The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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River of the Gods
River of the Gods
Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile
by Candice Millard

Hardcover (17 May 2022), 368 pages.
(Due out in paperback May 2023)
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN-13: 9780385543101

The harrowing story of one of the great feats of exploration of all time and its complicated legacy - from the New York Times bestselling author of River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic.

For millennia the location of the Nile River's headwaters was shrouded in mystery. In the 19th century, there was a frenzy of interest in ancient Egypt. At the same time, European powers sent off waves of explorations intended to map the unknown corners of the globe – and extend their colonial empires.

Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke were sent by the Royal Geographical Society to claim the prize for England. Burton spoke twenty-nine languages, and was a decorated soldier. He was also mercurial, subtle, and an iconoclastic atheist. Speke was a young aristocrat and Army officer determined to make his mark, passionate about hunting, Burton's opposite in temperament and beliefs.

From the start the two men clashed. They would endure tremendous hardships, illness, and constant setbacks. Two years in, deep in the African interior, Burton became too sick to press on, but Speke did, and claimed he found the source in a great lake that he christened Lake Victoria. When they returned to England, Speke rushed to take credit, disparaging Burton. Burton disputed his claim, and Speke launched another expedition to Africa to prove it. The two became venomous enemies, with the public siding with the more charismatic Burton, to Speke's great envy. The day before they were to publicly debate, Speke shot himself.

Yet there was a third man on both expeditions, his name obscured by imperial annals, whose exploits were even more extraordinary. This was Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who was enslaved and shipped from his home village in East Africa to India. When the man who purchased him died, he made his way into the local Sultan's army, and eventually traveled back to Africa, where he used his resourcefulness, linguistic prowess and raw courage to forge a living as a guide. Without Bombay and men like him, who led, carried, and protected the expedition, neither Englishman would have come close to the headwaters of the Nile, or perhaps even survived.

In River of the Gods Candice Millard has written another peerless story of courage and adventure, set against the backdrop of the race to exploit Africa by the colonial powers.

Chapter One
A Blaze of Light

Sitting on a thin carpet in his tiny, rented room in Suez, Egypt, in 1854, Richard Francis Burton calmly watched as five men cast critical eyes over his meager belongings. The men, whom he had just met on the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, "looked at my clothes, overhauled my medicine chest, and criticised my pistols," Burton wrote. "They sneered at my copper-cased watch." He knew that if they discovered the truth, that he was not Shaykh Abdullah, an Afghan-born Indian doctor and devout, lifelong Muslim but a thirty-two-year-old lieutenant in the army of the British East India Company, not only would his elaborately planned expedition be in grave danger, but so would his life. Burton, however, was not worried. Even when his new friends found his sextant, the most indispensable, and obviously Western, scientific instrument in his possession, he did not think that he had anything to fear. "This," he later wrote, "was a mistake."

Burton's goal was to do something that no other Englishman had ever done, and that few had either the ability or audacity to do: enter Mecca disguised as a Muslim. It was an undertaking that simultaneously acknowledged what was most sacred to the Muslim faith and dismissed the right to protect it, making it irresistible to Burton, who studied every religion and respected none. The birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, Mecca is the holiest site in Islam and, as such, forbidden to non-Muslims. Burton knew that, "to pass through the Moslem's Holy Land, you must either be a born believer, or have become one," but he had never even considered performing the Hajj as a convert. "Men do not willingly give information to a 'new Moslem,' especially a Frank [European]: they suspect his conversion to be feigned or forced, look upon him as a spy, and let him see as little of life as possible," he wrote. "I would have given up the dear project rather than purchase a doubtful and partial success at such a price." An Oxford dropout, self-taught scholar, compulsive explorer, and extraordinarily skilled polyglot, Burton wanted unfettered access to every holy site he reached, the trust of every man he met, and the answer to every ancient mystery he encountered—nothing less, he wrote, than to see and understand "Moslem inner life." He also wanted to return to England alive.

By disguising himself as a Muslim, Burton was risking the righteous wrath of those for whom the Hajj was the most sacred of religious rites. Although "neither the Koran nor the Sultan enjoins the killing of Hebrew or Christian intruders," he knew, "in the event of a pilgrim declaring himself to be an infidel, the authorities would be powerless to protect him." A single error could cost him his life. "A blunder, a hasty action, a misjudged word, a prayer or bow, not strictly the right shibboleth," he wrote, "and my bones would have whitened the desert sand."

Burton's plan, moreover, required crossing the Rubʿ al-Khali—"Empty Quarter"—the world's largest continuous desert and, in his words, a "huge white blot" on nineteenth-century maps. So ambitious was the expedition that it had captured the attention of the president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Impey Murchison. For Murchison, who had helped to found the Society nearly a quarter of a century earlier, this was exactly the kind of exploration that the Society had been created to encourage. He "honored me," Burton wrote, "by warmly supporting . . . my application for three years' leave of absence on special duty." The East India Company, a 250-year-old private corporation with armies of its own, had argued that the journey was too dangerous and that Burton, who had made more enemies than friends during his years in the military, should be given no more than a one-year furlough. The Royal Geographical Society stood by its promise to help finance the expedition. For a challenge of this magnitude, Murchison believed, Burton was "singularly well-qualified."

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from River of the Gods by Candice Millard. Copyright © 2022 by Candice Millard. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A fascinating historical account of two British explorers who sought the source of the Nile River, the African guides that helped them, and their bitter post-expedition feud.

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The Nile River has provided vital resources for millennia, serving as a source of water, food and transportation for numerous peoples. The river's richness allowed for the development and flourishing of large civilizations — including Ancient Egypt — in lands that were otherwise largely desert. But where did the Nile's water come from? It was a question that many had asked but that remained unanswered until the 19th century. Following the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, British interest in Ancient Egypt increased exponentially, fueling curiosity about the source of the Nile. River of the Gods by Candice Millard is the account of Richard Burton and John Speke, two British explorers sent to search for the answer to this ancient mystery, as well as their guide, a formerly enslaved African man named Sidi Mubarak Bombay (see Beyond the Book).

Speke and Burton's first expedition in 1856 failed spectacularly, with both men suffering serious injuries and blows to their reputations. A second expedition was funded two years later, but issues arose almost immediately. Millard shares the numerous setbacks these explorers faced, including illnesses, the deaths of pack animals, desertions, lost and stolen supplies and harsh weather. Her descriptions of Burton, Speke and the rest of the party's maladies are particularly detailed, so much so that some readers may find themselves uncomfortable. She describes, for instance, a beetle burrowing into Speke's ear canal, and the resulting infection after the insect is killed with a penknife. Such detail, while gruesome, shows exactly how much these men overcame to complete their expedition and make it back to England.

Despite surviving such an ordeal together, there was no love lost between Burton and Speke. As much as River of Gods is a tale of adventure and discovery, it's also the story of the feud between these two men, a feud that would last until Speke's untimely death. The animosity between them was largely due to differences in character. Burton was a well-known scholar and explorer, and his experiences led him to dismiss the opinions of others. Speke, although a captain in the British Army and an avid huntsman, had less experience as an explorer but bristled at Burton's arrogance and leadership.

An additional point of enmity was the believed source of the Nile: Burton thought they had found it at Lake Tanganyika, while Speke believed he alone had discovered the headwaters at Lake Nyanza (both are part of the African Great Lakes in eastern central Africa, roughly 200 miles apart at the closest point). Speke was right, although he had no hard evidence to support his theory and he would only be proven correct many years after his death. Lake Tanganyika drains into the Congo River, the second-longest river in Africa after the Nile. Speke was the first to return to Britain after the journey, and his version of events made him out to be a hero and Burton a lazy, pompous, broken man whose actions almost prevented his partner's success. Millard spares no detail in describing Speke's slander, and the ruin of Burton's reputation at his former companion's hands is difficult to read, as is Speke's descent into a ceaseless rage that cost him his good name and may have contributed to his death.

Millard ends by discussing the various problems of historic British exploration, mainly that these explorers never truly discovered anything. Rather, they ventured into lands that had often been known and inhabited for centuries if not longer; people such as the Gusii and Luhya had been living around Lake Nyanza long before Speke first set eyes on its waters, possibly as early as the 16th century. Additionally, Millard points out that these explorers frequently relied on local guides and translators to make their way through foreign lands, yet these individuals were rarely acknowledged. In the case of Burton and Speke's second expedition, Sidi Mubarak Bombay served an essential role as guide, translator and friend, and he eventually became famous in his own right as an explorer. In general, indigenous people who were not part of the expedition were seen as either friends or enemies depending on what they could provide the traveling party, and often labeled primitive or greedy savages by British explorers with ethnocentric beliefs.

River of the Gods, much like Millard's previous books, is a story of courage and perseverance, but it's also a harsh look at the history of British exploration and the tragedy of pride and betrayal. Filled with stunning detail, fascinating individuals and important historical context, it's a true story that takes readers on a harrowing and unforgettable adventure.

Reviewed by Jordan Lynch

New York Times
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...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.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Bestselling author Millard, a former writer and editor for National Geographic, offers a tense, vibrant history of several dramatic expeditions across East Africa that finally resulted in a successful discovery...An engrossing, sharply drawn adventure tale.

Library Journal (starred review)
It's been nearly six years since popular Millard published Hero of the Empire, and eager fans and armchair travelers will gladly sign up for this enthralling and heartbreaking adventure.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Bestseller Millard recounts one of the greatest 19th-century British colonial explorations in this fascinating history...Millard's lushly detailed adventure story keeps a steady eye on the racial power dynamics involved in this imperialist endeavor and brilliantly illuminates the characters of Burton, Speke, and Bombay. Readers will be riveted.

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Sidi Mubarak Bombay

Black and white photo of Sidi Mubarak BombayCandice Millard's River of the Gods recounts the harrowing expeditions of Richard Burton and John Speke, two British explorers sent to find the source of the Nile River. Burton's name was well known before these ventures, but Speke became famous for being the first to discover the Nile's headwaters, and both men subsequently gained infamy for their public feud following their journey. However, another man played an equally pivotal role in the success of this expedition — Sidi Mubarak Bombay. Because he was African, his efforts were downplayed, and his name went largely unknown until many years later. This is the case in much of British history: recognition has been focused on the expedition leaders while the locals who guided, fed, sheltered, protected and generally supported those leaders are mentioned in passing if at all.

In 2009, the British Royal Geographical Society (RGS) — the same professional society that sponsored many of the better-known British expeditions of the 19th century — with the Institute of British Geographers (IBG) presented an exhibition titled Hidden Histories of Exploration. Drawing upon more than two million historical documents, the goal of this exhibit was to "make room in our histories for the local partners, guides, porters, fixers, interpreters, traders and officials who made journeys of exploration possible." Acknowledging the dependence of historical explorers on these locals provides them with the recognition they deserve, and highlights the knowledge, work and accomplishments of non-European cultures and people at a time when they were widely considered inferior throughout the Western world.

One such individual recognized in this exhibit was Sidi Mubarak Bombay. Bombay was born in the Yao kingdom in present-day Mozambique in 1820, but as a young boy, he was captured by Arab slavers and sent to India. He remained there until his enslaver died in 1855, and then returned to Africa, serving in the army in Zanzibar until he was recruited as a guide and translator for Burton and Speke's 1857 Nile River expedition. Despite developing close relationships with both British explorers, Bombay's reliability was questioned by Burton after the conclusion of the expedition; Burton refused to believe that Speke had determined the true source of the Nile and was bitter that Bombay had corroborated his rival's theory.

Bombay also accompanied Speke on his third expedition three years later with the goal of confirming the source of the Nile, and later continued his career leading explorers throughout Africa. In 1871, he led American explorer Henry Morton Stanley to missing British explorer David Livingstone, and, while leading British explorer Verney Lovett Cameron in 1873, crossed the entire continent from east to west. It's estimated that Bombay covered approximately 6,000 miles in total and became the most widely traveled man in Africa. In 1876, he was awarded an RGS silver medal for his work with British explorers, a rare accolade for a foreign individual, but the type of medal he received reflected the RGS's view of Bombay as an employee rather than an explorer in his own right. Notably, he was not invited to England to receive his award.

Today, we can recognize the exploitation involved in exploration by imperialist powers and try to make amends for past injustices. The RGS and the IBG have worked towards this goal by increasing public awareness of the complicated relationship between 19th- and 20th-century explorers and those who helped make their expeditions possible. Likewise, River of the Gods highlights the work and accomplishments of Sidi Mubarak Bombay and several other African men who accompanied Burton and Speke. Although taking part in expeditions allowed Bombay to explore the African wilderness, it's undeniable that the British explorers took advantage of his skills, treating him as no more than a simple hired hand despite his pivotal role in numerous journeys. Through her work, Millard joins the RGS and IBG in rectifying a legacy of cultural supremacy and giving one of the world's greatest explorers the recognition he deserves.

Sidi Mubarak Bombay, courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Jordan Lynch

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