Empire by Jeremy Paxman is a sweeping historical and cultural survey of the history of British imperialism that was published as a companion to a BBC series of the same name (hosted by Paxman). When reading it I came across the following passage about the discovery of the source of the Nile by the Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke that had some personal resonance for me:
Does any of this matter now, other than as a ripping yarn? The waterfalls which tumbled out of Lake Victoria, through which Speke intended to offer the Marquess of Ripon immortality by naming them Ripon Falls, largely disappeared when a dam was built in the 1950s. If the name of Speke is known at all, it is more likely to be as a deprived area of Liverpool, once home to the Bryant and May match factory and the Triumph sports-car plant, both long-gone British brands. Richard Burton has his splendid tomb in a Mortlake cemetery in the shape of an Arab tent, but mention the name and you are likely to have to explain that you’re not talking about the Welsh actor twice married to the actress Elizabeth Taylor.
This made me sit up for a couple of reasons. First of all, as a schoolboy forty years or more ago now I remember writing a report on Burton and Speke and their discovery of the source of the Nile. It’s a story I’ve never forgotten, and since then I have always known about Burton and Speke. Now I’ll admit I may be an outlier, but what Paxman says is an interesting reflection on the sort of thing that falls out of public awareness and “doesn’t matter now.” And it makes sense. I mean, is there any way to quantify what parts of history matter now?
I guess knowing who these two guys were isn’t going to impact the life of anyone today, so I agree with Paxman’s wry take on matters. But isn’t he being a bit provincial, or at least limited to his own experience, in thinking that anyone outside of England would know that Speke is a neighbourhood in Liverpool? I’ve never heard of the place, or of Bryant and May matches. Even Triumph sports cars are only a name that rings a distant bell. I can’t remember ever actually seeing one, or knowing where they were made. The way we understand history is such a personal thing.