THE English explorer John Hanning Speke is correctly credited with being the first European to discover that Lake Victoria was the source of the River Nile. Speke’s journeys in Eastern Africa made him famous around the world and he was considered a true hero of the Victorian age.

What very many Scots do not know, however, is that if it had not been for a bout of illness, Speke would have shared the credit for his discovery with his great Scottish friend, James Augustus Grant, who was born in this week of 1827, and who deserves renown in his own right.

The son of a Church of Scotland cleric, James Grant, and his wife Christian, James Augustus Grant was born on April 11, 1827, in Nairn where his father was parish minister. Educated locally at Nairn Academy and then moving to Aberdeen Grammar School, Grant later studied at Marischal College which would later merge with King’s College to become Aberdeen University.

His studies included maths, chemistry, botany and natural history, ideal for the explorer he would become.

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In 1846 at the age of 19, he secured a commission in the Bengal infantry and fought as a junior officer in the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848-49 which ended with most of the Indian sub-continent under British control. Grant rose to become adjutant of his regiment but left it and fought with the 78th Highlanders, later part of the Seaforth Highlanders, in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 when he was wounded at the siege of Lucknow while in command of two companies that fought bravely in a rearguard action.

During his stay in India, Grant had become friends with Speke, both men avid explorers and hunters. Grant also had a facility with languages and back home and recovering from his injuries, Grant approached Speke and asked to join him on the expedition Speke was planning to equatorial Eastern Africa. He would become invaluable both as a botanist and interpreter dealing with the native bearers on whom the expedition’s success depended.

Speke had already explored the area with fellow Indian Army officer Richard Burton, and the two men had fallen out spectacularly. They had jointly become the first Europeans to discover Lake Tanganyika before Speke found the great lake he called Victoria. His claim that Lake Victoria (below) was the source of the Nile could not be proved because he had not found any outflow from the Lake into the Nile, and Burton openly dismissed his assertions.

The National:

The Royal Geographical Society had been obsessed for years with finding the source of the Nile and now it commissioned Speke to go back to Lake Victoria. From the outset in 1861, Grant proved a most loyal, highly capable and devoted lieutenant and for much of the journey into the heart of the continent he had independent control of much of the baggage train.

Grant contracted a horrific tropical disease, however. He described it thus: “The right leg, from above the knee, became deformed with inflammation, and remained for a month in this unaccountable state, giving intense pain, which was relieved temporarily by a deep incision and copious discharge. For three months abscesses formed, and other incisions were made; my strength was prostrated; the knee stiff and alarmingly bent, and walking was impracticable … “By the fifth month, the complaint had exhausted itself; at last I was able to be out of the hut inhaling the sweet air, and once more permitted to behold the works of God’s creation in the beautiful lake and hills below me.”

He was cared for by the local people and gradually recovered his mobility, but he was still weak when Speke judged that the weather made the time ripe for the final thrust to the north of Lake Victoria.

But for his illness, Grant would have been alongside his friend and both would be remembered in the way that Matthew Flinders and George Bass are jointly recalled in Australia.

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For years afterwards, it was suggested that Speke wanted the sole glory for what was to come, but Grant himself dispelled that notion, writing: “Speke asked me whether I was able to make a flying march of it with him, while the baggage might be sent on towards Bunyoro.

At that time I was positively unable to walk twenty miles a day, especially miles of Uganda marching, through bogs and over rough ground. I therefore yielded reluctantly to the necessity of our parting, and I am anxious to be explicit on this point, as some have hastily inferred that my companion did not wish me to share in the gratification of seeing the river. Nothing could be more contrary to the fact. My state of health alone prevented me from accompanying him.”

In July 1862, Speke duly did find the outflow from the lake that formed the White Nile at a place he called Ripon Falls. Returning home the following year, Speke was acclaimed for his discovery though his boasting made him unpopular and Burton continued to denigrate him.

It was Grant who became more famous in the long run because Speke died in a shooting accident in 1864 and it was Grant’s book A Walk Across Africa, published that year, and the botanical finds he had made which gained him a fine reputation. Always one for talking to the locals, Grant also became the first man to write in English about the customs, habits and culture of that part of Africa.

He was given the top award of the Royal Geographical Society and made a Companion of the Order of the Bath for his achievements.

Now in his forties, Grant returned to military service and served as head of intelligence in the Abyssinian campaign of 1868, being made a lieutenant-colonel and given more medals for his work.

Having married his wife Margaret Laurie in 1865 and having three daughters and two sons with her, Grant retired to Nairn where he lived to 64, dying in 1892.

His elder son also explored Africa before becoming an MP. His other son was killed in the Boer War.