Book Review: ‘River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile’

Book Review: ‘River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile’
A small boat travels down the Nile River, near the southern town of Aswan. In the 19th century, English explorers set out to claim lands along the Nile for their country. (Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images)
Anita L. Sherman
9/28/2022
Updated:
10/3/2022

Years ago, I visited Egypt. The pyramids are, of course, awesome in their ancient majesty and mystery. The Nile River, winding its way through the arid desert lands, is the longest in the world. Like the pyramids, its history spans millennia. The river’s gift for centuries has been the fertile floodplain it created. The great civilization of Egypt was able to thrive and flourish from its rich shores.

When I was there, the waters were brown and cloudy and crowded with boats and people. But the majesty of it cannot be overstated, as it is so life-giving to so many.

A traditional felucca boat sails on the Nile River in Aswan. Explorers of the Nile in the 19th century experienced tremendous hardships, horrifying illnesses, and constant setbacks. (Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images)
A traditional felucca boat sails on the Nile River in Aswan. Explorers of the Nile in the 19th century experienced tremendous hardships, horrifying illnesses, and constant setbacks. (Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images)
The early Greeks and Romans attempted to find the headwaters of the Nile but were left thwarted by a giant labyrinthine swamp. Their efforts went down in history as frustrated and futile endeavors.

Epic Explorations

The discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone in the 19th century created a flurry of interest in ancient Egypt. European powers were keen on exploring and mapping out corners of the world as their own. The time was ripe for a flood of gutsy explorers (and the governments backing them) to pave the way into uncharted territories.

England was no exception. The Royal Geographical Society, known for its emphasis on acquiring scientific knowledge, was ready to spread its wings and back more explorations, the stuff of perhaps more savory stories—stories of a nature that would boost membership and stature.

After researching some five years and compiling extensive notes, an index, and bibliography, author Candice Millard has given readers a rare gift with her riveting narrative of two British men sent to claim the prize for England.

In “River of the Gods,” the personalities of Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke are brought vividly to life as their chaotic characters unfold in the compelling chapters of the book.

Explorer Richard Francis Burton, 1964, photograph by Rischgitz/Stringer. Hulton Archive. Burton had already gained fame as the first non-Muslim to travel to Mecca, disguised as an Arab chieftain. (Public Domain)
Explorer Richard Francis Burton, 1964, photograph by Rischgitz/Stringer. Hulton Archive. Burton had already gained fame as the first non-Muslim to travel to Mecca, disguised as an Arab chieftain. (Public Domain)

 Avenging Adventurers

Burton, the older of the two, had already gained fame as the first non-Muslim to travel to Mecca; he went disguised as an Arab chieftain. He was also a decorated soldier in the British Army and was no slouch when it came to sword-fighting. He had command of nearly three dozen languages. Hailing from an aristocratic British family, Speke was also an army officer. But his passion—rather than a curiosity about other cultures—was hunting.

Both men were challenged with soaring egos and they clashed, whether intentionally or not, from the outset. Speke resented playing second fiddle, and Burton disapproved of Speke’s hunting diversions and seeming ignorance of the peoples whose lands they were traveling through.

John Hanning Speke, circa 1863, photograph by Southwell Brothers. To the left of Speke is a surveying sextant on a stand. (Public Domain)
John Hanning Speke, circa 1863, photograph by Southwell Brothers. To the left of Speke is a surveying sextant on a stand. (Public Domain)

What they did share was tremendous hardships, horrifying illnesses, and constant setbacks, whether it was from the harsh environment, porters disappearing, devilish donkeys refusing to cooperate, or lack of food. The list was long and fraught with angst that clawed at weakened bodies and dispirited souls. Both men suffered from nightmares.

Burton and Speke were the first Europeans to reach the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1858. Arabs had been there for nearly two decades. While Burton was confident that the source of the Nile would be discovered from this lake, Speke wanted to push on to another lake: the Nyanza.

At this point, Burton was nearly paralyzed from malaria and could not go on. Speke pushed forward. While he saw only a small portion of the Nyanza, he was convinced from its stunning beauty and the local stories of its endless nature that this was indeed the source of the Nile and that he alone had discovered it. He quickly named the largest lake in Africa for his queen: Victoria.

The Guiding Light

What ensues next in this story of triumph and tragedy is the now-venomous rivalry between Burton and Speke. Speke rushes back to England, takes credit for the discovery, and continues to disparage Burton, eventually launching a second expedition to prove his claim. Burton, the more charismatic of the two, disputes the claim and, for the most part, garners public support, much to Speke’s chagrin.

Many unsung heroes have been lost to history, but author Millard pays kudos to a third man, one who accompanied not only Burton and Speke but other European explorers as well. This explorer, small in stature but large in heart and knowledge, was Sidi Mubarak Bombay. The slave trade was alive and well in Africa, and Bombay had been captured as a boy and sent to India, where he was enslaved for some 20 years.

When his owner died, he gained his freedom and returned to East Africa. There, his resourcefulness, knowledge of several languages, courage, and cheerful attitude sustained his living as a highly proficient guide. Without his undying loyalty, it is doubtful that either Englishman would have come to the headwaters of the Nile or, perhaps, survived the attempt.

Millard gives readers a thrilling, peerless, page-turner account of the exploits of Burton, Speke, and Bombay, and an adventure of dauntless courage surrounding a historic discovery.
‘River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile’ By Candice Millard Doubleday, May 17, 2022 Hardcover: 368 pages
Anita L. Sherman is an award-winning journalist who has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for local papers and regional publications in Virginia. She now works as a freelance writer and is working on her first novel. She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to four, and she resides in Warrenton, Va. She can be reached at [email protected]