Who discovered Lake Victoria?

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By Mackenzie Roche

Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa and the second-largest freshwater lake in the world. This magnificent natural phenomenon was discovered in the mid-19th century by John Hanning Speke, a British explorer. The discovery of Lake Victoria was a significant milestone in the exploration of East Africa, paving the way for further expeditions and scientific research.

Early explorers of East Africa

Before the European explorers arrived, the region around Lake Victoria was inhabited by various indigenous communities, including the Luo, the Bantu, and the Nilotic tribes. However, the first known European to visit the area was the Portuguese explorer, João da Nova, who passed by the East African coast in the early 16th century. In the 19th century, the search for the source of the Nile River motivated several explorers to venture into the interior of East Africa, including Richard Burton, John Speke, and James Grant.

The search for the source of the Nile

One of the great geographical puzzles of the 19th century was the source of the Nile River. Several theories and speculations were proposed, but the mystery remained unsolved until the mid-19th century. In 1856, Speke and Burton set out on an expedition to find the source of the Nile, but they had to abandon their mission due to conflicts with the local authorities. The following year, Speke returned to East Africa to continue his search.

John Hanning Speke’s journey

In 1858, Speke set out on a journey from the East African coast towards the interior, accompanied by his guide, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, and a caravan of porters. After several months of arduous travel, they reached the shores of a vast unknown lake, which Speke believed to be the source of the Nile River. He named the lake "Victoria" in honor of Queen Victoria of England.

The first sighting of Lake Victoria

On July 30, 1858, Speke and his companions reached a hill overlooking a vast expanse of water. Speke wrote in his journal: "The view was so extensive, and the character of the lake so different from anything we had seen before, that we were quite unable to come to any conclusion as to its size or shape." They descended to the shore and camped at a village, where they were welcomed by the local people.

Confirmation of the lake’s identity

Speke’s discovery of Lake Victoria was met with skepticism and controversy, as some scholars argued that the lake he had found was not the source of the Nile, but a separate body of water. However, Speke’s claim was later confirmed by other explorers and geographers, including James Grant, who accompanied Speke on his second journey to East Africa, and Sir Roderick Murchison, the president of the Royal Geographical Society.

Controversies and challenges

Speke’s discovery of Lake Victoria was not without its controversies and challenges. He faced criticism from his fellow explorer, Richard Burton, who accused him of fabricating his findings and stealing his ideas. Speke also had to deal with the hostility of the local authorities, who saw him as a threat to their power and influence.

Speke’s legacy and impact

Despite the controversies and challenges, Speke’s discovery of Lake Victoria had a profound impact on the exploration and scientific understanding of East Africa. It opened up a new chapter in the study of African geography, ecology, and anthropology. Speke’s legacy also inspired other explorers and scientists to further explore the region and its natural wonders.

Recent discoveries and studies

In recent years, Lake Victoria has been the subject of intense scientific research, focused on understanding its ecological and environmental significance. Studies have revealed that the lake is a vital source of freshwater for millions of people in East Africa, but also faces serious threats from pollution, overfishing, and climate change.

Acknowledging local knowledge

Despite the significance of Speke’s discovery, it is important to acknowledge the local knowledge and traditions of the indigenous communities who have lived around Lake Victoria for centuries. Their insights and experiences are critical to understanding the ecological and cultural significance of the lake and its surrounding landscape.


The discovery of Lake Victoria by John Hanning Speke was a remarkable achievement that opened up new horizons in the exploration and scientific understanding of East Africa. It also highlighted the importance of collaboration and respect for local knowledge and traditions. Today, Lake Victoria remains a fascinating and awe-inspiring natural wonder that continues to inspire scientific research and cultural appreciation.


  • Bierman, J. (2015). Lake Victoria: Africa’s inland sea. Yale University Press.
  • Speke, J. H. (1864). Journal of the discovery of the source of the Nile. William Blackwood and Sons.
  • Winchester, S. (2003). The map that changed the world: William Smith and the birth of modern geology. HarperCollins.
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Mackenzie Roche

Mackenzie Roche, part of the content operations team at TravelAsker, boasts three years of experience as a travel editor with expertise in hotel content at U.S. News & World Report. A journalism and creative writing graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park, she brings a wealth of literary prowess to her work. Beyond the desk, Mackenzie embraces a balanced life, indulging in yoga, reading, beach outings, and culinary adventures across Los Angeles.

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