Orders, Decorations and Medals (28 July 1993)

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Date of Auction: 28th July 1993

Sold for £2,000

Estimate: £2,500 - £3,000

The important French Geographical Society gold medal awarded to Captains Richard F. Burton and John Hanning Speke for their exploration of the Great Lakes of Africa and the search for the source of the Nile

France, GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY MEDAL, gold, unsigned, 56mm, obverse, inscribed 'Société/de/Géographie/Fondée/En MDCCCXXI' within a wreath of laurel leaves; reverse embossed 'Aux/Capitaines/Richard F. Burton/Et J.H. Speke/Pour Leur Exploration/Des Grands Lacs/De L'Afrique Orient le/MDCCCLVII' within a wreath of laurel leaves, the edge with French gold mark, good very fine and very rare


In 1859 the French Geographical Society awarded its Gold Medal for the most important discovery of the year to two British officers of the Indian Army-Captains Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke. For centuries geographers and hydrographers had been eager to learn what vast reservoir could possibly feed the mighty Nile, which flowed for a thousand miles through one of the World's driest basin areas without drying up. It was to solve this mystery that the expedition, under Burton's command, set out from the Island of Zanzibar off the East African Coast in the summer of 1857.

Besides revealing the 'greatest geographical secret after the discovery of America' a successful foray into the heart of the 'Dark', and possibly rich, Continent was one of particular interest to a nation determined to remain the largest sea trader in history. Their journey got off to an inauspicious start. Travelling through Zungomero, Ugogo and Ukimba, forty of their porters, originally 132 in number, carrying nine thousand pounds weight of equipment, deserted and two thirds of their pack animals dropped dead. In addition, Burton, who had on one occasion been forced to face down his escort of Baluchi soldiers with a revolver, succumbed to malaria. Likewise Speke began to suffer painfully from ophthalmia. On the 7th of November, swaying with delirium on their donkeys, they came within sight of the slave and ivory trading citadel of Kazeh, ruled by Snay bin Amir. Employing his notable linguistic talents, Burton gathered from the Amir that to the west, along his planned route, lay the 'Sea of Ujiji' and to the north lay the 'Sea of Ukewere'. On the 14th of December they pressed on through the inhospitable terrain, arriving at the Swahili village of Msene, where Burton was able to announce that it was Christmas. Here, it seems that Burton, unlike Speke, was quite ready to indulge in some of the native comforts. He later remarked on the talents of three local girls 'These beautiful domestic animals smiled graciously, when in my best Kinyamwczi, I did my devoir to the sex, and a little tobacco always secured for me a seat in the undress circle'.

The next and final leg of the journey comprised two months of unremitting hell which Burton recalled as 'burning and painful eyes, hot palms and soles, a recurrence of shivering and flushing fits, extremities alternately icy cold, then painfully hot and swollen, indigestion, sleeplessness, cutaneous eruptions, fever sores, languor, dejection, all resulting from torpidity of liver, from inordinate secretion of bile. 'Notwithstanding their sufferings, the eastern shore of the inland sea of Ujiji, soon to be named Lake Tanganyika, was reached on the 1st of January 1858. On surmounting the final slopes which overlooked the broad valley basin, Burton, racked with fever, rejoiced at this moment filled with pain and wonder', convinced that he had found the source of the Nile. Speke, all but blind, could only perceive a 'misty veil’. The explorers descended to the lakeside village of Ujiji to recuperate. Burton was now eager to explore the lake further and ordered Speke to procure a dhow. The latter's failure to negotiate successfully in this matter cost him the respect of the porters and earned him the contempt of the natives. It also re-established Burton's doubts about his brother officer's capabilities. What Burton did not know, however, was that during the episode Speke had been attacked by a horde of beetles, one of which had crawled deep into the tympanum of his ear. Stoically Speke endured his private agony and later wrote 'It was the most painful thing l ever rem ember to have endured; but, more annoying still, I could not masticate for several days, and I had to feed on broth alone. For many months the tumour made me almost deaf and ate a hole between the ear and nose, so that when I blew it, my ear whistled so audibly that those who heard it laughed'.

Both explorers now decided to undertake a detailed hydrography of the lake. Propelled by eight native oarsmen they travelled for thirty three days hoping to find the outlet which fed the Nile. But they were to be severely disappointed; the river that they had heard about flowed into, not out of, the lake. The natives refused to go further north, and a storm almost sank the canoes. Burton later wrote 'We deserved the Victoria Cross, we were heroes, brave of the braves; we wanted to be looked at by the fair, to be howled at by the valiant'. The expedition was exhausted, nothing more could be asked of its leaders, not its porters or servants .At the end of June they returned to Kazeh, Burton barely able to walk and Speke half blind. Nevertheless, Speke was determined to reach the 'Sea of Ukewere' to the north. Years later Burton was to claim that he only gave Speke permission for his 'voluntary' trek in order to 'get rid of him'. Speke set out with thirty five followers on the 9 July, and on 3 August was able to have his first complete view of the lake which he had already decided to name the 'Nyanza Victoria'. At once he declared that he had found the true source of the Nile. Later expeditions would prove him right. Having taken various compass bearings and having bemused the natives by giving names to several prominent features, he trekked back to Kazeh to break the news to Burton. Burton refused to believe Speke's claim and pointed out that his measurement made no sense. By the time they had marched back to the coast relations between them were frosty to say the least. Owing to Burton's broken health, Speke travelled ahead of him, arriving in England aboard HMS Furious on the 8 May 1859, and soon announced his discovery to the Royal Geographical Society, in spite of his farewell promise which Burton later recalled as 'Goodbye old fellow, you may be quite sure I shall not go up to the Royal Geographical Society until you come to the fore and we appear together. Make your mind quite easy about that’.

The relationship between Burton and Speke had never been ideal. They were both well known travellers before the East African journey, and had first met in Aden in 1854. 'Dick' Burton, born in 1821, was six years older than Speke. The scion of a landed Irish family, he was the son of a disreputable Lieutenant Colonel of the 36th Regt. with a penchant for duelling with long barrelled pistols. He was educated abroad and at Trinity College, Oxford, where legend had it hat he had 'witnessed a public execution in order that he might watch the blood spurt', and, 'ravaged sirens in a Frenchy brothel until they begged for more.’ To his delight he was sent down in 1841. Having kicked about town with his brother, who had been similarly rusticated from his college at Cambridge, Burton entered the Bombay Infantry. In India he indulged his natural talent for languages, preferring to learn them amongst the natives than from the official text books. Rejecting the traditional pursuits of most young bloods, Burton frequently made nocturnal excursions among the makeshift tenements which surrounded the military cantonment. A loner, his brother officers soon branded him the 'white nigger’. One of the great influences in his life was his overall commander in chief, Sir Charles Napier, for whom he undertook an extraordinary survey of the brothels in the vicinity of Karachi. In 1849 he returned home, regretting that he had achieved nothing from seven years foreign service and began his career as a prolific author. In 1853 Burton donned the garb of a pilgrim and made his epic journey to Mecca, the holy shrine forbidden to infidels, and thereby won national acclaim as the beau ideal of the dashing, swashbuckling Englishman. The following year he undertook an exploration of Somalia; it was here that he was thrown together with Jack Speke.

The son of a West Country landed farmer, Speke had been educated at a minor public school and had seen service in the Punjab Campaign under Gough, and served during the Sikh War at the battles of Chilianwala and Gujerat. This 'six foot huntsman, crack shot, 'nigger-dammer' and small-arms enthusiast' was not Burton's idea of the perfect travelling companion, however Speke did possess one particularly attractive asset which guaranteed his place in Burton's team-£400 cash. Whilst Burton, in disguise, set out for the inland city of Harar, Speke was given the job of exploring the Wady Nogal. He failed to find this oasis and was led astray by his guide who took advantage of his ignorance of Somali languages and customs, however, he did return with an impressive collection of dead trophies. Nevertheless the two officers next proposed a trek into East Africa, nominally to investigate the slave routes between Berbera and Zanzibar, or at least that is what they told officials in Aden. It seems they had already discussed the 'blue ribband' of African exploration, the search for the source of the Nile. They started out in April 1855, but unfortunately the Somalis had turned hostile, and, on the night of the 19th, attacked Burton's camp, killing Lieutenant Stroyan of the Indian Navy. Burton and Speke were both wounded and their stores plundered. Meanwhile, the Crimean War had broken out and it became unacceptable for the officers to extend their furlough any longer. Speke was promoted, and attached to a Turkish Regiment at Kertch, where he served until the end of the war. Likewise, Burton volunteered for active service and was posted to the irregular Osmali Cavalry as Chief of Staff. Once the war had been concluded, Burton's mind concentrated once more on the search for the Nile's source, which ultimately would result in the long standing dispute between himself and Speke. In due course both men wrote books making contradictory claims.

Ultimately, Speke returned to Africa and made a further expedition with Captain James Grant. But still interest in the matter was so great that it was arranged for Burton and Speke to debate the subject before a meeting of the British Association at Bath on 18 September, 1864. That morning, however, John Hanning Speke, while partridge shooting at his uncle-in-law's seat, Neston Park, accidentally and fatally shot himself. Burton later became British Consul at Trieste, and is remembered with Foster Arbuthnot for their 198-page translation of 'The Kama Sutra'. He was created KCMG in 1886, and died in Italy on 20 October 1890.