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Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure Hardcover – November 1, 2011

4.2 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Explorers of the Nile is a brilliant, scholarly and at times almost unreadably vivid account of the two decades in the middle of the 19th century when the search for the Nile’s source in central Africa was at its height.”—Ben Macintyre, New York Times Book Review
(Ben Macintyre New York Times Book Review)

"Elegantly written and skillfully crafted...The greatest strengths of this highly enjoyable and readable book are Jeal’s passion for his subject and his mastery of personalities as complex as the geography they battled to understand."—Diane Preston, Washington Post
(Diane Preston Washington Post)

"Superb narrative . . . Jeal’s judicious account is a must-read for anyone hoping to understand the internal dynamics of modern state-building in central Africa."—Brian Odom, Booklist
(Brian Odom Booklist)

"Masterly...One of the fascinations of Jeal's book and his account of this astonishing period of exploration is that it makes great efforts to strip away the accumulated myths and through this process we can begin to see these 'heroic' figures plain, to imagine them as they were to their contemporaries."—William Boyd, TLS
(William Boyd TLS)

"Tim Jeal's masterly book ... can safely supplant Alan Moorehead's 1960 classic, The White Nile... Jeal also knows how to tell a fabulous story, and he lets old-fashioned epic adventure sit at the heart of his fine book." —James McConnachie, Sunday Times
(James McConnachie Sunday Times)

"[A] wonderfully entertaining and authoritative account of the search for the Nile and its consequences."—John Preston, Sunday Telegraph
(John Preston Sunday Telegraph)

Runner-up for the 2011-2012 Los Angeles Book Festival in the General Non-fiction category
(General Non-Fiction Award Runner-up Los Angeles Book Festival)

"There are few greater stories than the race to the Nile's source... Tim Jeal gives a fine reprise, bringing together in one well-paced narrative the interlocking Nilotic adventures ... Its place [is] alongside the classics of Victorian explorer history."—Tim Butcher, Daily Telegraph
(Tim Butcher Daily Telegraph)

"If there is one book about the search for the sources of the Nile to read and keep on the shelf, this is it."—Tim Severin, Irish Examiner
(Tim Severin Irish Examiner)

"Epic in proportion...An absorbing adventure and a thought provoking morality tale."—Peter Burton, Daily Express
(Peter Burton Daily Express)

"Tim Jeal's gripping book pulls the whole astonishing story together. . . . It's as intricate and unexpected as the source of the river itself. . . All the main players were. . . examples of grit, resourcefulness and courage on a heroic scale. . . . How intimately Tim Jeal knows them all, and brings them back to life for us."—Tom Stacey,  The Spectator
(Tom Stacey The Spectator)

"Jeal's lengthy, comprehensive, and revisionist book is exciting reading both about the adventures in the field and about the clash of personalities."—Rob Hardy, The Dispatch (Rob Hardy The Dispatch)

"Tim Jeal's wonderful book is filled with anecdotes and brilliant cameos, which keep the narrative fresh and sparklingly alive. His treatment of these legendary figures is authoritative and compassionate."—Alexander Maitland, Literary Review
(Alexander Maitland Literary Review)

"Splendid."—Bernard Porter, Guardian

Won Honorable Mention in the 2012 New York Book Festival History category, sponsored by the New York Book Festival
(History Honorable Mention New York Book Festival 2012-06-12)

From the Author

Praise for Tim Jeal’s Stanley, winner of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

"A magnificent new life. . . . There have been many biographies of Stanley, but Jeal's is the most felicitous, the best informed, the most complete and readable and exhaustive, profiting from his access to an immense new trove of Stanley material."—Paul Theroux, front page, New York Times Book Review
"[An] impressive, revealing, and well written biography. . . . Tim Jeal has had both the good fortune to see [Stanley's] papers and the skill to construct a new interpretation around them. He recognizes Stanley's feats and views them in the context of his age rather than ours. Moreover, he adds new layers to his subject's character."—David Gilmour, New York Review of Books

"[T]his commanding, definitive biography . . . is an unalloyed triumph."—Jason Roberts, Washington Post Book World

“Sympathetic yet balanced, perceptive and full of perspective, this is biography at its best.”—Ross Leckie, The Times London

Named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by the New York Times Book Review

Selected as one of the best books of 2008 by the Washington Post

Nominated for the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography

The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1st edition (November 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300149352
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300149357
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #942,589 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I fell in love with the African explorers after I saw the cult-favorite movie, "Mountains of the Moon" about the African travails of Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke,in the late 1850's, and have spent the last two decades reading whatever I could get on the subject. Jeal, whose biography of Henry Stanley makes it clear he was one of the toughest, greatest African explorers, has now brought out this great summary of the latter half of the 19th century, when British (and some French and Germans) explorers undertook hardships that boggle the mind, and showed courage and endurance off the scale, to determine the millennia-old question of the source of the Nile. I knew enough of the general subject to know pretty quickly that Jeal has a mild agenda here - to bring the career of John Hanning Speke, so trashed by most Burton biographies, back into primacy for who he was and what he did, rather than what Burton said he did. It was tough; like many fans of Victorian explorers, Burton is so larger-than-life that his dark magnificence is very seductive. But I must admit Jeal, if not dethroning Burton, certainly raised Speke's achievement in my eyes. (And if you don't know what I"m talking about, you're missing one of the great case histories of human interaction and human endurance - read the book! It's the most thorough summary of the Victorian explorers since Alan Moorehead's great books back in the '60's and outshines him by having access to tons of new sources and new interpretations on this most fascinating of subjects. I should note that I began the book at the beginning of a horrific trans-Atlantic flight and finished it, more dead than alive, 14 hours later, but the book never lost me for a moment. Bravo!
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Format: Hardcover
Jeal has written a genuine page-turner, a book that will keep you up late, and get you to log on to your computer to see what else he has written so you can order those books too. The book tells the history, leavened with plenty of biographical and historical tidbits (I had, by the way, no idea that Nero, too, sent centurions out to find the source of the Nile), of the quest for the headwaters of the Nile by a remarkable group of determined, brave and downright obsessive explorers. It was, quite simply, the last great geographical/exploration mystery on the planet, a mystery even, as Jeal says, in a time of railways and the telegraph. He writes exquisitely and from a position of considerable knowledge; he's obviously not just well-versed but also deeply fascinated by the subject. I doubt if anyone has his sure grasp of the details of the 19th century exploration of Africa. The book is thoroughly exciting, appropriately scholarly (but never ever boring), and extremely pleasurable. It's the kind of book you can give to friends or family, secure in the knowledge that when they pick it up (hopefully sooner rather than later) they will become engrossed.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It is hard to know which was the greater task, discovering the sources of the Nile or discovering just who did that, as Tim Jeal goes to heroic lengths to establish his hero, Speke, as the un-credited one. It is a dramatic tale, and Jeal's sense of injustice having been done in this determination, he makes sure you get the correct picture; being the author, he has taken on the roles of judge and jury, infusing it with new layers of passion. This skews the evidence always in favor of Speke and to the detriment of most anyone else, particularly Sir Richard Burton.

It appears to start with Speke's unhappiness at being refused permission by the British Resident to explore in Africa, until Burton is on the horizon, and he is told he may go into the interior, IF he can get Burton to sponsor him (p 45). His unspoken grudge at being beholden to Burton spurs his every observation, the sting of ingratitude like the bite of an asp, and poisons the venture, as well as Jeal's retelling: although Burton desires to have no engagement with the prevalence of slaves, they are called porters or bearers in relation to Speke, but become slaves when it is a very sick Burton they carry (p.83)
When the chronometers fall out of commission, no blame is leveled (p 73), though it was Speke's job to mind them (p 58); Jeal loves to use hindsight to excoriate Burton for such lapses of judgment as not buying enough cloth or beads for trade (p68), yet when it is noted that Speke `perfectly well knew' Somalis were a grave danger in the area of their campsite and did not speak up (p 51), there is no note about his failure, although they became victims of a vicious Somali raid in the morning and were lucky to escape though badly wounded.
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Format: Hardcover
By the nineteenth century, the greatest unsolved geographical riddle was: where does the Nile come from? It was an ancient question; Herodotus and Alexander the Great had pondered it. The mystery was that the river flowed through over a thousand miles of desert in which it got no inflow from any tributary. It was only through the often agonizing efforts of a few explorers that the answer became clear. It was a group effort made by Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, and others, but there was competition and personal nastiness between them. The greatest conflict was between the once-partners Burton and Speke, and because of Burton's astonishing range of interests and influence, Speke's contribution has often been downgraded. _Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure_ (Yale University Press) by Tim Jeal is revisionist, in that it seeks to place Speke in a far brighter light than before, and to rescue him from a reputation that Burton took the first steps to sully. Burton looks worse after reading this big, exciting, and surprising history, and Speke looks brighter, and the entire enterprise of all the explorers looks more heroic and optimistic. We can't do exploration the same way today, and Jeal helps us understand how the death-defying adventures of these men, which might seem to us perversely self-destructive, were in accord with Victorian ideals of chivalry and redemption though suffering.

Jeal centers on the contributions of Burton and Speke. The two were badly matched. Burton was a brilliant blusterer, always conscious of his image, while the younger Speke was modest and easy-going, and had no reputation to keep up.
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