doctor with the words, ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume’. The Doctor was an important hero of the 19th century England and his books were a sensation. Livingstone too was obsessed by his quest for the Nile sources and his desire for the destruction of the slave trade, but his illness overcame him. In May 1873, at Chitambo in what is now northern Zambia, Livingstone’s African servants found him dead, kneeling by his bedside as if in prayer. In a difficult journey of several months, they carried his body to the coast. It was taken to England and, in a great Victorian funeral, was buried in Westminster Abbey. This is how Moorehead describes the event:

However often the story is told of Susi’s and Chuma’s journey to the coast with Livingstone’s body it remains incredible, and perhaps it was a miracle of a kind, since such devotion among primitive and uneducated men can hardly have been inspired by any ordinary emotion. They cut out the heart and viscera, and dried the body in the sun for a fortnight. It was then wrapped in calico and placed in a cylinder of bark taken from a tree, and this in turn was sewn into a sheet of sailcloth and lashed to a pole so that it could be carried by two men. In the middle of May, Susi, Chuma, and sixty-odd men who had remained faithful to the end, set out for Zanzibar. Well over 1,000 miles divided them from the Indian Ocean, and it was not really feasible that such a strange burden could be carried over that distance in the heart of Africa where so many tribes were out to despoil every wayfarer who came by. Nevertheless the journey was accomplished in eleven months.

Two Adversaries

In the 19th century a conflict took place that is uncannily similar to the one that took place between the US and Osama bin Laden. Then the adversaries were General Gordon and Mahdi. The General was an intensely religious fanatic, who butchered the Chinese with no remorse during the Taiping Uprising of China that lasted between 1851 and 1864. The other was Al Mahdi who wanted to and established, albeit briefly, a religious kingdom at Omdurman, which was on the left bank of Nile, opposite the great city of Khartoum in Sudan. When he was threatening Khartoum Gordon was sent to evacuate Egyptian forces. Khartoum came under siege for a month and on 26 January 1885 the rebels broke into the city, killing Gordon (apparently against Mahdi’s instructions) and the other defenders. The British relief force arrived two days later. The British public reacted to his death by acclaiming ‘Gordon of Khartoum’, a martyred warrior-saint.

The author says:

For some months prior to the fall of Khartoum Gordon’s name had been a household word, not only in England but throughout the rest of the world as well, and it evoked the extremes of pity and admiration almost everywhere. From one end of Britain to the other the public had anxiously and eagerly followed the story of Wolseley’s advance (the officer sent to rescue Gordon and his troops), and had debated Gordon’s chances of holding out. Towards the end of January hopes had run very high. Punch had actually anticipated the rescue by publishing at the beginning of February a full-page cartoon which showed the General at the gates of Khartoum welcoming the expedition into the city. The caption was ‘At last!’ The following week the magazine was obliged to make a painful and humiliating retraction. It printed another cartoon showing an agonized Britannia with her arm over her eyes and in the background the Mahdi riding with his hosts into Khartoum. The caption this time was ‘Too late!

Mahdi, incidentally, died a natural death at the age of 41, probably due to typhoid.

A prescient Author

It is amazing that Alan Moorehead very clearly predicted the conflict between Islam and Christianity would be played out in Africa and its neighbourhood. He says:

Christianity, then, penetrated Central Africa under the cover of Islam, and it is remarkable that the Moslems took so long to realize what was happening to them. In the early days they were almost unfailingly helpful to the missionaries and explorers; they welcomed them as civilized companions in the vast wilderness of African barbarity. It was only later, at the end of the 1870s, when they saw that they were facing destruction — or at any rate subservience — at the hands of the Christians that they turned hostile. The Arabi rising in Egypt, the revolt of the Mahdi in the Sudan, and the persecution of the Christian missionaries and their followers in Buganda, were the result. These disturbances ended, as we have seen, in the crushing defeat of Islam along the Nile, but it has proved to be only a temporary defeat. Since 1900 there has been a steady resurgence of Islam in East and Central Africa, and at the present time the Moslems are gaining more adherents than are the Christians; as Roland Oliver points out, they are winning ‘the race — for the animist peoples of the world’. Uganda, admittedly, is largely Christian now, but it will soon be an independent state, and both Egypt and the Sudan are already under Moslem rule. No prudent man, however, would venture to say that this is the final end of the matter. The conflict between the two religions — the East against the West — appears to be a permanent part of the African scene; it flows on, sometimes underground, sometimes above, as persistently and inevitably as the Nile itself.”

Moorehead’s book, even after 60 years, makes a gripping reading, which is a hallmark of a classic.

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