« PreviousContinue »
geographical problem, people not only speculated freely, but often guessed wildly and believed absurdly. Herodotus enumerates in his history the many conjectures made by the Egyptian philosophers respecting the source of the Nile, as well as their explanations of the most remarkable of its phenomena. He was told that the periodical inundation of its banks was caused by the melting of the snows on the Mountains of the Moon; but how, he observes, can the river be swollen by melted snows, running as it does from the hottest regions of the world, where rain and frost are unknown? Recent discoveries, however, have ascertained that there are mountains of great elevation near to the Equator which are covered with eternal snow. But we have at present no reason to think that the streams and torrents which flow from the precipitous sides of Kenia and Kilimanjaro contribute any quantity of water to the grand reservoir of the Nile. The great volume of the water of the Nile is undoubtedly due to the rain which falls in the equatorial regions of Africa. With respect to the actual sources of the Great River, Herodotus says he had found no one among all with whom he had conversed, whether Egyptians, Libyans, or Greeks, who professed to have any knowledge of them whatever except one person, namely, the scribe who kept the register of the sacred treasures of Minerva in the city of Sala ; but even he did not seem to be in earnest when he said that he knew them perfectly. His story was, that between Syene, a city of the Thebai's, and Elephantine, were two hills with sharp conical tops, the name of one being Crophi, and that of the other Mophi, and that midway between them were to be seen the fountains of the Nile, which it was impossible to fathom. The fountains were known to be unfathomable, he declares, because Psammitichus had made trial of them, and had caused a rope to be made many fathoms in length, and had sounded the fountain with it, but could find no bottom; from which Herodotus, evidently more than half-believing the story, infers that there probably existed certain strong eddies, owing to which the water dashed against the mountains, and that by reason of these eddies a sounding-line could not get to the bottom. The Egyptian was evidently practising on the credulity of the inquisitive traveller, and doubtless smiled at his simplicity when he saw him recording, with his habitual care and accuracy, the names of mountains which had no existence whatever but in the imagination of the learned scribe, whom Herodotus probably rewarded for supplying him with such an important addition to his geographical knowledge.
The Nile was known, Herodotus says, to the extent of four months' journey, either by land or by water, above the Egyptian boundary, and there the course of the river was from west to east; but beyond that point no one possessed any certain knowledge of it, as the country was uninhabitable by reason of its excessive heat. The Bahr el Abiad, or the White River, the largest and longest of the streams, is now acknowledged to be the Nile, although the Bahr el Azrek, or Blue River, which flows from the highlands of Abyssinia and the source of which is well known, long had its advocates. The remaining branch, or the Atbara, flowing from the east, is of less importance than the two others. All these branches were well known to Ptolemy, who flourished at Alexandria about A.d. 150. This geographer seems always to have considered the western river as the true Nile; and it is remarkable, as a proof either of the possession of some more accurate knowledge than any which has descended to modern times, or as a correct inference from the observed phenomena, that he places the sources of the western river in numerous lakes lying at the base of the Mountains of the Moon. Strabo also mentions lakes from which the Nile issues in the east, but Sir Gardner Wilkinson * identifies these lakes, as well as the large lake Pseboa, above Meroe, with the modern Dembea, in Abyssinia, from or through which the Blue Nile runs.
The proofs which Ptolemy has given that he was well informed on the hydrography of at least two of the branches of the Nile, have always been thought to render his opinion of the origin of the western branch, or the White Nile, well worthy of consideration. In conjecturing the White Nile to be the true Nile, he agrees with Herodotus. About 200 B.C. Eratosthenes, the learned librarian of Alexandria, possessed almost as correct a knowledge of the course of the river as any that has been attained by modern explorers until within the last few years. He agrees with Ptolemy in placing great lakes at the head of the two principal branches of the Nile; and, as his knowledge proved to be correct with respect to the Blue Nile, there was reason for supposing that it might prove equally correct as to the White Nile. A remarkable fact has recently been brought to light, proving that a far more accurate knowledge of the hydrography of the Nile was possessed by some ancient than by modern geographers. Colonel Sir Henry James lately called the attention of Sir Roderick Murchison to Lelewel's 'Geographie du Moyen Age,' where
Ravlinson's Herodotus, vol. ii. p. 43.
there is a map taken from the Arabian work called 'Rasm,' which map was copied by Abu Diafar Mohammed Ben Musa, A.D. 883. This map is, therefore, 1000 years old, and on it the source of the Nile is represented as being in a lake called Kura Kavar, situated on the Equator, an island in it being represented as in longitude 30° 40' E. This exactly agrees with modern discoveries.
Reference was made in a recent number of the 'Journal of the Royal Geographical Society' to a passage of Seneca,* in which that writer relates a conversation which he had with two centurions, who, in the early part of the reign of Nero, had been sent to search for the sources of the Nile. With the assistance of the King of Ethiopia and other chiefs, they, he says, to a great extent accomplished their task; but their further progress by water was found impracticable, when they reached the great jungles or marshes (immensas paludes), perhaps the Bahr el Ghazal, in which only a canoe containing one person could Boat. Seneca's further account of certain rocks out of or from between which the river was said to fall with great force is remarkable. He may either refer to the imaginary mountains which Herodotus mentions, or to the rush of the great stream from the Lake Nyanza, or from some point in its course of sufficient importance to justify partially if not entirely the imperfect description which he gives.
The principal modern explorations of the Nile have been that by Bruce, who confidently asserted and believed he had proved the Blue Nile to be the Great River of Egypt, and whose inquiries in the country of Darfur led him to place the source of the river at about 7° N. lat. and 27° long., not however in lakes, but in some stream flowing from the Djebel-el-Kamar, or Mountains of the Moon, the name which was given by Ptolemy to the great range in which he affirmed that the true source of the Nile would be found ;—one by Linant, who travelled on behalf of the African Association in 1827, and surveyed the course of the White Nile from its confluence with the Blue River to Aleis, a distance of 132 geographical miles;—several modern expeditions, one under the direction of Ibrahim Kashef, an officer of the Viceroy of Egypt, who departed from Khartum, and dividing his party marched for thirty-four days along both banks of the White River without making any considerable progress or discoveries. Between the years 1839 and 1843, three expeditions were fitted out by the Egyptian Government for the exploration of the Nile,
* Nat. Qutest., Lib. 6.
and and by which the river was followed up into regions previously unknown to the modern world. The first of these expeditions ascended the river as far as 6° 30! N. lat, discovering in its passage the mouth of the Sobat, Lake No, and the Bahr el Ghazal; the second is alleged to have reached 4° 42' N. lat.; the third did not get so far. The second of these expeditions was the most important The officer in command was so much impressed by the appearance and magnitude of the Bahr el Ghazal that he would certainly have proceeded to explore that remarkable piece of water in preference to the Tubiri, conceiving it entitled by its importance to be considered the true Nile, rather than the river up which he continued his course; but his instructions were imperative to pursue his explorations to the south, whereas the Bahr el Ghazal would have taken him to the west or south-west.
Linant with a party of natives ascended the river as far as 13° 43'N. lat., but was unable to proceed in consequence of the native wars. The description which was given him of the country agrees with that which has since been derived from personal observation. The stream of the Nile was represented as being frequently lost in extensive lakes lying far to the west, and communicating with each other during the periodical inundations, the intervening country being flat. The observations which he himself made confirmed the truth of the description which he received. There was a total absence of gravel and sand in the bed of the river, which negatived the supposition that it could be fed by mountain streams; and its shoals and flats being composed of fine clay,* Linant concluded that it could not issue direct from any lofty region; or if its true source should really be in the Mountains of the Moon, it flowed after leaving them through a great extent of level country. One of the phenomena which it presented led him to the conclusion that it issued from or passed through some large lake; prodigious quantities of fish were observed carried down with the stream at the commencement of the freshes, and Linant rightly inferred that they could only come from a lake, from which they escaped as soon as the rains and the annual inundation set in.
The position of the Nyanza had been imperfectly indicated to Captain Speke by the Arabs whom he met at Kaze, on his first
* The only sand in the White Nile is not brought down by the river, bat blown there from the interior by the south-west winds.
visit visit to the country. It was found to be separated from the Tanganyika by only 200 miles. The southern extremity was observed to be in 2° 30' Sq lat., and its breadth there about ninety miles. It was fed by numerous streams which flowed from the mountain range which divided it from the Tanganyika, as well as by others, and by marshy rivulets which, supersaturated with water in the rainy season, overflow their banks and pour their contents into the lake. The existence of these great lakes in the interior of Africa had often been remarked upon by Sir Roderick Murchison, in his Addresses to the Royal Geographical Society ; and he intimated the probability 'that the true centre of Africa is a great elevated watery basin, often abounding in rich lands, its large lakes being fed by numerous streams from adjacent ridges, and its waters escaping to the sea by fissures and depressions in the higher surrounding lands.' And here we cannot but express our satisfaction that the statements of the two enterprising German missionaries Krapf and Rebmann, which were received with so much suspicion, relative to the existence of great mountains covered with snow in this region of Africa, have been completely confirmed by the subsequent explorations of Baron C. von Decken and Mr. Richard Thornton, the former of whom ascended Kilimanjaro to the height of 13,000 feet to the snow-line. The rains at the Equator can scarcely be said ever to cease, but it is in April and November that they are heaviest. It is certainly a most beneficent arrangement that the configuration of Central Africa should be such as to cause the periodical expansion of its rivers into broad but shallow lakes, thereby supplying a great amount of moisture to the atmosphere, without which, in such a region, there could have been no organic life; equatorial Africa would otherwise, instead of a terrestrial paradise covered with a rich and luxuriant vegetation, and the home of millions of the human family revelling in material abundance and animal enjoyment, have been a scorched wilderness in which it would have been utterly impossible for man to subsist. The country on the Nyanza was found by Captain Speke, on his first visit, to be not only perfectly healthy, but abounding in all the necessaries of life. Coffee, the banana, numerous oleaginous plants, the pine apple, the ground-nut and cocoa-nut, rice, the cotton plant, were successfully cultivated, and the hills were covered with herds of fine cattle. During his first visit to the lake, Captain Speke received vague accounts of the Kitangule and Kitonga, rivers flowing into it. A third large river to the north was described to