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Behind Africa’s explorers, Muslim empires on the make

How Tripoli, Egypt, and Zanzibar rode 19th-century European expeditions to profit

In June 1857, the British explorers Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke set out on what would become one of the legendary quests in the history of exploration: to find the source and map the course of Africa’s White Nile. Their point of departure was Bagamoyo, a coastal town in present-day Tanzania, then ruled by the island sultanate of Zanzibar. Over the next 21 months and a journey of hundreds of miles, they became the first Europeans to discover two of Africa’s great lakes: Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria, which would prove to be the principal source of the Nile.

Burton and Speke’s expedition was just one of 19th-century Europe’s efforts to penetrate the African interior, efforts that left a lasting impression on the cultural memory of the West. Burton and Speke, like many ­explorers of their era, became heroes at home, remembered for promoting the spread of commerce and Christianity, filling in the blank spaces on the map, and exemplifying national greatness.

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