The Royal Geographical Society of London and Geographical Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Britain

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Chapter Three: ‘Remote Sensing’ and Victorian Exploration

From the years 1850-1870, the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) met almost exclusively in London. At their biweekly meetings, the most recent information concerning far-flung areas of the globe was presented and discussed. The sessions were organized geographically during this period with one meeting typically focusing on one continent or region; the “African Nights” routinely drew the largest crowds. Many of the members of the audience, including those who stood up and spoke, rarely, if ever left the British Isles. Others had journeyed in their youth, and thus claimed expertise well into old age. By 1863 the Society had two thousand members and was growing rapidly118. These members were interested in Africa for a variety of reasons—from the purely commercial to simple curiosity and may have been members of anthropological, commercial, colonial, and philanthropic societies as well.119 The RGS was an arena for the discussion of information about Africa and those who attended these meetings considered themselves to be possessing informed opinions about Africa. If we follow Dorothy Helly’s analysis, then it becomes apparent that the number of ‘experts’ on Africa was actually quite small in England during this time and they comprised a loosely-knit clique.120
A close reading of the minutes of these meetings, published from 1855 to 1878 as the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, provides a glimpse at how opinions were formed about Africa and the style in which information was presented and immediately discussed.121 They also allow us to examine the reception given to new information from the field. In this chapter, I will use minutes from the Proceedings and articles from the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society and other publications to analyze the reception of information from the remote explorer at a metropolitan society. Looking at the contentious debate surrounding the findings of John Hanning Speke and Sir Richard F. Burton places the explorer as a member of a scientific society and as a tool of that society’s data-gathering project.
I propose here that when we consider explorers and their relationship to the societies that desired their observations, we may consider this relationship more clearly as observer/instrument rather than admirer/explorer. The members of the society were the observers of African geography, but lacking the ability to observe it directly, they used their instruments—the explorers. Like modern space probes sent to orbit the sun or submersibles diving to film the inside of the HMS Titanic, Victorian explorers were do-it-all instruments of remote sensing, outfitted for the project, and expected to provide accurate results—and just like modern-day remote-sensing devices, the explorers did not have the final say concerning the conclusions drawn from the data they gathered.
This model of the relationship between explorer and society does not attempt to downplay the bravery and independence of the explorers. Nor do I wish to contend that the explorers saw themselves as instruments. It would be outrageous to contend that Speke or Burton considered themselves as merely the extended senses of the RGS. However, when trying to account for the immediate doubt and criticism that typically followed many explorers’ reports, using the analogy of the instrument may help us to explain the debate
Considering explorers as instruments also helps to explain articles such as, “The Climate of Lake Nyassa. Deduced from the observations of Capts. Speke and Grant,” by Francis Galton; then active in the Meteorological Society as well as the RGS.122 This article is a classic example of how the observations of explorers are used as data by a British scientist. By combining the observations with other sources and analyzing them by a variety of methods, Galton sets forth a paper on meteorology. Despite its title, this article is an exercise in induction, not deduction, as he describes the region’s climate from a limited number of sources, many of them the data collected by explorers.
In order to discuss the practice of geographical fieldwork in the mid-nineteenth century, I will initially set the historical background of the East African Expedition. Second, I will look at the inventory of the first East Africa Expedition, headed by Burton, and the realities of caravan life. Third, I will comment on the observational style of the explorers and how they went about collecting geographical information via instruments and informants. The fourth step will be to examine how the initial letters and reports of the expedition were received at the meetings of the RGS.

Historical Background

Aside from the long-standing desire of the RGS to send an expedition to the interior region of East Africa, certain events during the 1850s led directly to the expedition of Burton and Speke. The 1849 presidential address of William Richard Hamilton to the RGS mentioned Johann Rebmann, a German Lutheran missionary. Rebmann had joined Dr. Ludwig Krapf at Rabbai M’pia in 1846, where Krapf had set up mission station about 25 miles inland from Mombasa.123 In his address, Hamilton referred to Rebmann’s startling report of a snow-capped mountain called “Kilimandjaro” found between 3° and 4° South of the Equator. As Hamilton pointed out, this report strengthened the argument for all who would argue that the sources of the Nile were below the Equator, but he recommended caution for those who would jump to conclusions.124
The following year in the Journal, MacQueen wrote about Rebmann’s report and other observations from Krapf. As usual, MacQueen corroborated these reports with others, specifically mentioning a list of tribal names sent by the American Consul at Zanzibar.125 Another article published in 1850 by Baron von Müller also mentioned that he had heard of these tall, white-capped mountains being the source of the Nile.126 Müller also thought that calling any mountain, the “Mountains of the Moon” was probably folly as they could be any mountain chain. This mountain chain, he said, was the same as Herodotus’ anthropophagi (cannibals) who dwelt far up the Nile—everyone he met told him to be cautious as they were just nearby, though he never met the mysterious tribe.
Presidential addresses continued to pay lip service to the sources of the Nile over the next few years, though not much new information was forthcoming. It seemed clear to many that some lakes must lay in the interior, too many local informants had attested to the fact. Murchison, in his address of 1852, initially proposed his theory of the geology Central Africa consisting of a, “great lacustrine interior, subtended by mountains near the coasts.”127 This rainy, lake region, he proposed, should be the source of all the great rivers of Africa, whose mouths had been known for centuries.
Murchison would refer to this theory repeatedly for the next twenty years, reminding everyone that he had proposed it in 1852. Looking at the theory in perspective may help to realize the common-sense hunch that it really was. In truth the African continent was slowly being charted by the early 1850s. The only remaining “box” of truly terra incognita was about 4° N. to 20° S. Latitude and about 20° to 38° E. Longitude. The Zambezi, the Congo, and the White Nile all disappeared into this box. It was no great “theory” to claim that this region was the source of many rivers, this was already known. However, it had previously been proposed by some that the equatorial region of Central Africa was an arid region, so Murchison was promoting an alternative hypothesis.
As mentioned in chapter two, Cooley published his critique of Ptolemy’s geography of Africa in 1854, and brought into serious question any who would use the ancient geographer without qualifying reservation.128 He also reported on caravan journeys that had apparently crossed the continent.129 These publications were typical of the kind of research being done on African geography at the time: corroboration of insufficient modern reports combined with ancient sources.
The next big event in the uncovering of the region’s geography was the arrival of the famous “Slug Map” at the RGS in 1855. (see Map 2, page 129) Rebmann and Jacob Erhardt, a missionary who had joined Rebmann and Krapf, produced this map, titled “The Sea of Uniamesi &c.” In it, Erhardt and Rebmann pieced together the accounts of traders who traveled yearly from the coast to the interior. The map showed that a very large inland sea in the interior was the destination of many caravans. The map gave no indication to the source of the Nile. This map was derogatorily called the “Slug Map” because of its shape. Speke referred to it as, “this monster piece of water”.130 Despite the criticism that missionaries received when they attempted to be geographers, some, like Livingstone, became famous for their efforts. Like it or not, many untrained geographers provided the initial pieces of information about an unexplored area.131 Therefore, a missionary’s report was often an important piece of information for the RGS.
At the meeting of the RGS on 10 December, 1855, MacQueen and Erhardt argued over Rebmann’s map. MacQueen insisted that his research showed that there must be two lakes in the interior while Erhardt insisted that his informants’ information led to the conclusion that only one, very large lake, dominated the interior. These minutes have the air of frustration throughout. The geographers truly desired an expedition to be sent in order to solve this problem once and for all. These debates, and the improved finances of the Society’s coffers, prompted the serious discussion of selecting and outfitting an expedition to East Africa, an old idea that now seemed more possible.
Into the vacant post to lead the expedition the Society selected Richard Burton. Already a noted explorer and travel writer, Burton was famed as a master linguist and expert of disguise. In 1855, Burton had met John Hanning Speke at Aden, a British-controlled supply depot on the Gulf of Aden near the entrance to the Red Sea. Burton was heading up a small expedition across the Gulf of Aden to Somaliland. One of the members, J.E. Stocks, had died suddenly and a replacement was needed. Speke, recently on leave from the Indian Army was in Aden and eager to visit Africa. At the last minute, he was added the group. The first portion of the expedition was generally successful, but when the group returned to Somaliland in April of 1855, their camp was raided, Lt. Stroyan killed, and the others gravely wounded. The events of the raid have been a source of contention for biographers since then, but many assume it is the root of the difficulties between Burton and Speke. Burton, it is argued, had questioned the courage of Speke during the raid.

Chapter One: The Royal Geographical Society of London and Geographical Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Britain
Chapter Two: Modes of Discovery
Chapter Three: ‘Remote Sensing’ and Victorian Exploration
Chapter Four: The Impact of Local Informants at the Periphery to Geographical Knowledge at the Core
Local Informants and British Explorers: The Search for the Source of the Nile, 1850-1875

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