Dear Commons Community,
I have just finished reading River of the the Gods: Genius, Courage and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, a new book by Candice Millard. A New York Times bestselling author, Millard tells once again the story of Richard Burton and John Speke who travel through East Africa to find the source of the Nile in the 1850s. There are a number of other books and biographies such as Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton by Edward Rice that tell the grueling trek of these explorers who brave difficulties especially paralyzing illnesses to find the beginning of the White Nile. Millard focuses mostly on the conflicts between the two protagonists. While originally good friends, Burton and Speke become lifelong enemies especially after their return to England. Although Speke rightfully is credited with finding Lake Nyanza (renamed Lake Victoria) and establishing it as the source of the White Nile, it is Burton who is the more interesting of the two. We learn of Burton’s life before and after the discovery, his antagonistic personality, his wife, and his prolific writings and translations of Middle Eastern and Asian books. Millard also gives a good deal of credit to Sidi Mubarek Bombay, a former slave and lead guide who keeps the expeditions together. A nice touch!
I enjoyed River of the Gods… It is a good summer read and at three hundred plus pages, you will likely get through it quickly. The last seventy or so pages will definitely keep your attention as the conflict between the two men escalate until Speke dies suddenly at the age of 37 during a hunting accident.
Below is a review that appeared in The New York Times.
The New York Times Review of Books
Exploration at the Edge of Disaster
By Edward Dolnick
May 15, 2022
RIVER OF THE GODS: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile,
by Candice Millard
The first law of travelers’ tales is simply put: the worse, the better. No reader wants to hear of well-made plans or sunsets that paint the sky in glorious reds and purples. Give us a ship trapped in the ice or desperate wanderers sitting down to a meal of frozen boot. Better yet, give us two Victorian rivals in East Africa, supposed colleagues who were consumed with hate for each other, weak from fever, half-starved and half-blind but nonetheless obsessed with solving a mystery that had mocked the world for 2,000 years.
“River of the Gods” is a lean, fast-paced account of the almost absurdly dangerous quest by those two friends turned enemies, Richard Burton and John Speke, to solve the geographic riddle of their era. The two men had set out, in 1857, to find the source of the Nile. Candice Millard, formerly a National Geographic writer and editor and the author of a gripping book about Teddy Roosevelt’s adventures in South America, has here plunged into another tale of exploration at the edge of disaster.
The search for the Nile’s headwaters was not simply a chase for fame and glory, though it was that. Filling in that tantalizing blank on the map would represent a genuine contribution to knowledge as well. It would not come easy.
Burton, six years older than Speke and more experienced, was the expedition leader. Speke was second in command. They should have worked well together. Speke was a skilled surveyor and geographer, Burton an astonishingly gifted linguist. Both were fearless and ambitious, but they had little else in common.
Burton was a scholar and an adventurer — the first Englishman to travel to the forbidden city of Mecca (disguised as a Muslim), a linguist who spoke 25 languages, and a translator who would one day bring the Kama Sutra and “Arabian Nights” to a vast audience of titillated, scandalized Victorians. Speke was a more conventional character, a soldier from an aristocratic family, a big-game hunter and, in one acquaintance’s admiring description, “a fine, manly, unaffected specimen of an Englishman.”
They quickly became fierce enemies. Yoked together in pursuit of the same goal, they devoted vast stores of energy to denouncing each other, as if “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” had been rewritten to feature a pair of mismatched Victorian explorers.
Almost from the start, Burton and Speke found themselves tormented by a host of mysterious pains and illnesses. Three months into their journey they came to a 7,000-foot-tall mountain range. “Trembling with ague, with swimming heads, ears deafened by weakness, and limbs that would hardly support us,” Burton wrote, “we contemplated with a dogged despair the apparently perpendicular path.”
Speke needed the support of three men just to keep on his feet. Then his fever boiled over and he began raving in delirium. Porters took away his weapons, for everyone’s safety. The expedition’s supply of food, which was meant to last a year, had nearly run out. There were no villages nearby to trade with and scarcely any game to hunt. Desperate for protein, the travelers took to eating ants.
This is not new ground — the most recent writer to have come this way is Tim Jeal, author of the thorough and engaging “Explorers of the Nile” — but Candice Millard has earned her legions of admirers. She is a graceful writer and a careful researcher, and she knows how to navigate a tangled tale.
Curiously, Millard provides few of the natural history vignettes that were highlights of “The River of Doubt,” her Teddy Roosevelt book. There are hardly any mentions of elephants, except as their tusks figured in the ivory trade, and only the briefest mention of lions. Leopards and giraffes and wildebeests turn up in only a single paragraph.
Millard sticks close to Burton and Speke, even dashing past such important and colorful figures as David Livingstone and Henry Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame). But she takes pains to put her story in context. Unlike Scott and Amundsen, say, whose race to the South Pole played out on an empty continent, Burton and Speke set out into territory that, Millard notes with characteristic liveliness, “had in fact been occupied continuously by human beings for hundreds of thousands of years longer than London or Paris.”
But the Nile had never yielded its secrets, though traders had long recounted stories of towering mountains and giant lakes that might have given rise to a mighty river. The problem for locals and traders alike was scale — knowing a great deal about one region or stretch of river was far different from knowing the full course of the longest river in the world. Just how all those lakes and rivers connected, across vast watersheds, no one knew. Explorers since Roman days had tried to follow the Nile upstream to its headwaters. They had all failed. The new strategy was to make an end run instead, by marching inland from the coast.
Burton and Speke and other explorers wound their way like armies on the move, in caravans of 100 or 200 men. Most of the paths they followed had been laid down over the course of centuries by African and Arab traders in ivory and enslaved people. Even in the 1850s those trade caravans continued to thrive. Throughout East Africa, Millard writes, “the shackling and selling of human beings was still a common and daily occurrence.”
Porters staggered along with tusks that weighed up to 100 pounds, cut from slaughtered elephants. Victims of smallpox lay dead along the trail. Hordes of unfortunate souls who had been captured in raids or purchased like animals trudged their weary way along, destined for slave markets.
One of the heroes of Millard’s story had once marched in one of those slavers’ caravans, in ropes and chains. Sidi Mubarak Bombay would play an indispensable role as a guide to Burton and Speke — he was, Burton said, “the gem of the party” — and he had endured a lifetime of hardships that surpassed anything that befell his employers.
Bombay was born in a village near the present-day border of Tanzania and Mozambique. Kidnapped by raiders, he was dragged hundreds of miles to the coast and then flung into a crammed boat for the 200-mile crossing to Zanzibar. Those who died at sea were tossed overboard. Bombay survived. In Zanzibar’s notorious slave market, he was exchanged for a few lengths of cloth and shipped to India, where he lived in slavery for 20 years.
Bombay was freed on his master’s death and made his way back to Africa. By the end of his life, Millard writes, the man who had been stripped of his name and family had become “not only one of the most accomplished guides in the history of African exploration but likely the most widely traveled man in Africa.”
History buffs know the names of Burton and Speke and their fellow explorers. Millard reminds us of the role of men like Bombay, who guided them, and the anonymous porters and laborers, who marched alongside them or struggled to carry their frail, feverish bodies in hammocks, mile after endless mile over hills and across rivers.