In late 1990 I found myself in the Department of Manuscripts at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh working on what was supposed to be a short-term project. The aim was to create a listing of uncataloged archival material relating to the eminent Edinburgh publishers William Blackwood & Sons. Famous for publishing George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, John Buchan, and Anthony Trollope, as well as for their monthly Blackwood's Magazine, the firm was a major presence in Edinburgh from 1805 to 1980. Over the years, most of their papers have accumulated in the National Library of Scotland, making the Blackwood Papers one of the most complete archives of publishing activity to be found anywhere in Britain. I spent nine months trying to tackle this mountain of correspondence, financial records, ledgers and ephemera. Over a decade and several academic posts later, I am still in Edinburgh, and still digging through this mound of historical documentation.
One of the most intriguing of untold tales, and one of extreme importance for historians of Africa, is to be found scattered throughout the correspondence files of the firm, and centers round three items innocuously labeled in the NLS catalog as “MS. 4872-4. John Hanning Speke. Manuscript and proofs of Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile.” Speke's role in African exploration is well known. His connection with Richard Burton in the attempt to find the source of the Nile in the late 1850s led to success and spectacular conflict.