The Nile’s mythic reputation as the longest river in Africa, and arguably the world, once inspired generations of European explorers to seek its source—and exploit Africa’s vast resources in the process. Now, thanks to this richly detailed story well told by historian Candice Millard, a colorful and controversial chapter in world history resurfaces. In River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, 19th-century explorers’ egos loom godlike over expeditions, their abused local guides save lives and prompt discoveries, and the second largest continent on Earth finally gets mapped.
Millard, the prize-winning author of Hero of the Empire, among others, introduces a cast of characters and succeeds in making each of them unforgettable. Richard Burton, “an army of savants in a single man,” was chosen by the Royal Geographical Society in 1856 to head the expedition to locate the source of the Nile—“one of the most complex and demanding expeditions ever attempted.” But he soon ran afoul of his quirky colleague, John Hanning Speke, and barely survived their quest. It was Speke who earned the discoverer’s fame and glory, though his character flaws (paranoia and narcissism among them) marred his reputation and may have cost him his life. Sidi Mubarak Bombay, the previously enslaved man who guided the expedition and repeatedly saved them from treachery, disease, injury and themselves, didn’t immediately receive recognition for being integral to their success. Burton’s wife, Isabel Arrundell, was a fervent Catholic who defied her mother to marry Burton, a proclaimed agnostic who proposed by dropping off a note on his way to Africa.
Millard excels at describing it all, balancing narrative flow with abundant details that give a vast landscape its weight and power, clarify complicated people and arduous journeys, and add those who have gone largely unseen to the historical stage. Take, for example, such memorable details as a beetle burrowing into Speke’s ear; the thieves, deserters and raiders thwarting these yearslong expeditions; diseases and infections leading to blindness, deafness and death; the hardships of Bombay, who was once traded for cloth; and two huge, breathtakingly beautiful lakes, one of which, it was finally proven, spawned the Nile.