Source of the Nile at Jinja – Jinja, Uganda - Atlas Obscura

Source of the Nile at Jinja

A strangely forgotten claimant to the much contested title of "Source of the Nile." 


On August 3, 1858, John Hanning Speke discovered the source of the Nile—in a sense. What remains unquestionable is the fact that this spot became the source of a historic feud between Speke and his expedition-mate, Richard Francis Burton, who were once united in a hellbent quest to pinpoint the same headwaters David Livingstone infamously failed to locate.

This small spot along the shoreline in Jinja, Uganda, marks the place where Speke “discovered” the Nile’s headwaters at Lake Victoria while his partner, Burton, convalesced separately at Lake Tanganyika. When the two camps reunited, Burton rejected Speke’s claim in favor of his own idea that Tanganyika was the source of the Nile River. 

Burton refused to consider the matter anything but “unsettled” until Speke leveraged the British media to lay claim to the validity of his discovery. A vicious public battle ensued between the two men, and continued to spread throughout the contemporary scientific community. It took the Royal Geographic Society stepping in to send Speke back to Lake Victoria to substantiate his theory, which he did in a manner some saw questionable, before the matter of the Nile’s source was declared settled (for a time) in 1863.

The rift between the two men, however, would never heal. Speke, now a hero of the Age of Explorers, published two books that made him look a braggart. Burton, meanwhile, refused to accept defeat. A public debate between the two men was scheduled to take place at the British Association to settle matters once and for all, but on the day before the debate, Speke suffered an accidental, fatal rifle shot to the head while hunting. Popular assumption became that Speke’s death was a well-disguised suicide, motivated by a fear of facing Burton in public.

The source of all this tumult is marked by a modest sign that reads “The Source of R. Nile - Jinja - World’s Longest River” at Ripon Falls, a series of cataracts that are partially submerged due to dams constructed downriver. A small cafe and shops, as well as boat dock with tours for hire, are located adjacent to this monument. 

Know Before You Go

The site is best accessed via boat, and boat trips to the marker are available. Camping and nature walks are available nearby. It's also a great area for birdwatching.

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