John Petherick - 1813-1882 - Collectors in East Africa - 22.

By Bernard Verdcourt

Extracted from The Conchologists’ Newsletter, No.132, pp. 453–458 published March 1995

John Petherick was Welsh and came from Glamorgan but I am not certain he was born there. He hardly concerns us as he did not actually reach the East African territories, but since he was an interesting character and was the first person to collect one of the most well known East African species (Burtoa nilotica) some notice is appropriate. He is unfortunately still best known for not meeting Speke and Grant at the end of their epic discovery of the sources of the Nile.

He began life as a mining engineer and later entered the service of Mohammed Ali Pasha in Egypt in 1845 being at first employed in a fruitless search for coal deposits in Upper Egypt, the Red Sea Hills and Kordofan. He reached Khartoum in 1846. Leaving government service he became a gum arabic trader in Kordofan from 1848–1853 living at al-Ubaiyad, but later, when the gum trade suffered from over-supply, turned to hunting elephants on the White Nile. He explored the river Jur and river Yalo reaching the borders of the Azande country. In 1858 he was appointed British Vice-Consul in Khartoum and by some reports later Consul (Richard Hall (1980) for instance states, ‘After holding for years the honorary title of "Vice-consul for the Sudan" he had managed in Britain to have himself upgraded to full consul with a modest salary’. In the walled garden at the consulate he kept ostriches, wild boar, hyenas, dog-faced baboons and leopards.

Going on home leave to Britain in 1859 he married (Note 1) and was also invited by the Royal Geographical Society to take charge of an expedition to meet Speke and Grant on the return from the journey on which they were just embarking to discover the source of the Nile. It was in fact Speke who met Petherick in 1859 and approved the plan; Speke and Grant had Petherick’s promise to meet them to comfort them during their long journey. The Royal Geographical Society had given Petherick £1,000 to buy boats and supplies (grain etc.) for the explorers when they arrived at Gondokoro; when they did finally arrive in February 1863, Petherick and his wife, who had been on a trading expedition to the West (Note 2) were not there to meet them but were only a day or so away and the actual supplies were all there. Nevertheless it was Baker (see Conchologists’ Newsletter 86: 111—112 (1983)) who greeted Speke and Grant and gave them all they needed including the use of his boat.

Speke became paranoiac about this failure to honour a promise and it is now difficult to form an unbiased opinion. Speke was excessively rude to the Pethericks and more or less accused them of stealing the money and going off trading for ivory and slaves instead of looking for Grant and himself. Seeing Speke was a year late and his accusations quite unfounded the whole affair was unfortunate. Speke would not touch any supplies from Petherick saying that his friend Baker had supplied all his needs. Actually the Pethericks had almost died getting to Gondokoro. In fact the Royal Geographical Society had had a report that Petherick and his wife were dead (see Note 3 for a premature ‘obituary’) and had asked Baker to take over the meeting of Speke and Grant, who for all they knew might also have been dead since they had been missing for nearly a year (how you could be called ‘missing’ whilst traversing areas where there was supposed to be absolutely no communication is a mystery to me).

Speke repeated the whole business in his Journal in a toned down way and even the gentle Grant, who had been reasonable at the actual meeting made accusations in his A Walk across Africa. Various letters were published in The Times by Petherick’s supporters. A printed letter to Sir William Hooker (and presumably sent to many others) from P.B. M’Quie, Petherick’s brother-in-law, entreats him to suspend judgement on Petherick until the latter’s own report was available. Speke even wrote an uncharitable letter dated Christmas Day 1863. Even Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, President of the Royal Geographical Society, complained of Speke’s attack (see Note 4).

Petherick was removed as Vice-Consul by the simple expedient of suppressing the Vice-Consulate but this was, however, more connected with his excessive zeal in reporting suspected slave traders to the Consul General in Egypt and then being himself accused of indulging in it (Note 5). The British Government had no proof this allegation was true so could hardly directly sack him. R. Hall (1980) says, however, that Russell dismissed Petherick from the consulate (Note 6), but as a result of this Speke episode his reputation suffered ever afterwards and in fact to this day he is omitted from the D.N.B. He left the Sudan in 1865 (Note 7). In 1869 he and his wife published their book Travels in Central Africa. Appendix A in volume 2 is a voluminous account of the Speke Affair, Appendix C is of more lasting value, an account of the Fishes of the Nile by Dr Albert Günther based on Petherick’s collections. He also collected plants which are preserved at Kew.

An interesting side issue is that the famous expedition of the Dutch Tinne sisters comprising Mme Henriette L.M. Tinne, her daughter Alexandrine P.F. Tinne and her sister Adrienne van Capellen was setting out just as Speke spurned Petherick’s stores and they were delighted to make use of them. J.A. Tinne lists some of the delicacies of which they availed themselves. Their expedition resulted in one of the largest, most sumptuously illustrated botanical books (Kotschy & Peyritsch (1867)), with Latin and French texts side by side, but the two elder women died during the journey. The printing costs were met by Alexandrine P.F. Tinne and J.A. Tinne.


List of Mollusca described from material collected by J. Petherick in the Sudan

Bulimus niloticus Pfr., 1861.   Sudan, ‘sources of the White Nile’ Petherick (BM 1958. 1.10. 74–5, lectotype and paralectotype) (Crowley and Pain (1959, p. 1. fig. 4) figure the lectotype).
Burtoa nilotica (Pfr.).
Limicolaria turris Pfr., 1861.    Sudan, ‘sources of the White Nile’ (Dyur River ( = Djur, Dyoor, or Jur, now river Sue) selected as type locality by Crowley & Pain). Petherick (BM 1994 003, two syntypes). (Crowley & Pain (1970) in their revision stated that ‘the present location of Pfeiffer‘s type of turris is unknown).



1.    R. Colquhoun, British Consul General in Egypt wrote to Christopher Rigby, Consul in Zanzibar, on 20 July 1861. ‘Petherick takes with him a stout bucksome wife. He will be joined by a great friend of mine whom you perhaps know, Samuel White Baker, the Ceylon sportsman. He too takes up a charming little woman with him. I much fear, both these ladies may lose health perhaps life in their rambles’ [how wrong he was!]. Lady Baker outlived her husband by 22 years and Katherine Petherick, a talented and very loyal woman, stood up to appalling conditions during the expedition in the south.


2.    For some contrary reason Petherick had turned aside when within 150 miles of Gondokoro and marched west through swamps towards a depot where he maintained a team of ivory traders.


3.    Frank T. Buckland (1863) in his premature announcement of the death of Petherick and his wife called him ‘a kind-hearted, plucky, powerfully built specimen of true John Bull’ – his letter was signed ‘2nd Life Guards, Regent’s Park, London, Jan. 30, 1863’. News had arrived by telegram that Petherick and his wife had been drowned in the White Nile. A Dr Genezik who had lived next door to them in Khartoum for many years wrote to Buckland from Prague saying he did not believe the story and categorically stated they must have been murdered ‘by negroes or their own people’ and the drowning story cooked up by the killers. Buckland was anxious that the murderers should be called to account since not only was Petherick a fine brave fellow but also an emissary of the British Government (see Note 8).


4.     Sir Roderick wrote fourteen letters to Grant between 1864 and 1866 (Sotheby’s 1979 – lot 162) and complained in one about Speke’s attack on Petherick – ‘he sent me a most violent Telegram. So violent that if I had made it public he could have been much injured’. In it he ‘denounced’ Petherick as a false man etc.’


5.    Petherick had been told to deal severely with slave traders when he became vice-consul and he put two in irons on his journey south and sent them back to Khartoum for trial. Since Khartoum thrived on slavery and most of the multinational white population was mixed up with it he could hardiy expect much support. One of the men put in irons was Petherick’s own agent Abd el Majid. He was on his way back after leaving the ill-fated supplies for Speke and Grant and found to have slaves hidden. He was immediately released by the Governor General when he arrived in Khartoum. The eventual suggestion that Petherick was himself involved in slaving was started by a letter signed by most of the white population of Khartoum probably mainly because Petherick’s behaviour had engendered much anti-British feeling. It is unlikely he was involved himself but he appears to have allowed his men to acquire young slaves, and people he employed at a distance and seldom saw would certainly have been involved.


6.    Hall explains that Lord Russell wrote to Speke about reports linking Petherick with the slave trade and asking if he could suggest some person willing to go to Egypt to suspend Consul Petherick and, although it is not known what Speke replied, only twelve days later Russell minuted that Petherick should be dismissed and at the end of October sent a despatch to Khartoum giving three months notice to close the Embassy.


7.    The Pethericks, after returning from Gondokoro, spent some months in Khartoum before going home but were so hounded by the governor-general that they found sanctuary in the Austrian Consulate; when the staff there began to resign they had to leave but further protection was offered after Petherick had done the rounds in Khartoum saying he had been victimised. The Austrian Foreign Minister finally forced them to leave. Petherick then planned to sue the Khedive of Egypt for slander and they lived for six months in the American Mission in Cairo, but they were finally urged to return home and continue their suit from there.


8.    Richard Hall (1980) gives a good many references to Petherick apart from those already quoted. According to him Petherick was a contrary and awkward personality which he suggested was due to living so long on the fringes of civiisation which put him out of touch with contemporary ways. Lord Russell, the Foreign Secretary who had of course charge of all consulships, likened him to a hippopotamus or a wild horse. This probably only means he was a forthright, down-to-earth character and Buckland’s assessment rings more true. Hall gives a reproduction of an excellent photograph of Petherick (opposite page 81).



Buckland, F.T., 1863.   Reported death of Mr. Petherick. The Field no. 527.
Crowley, T.E. and Pain, T., 1959.   A monographic revision of the African land snails of the genus Burtoa (Mollusca: Achatinidae). Annls. Mus. r. Congo Belg sér 8º Sci. Zool. no. 79. (pp. 35, 3 plates
Crowley, T.E. and Pain, T., 1970.   A monographic revision of the African land snails of the genus Limicolaria Schumacher (Mollusca: Achatinidae). Annls. Mus. r. Afr. Centr. sér 8º Sci. Zool. no. 177. (pp. 61, 6 plates
Desmond, R., 1977.   Dictionary of British and Irish botanists and horticulturalists, London.
Hall, R., 1980.   Lovers on the Nile, London.
Hill, R., 1967.   A biographical dictionary of the Sudan, ed. 2. London.
Kotschy, C.G.T. and Peyritsch, J.J., 1867.   Plantes Tinnéenes ou descriptions … en Afrique Centrale. Plantae Tinneanae, sive descriptio plantarum Vienna.
Moorehead, A., 1960 (several later impressions and editions).   The White Nile. London [essential background reading].
Petherick, J., 1861.   Egypt, the Soudan and Central Africa with explorations from Khartoum on the White Nile to the regions of the equator. Edinburgh and London.
Petherick, J. and Petherick, B.H., 1869.   Travels in Central Africa with explorations of the western Nile tibutaries. London, 2 vols. [although Hall etc. give Mrs Peterick’s name as Katherine, both Kew and BM library catalogues list her as B.H. and the signed frontispiece also bears these initials].
Sotherby’s, !979.   Catalogue of valuable autograph letters … Europe [including papers of James Augustus Grant] [this is an incredibly valuable store of information about African exploration].
Tinne, J.A., 1864.   Geographical notes of expeditions in Central Africa by three Dutch ladies. Trans. Hist. Soc. Lancs. & Chesh. new ser. 4: 107–148 (frequently given as Tinné).

B. Verdcourt