Mountains of the Moon (1990)




Director:  Bob Rafelson.

Starring:  Patrick Bergin (Richard Francis Burton), Iain Glen (John Hanning Speke), Richard E. Grant (Larry Oliphant), Fiona Shaw (Isabel Arundel), John Savident (Lord Murchison), James Villiers (Lord Oliphant).

Captain Richard Francis Burton's and Lt. John Hanning Speke's expedition to find the source of the Nile river in the name of Queen Victoria's British Empire.



Good movie.  Here were two very different men, the man's man Richard Francis Burton (Patrick Bergin), rough and ready, and the more intellectual and soft, but perhaps more ambitious, John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen).   This is quite an adventure film because the obstacles these explorers faced were literally life-threatening: ferocious, murderous tribes, enslavement, fatal illnesses, porters that steal the explorers blind, and the threat of death from lack of food and water.  I can easily say better them than me.  I would have no desire to put my life in such danger for the long-shot of discovering the source of the Nile.  But it does make for a great movie. 


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

Historical Background:


1821 (March 19) – Richard Burton born in Torquay, Devon. His father was a half-Irish officer in the British army and his mother was a wealthy heiress. He had a sister, Maria Katherine Elizabeth Burton, and a brother, Edward Joseph Burton.

1825 – he moved with family to Tours, France and then to quite a few other places. He was educated by tutors. He learned French, Italian and Latin.

Burton always considered himself an outsider. His constant traveling may have contributed to this.

1840 – he entered Trinity College, Oxford. Not surprising for an outsider, he did not fit in well.

1842 – he deliberately violated the rules and then talked back to the school officials. He was expelled permanently.

Burton enlisted in the army of the East India Company and was posted to the 18th Bombay Native Infantry based in Gujarat.

1849 (March) – he returned to Europe on sick leave.

1850 – he was a prolific write; his first book published was Goa and the Blue Mountains. a guide to the Goa region.

In Boulogne he met his future wife Isabel Arundel.

1853 – he explored Arabia, visiting Medina and Mecca. His account of his exploration made him famous.

1854 (March) – he was transferred to the political department of the East India Company.

1854 (September) – he met Lt. John Hanning Speke (who would later accompany him on his most famous exploration). His next move was the exploration of modern Somalia, which took him four months.

1855 – he rejoined the army but saw little action.

1856 – with the backing of the Royal Geographical Society he set out to discover the source of the Nile.  (The Nile is made of two rivers:  the White Nile flows from Lake Victoria; the Blue Nile flows from Lake Tana in northern Ethiopia.  The two tributaries join at Khartoum.  In 1618 Padre Páez, a Spanish missionary in Ethiopia, was the first to discover the source of the Blue Nile.)

Before leaving Burton proposed to his future wife Isabel Arundel. He traveled with Speke.

They started from east coast of Africa and worked westward. Their guide was Sidi Mubarak (a.k.a., "Bombay"). This was no easy journey: hard to get bearers, a lot of desertion of bearers, theft by bearers, and tropical diseases.

Speke got an infection from trying to remove a beetle and was left deaf in one ear. He was also blind for part of the journey. Burton was also disabled at times. He could not walk for part of the journey and had to be carried by bearers.

1858 (February) – the expedition arrived at Lake Tanganyika. They continued exploring.  Burton took ill and rested, while Speke pressed on, and thereby became the first European to see Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile. (At the time, however, no one knew for sure the source of that great river.)

Both Burton and Speke were in extremely poor health and returned home. Back home, a bitter, public quarrel developed between the two explorers.

1861  --  Burton married Isabel Arundel. 

Further expeditions into the region were made by Speke and James Augustus Grant, Sir Samuel Baker, David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.



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