Nonfiction books can sometimes get a bad rap for being inaccessible, uninspiring, or uninteresting, but in the hands of the right author, subjects you never knew you had an interest in can come alive. I would be hard-pressed to think of an author and researcher more capable of bringing a subject to life than Candice Millard. She specializes in biographical adventure narratives, tackling well-known historical figures during the lesser-known periods of their lives: Teddy Roosevelt’s exploration of the Amazon; Winston Churchill on the battlefield; and President James Garfield’s untimely demise. Millard’s most recent book, River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, once again does not disappoint. The subjects this time are British explorers Sir Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, and their native East African guide Sidi Mubarak Bombay. This book has it all: indefatigable spirit of adventure, incredible tales of survival, a ten-year unrequited love story, long-simmering jealousies, stunning betrayal, and, if that isn’t enough to keep you interested, lots of weird diseases, illnesses and injuries.
Prior to reading River of the Gods, Richard Burton was a name that I vaguely associated with exploration in Africa, but I had no idea just how fascinating his life was. A skilled polyglot, he could speak anywhere between 24-29 languages fluently, up to a dozen more if you count all of the Indian and African dialects as separate languages. Burton also studied world religions extensively, displaying such mastery that he had a quarter of the Koran memorized. Armed with his incomparable linguistic skills and religious knowledge, he disguised himself as a Muslim and became the first Englishman to enter Mecca, the holiest site in Islam forbidden to non-Muslims. When the president of the Royal Geographical Society issued the statement that whoever discovered the source of the White Nile would go down in history for his unparalleled contribution to geographical science, there seemed no one better to meet the challenge than Richard Burton.
John Speke, in many ways, is just as fascinating a character as Burton, but for highly despicable reasons. At the onset, he was a hunter and traveler, not an explorer, and only ended up on Burton’s expedition because of a series of deaths by its original members. Speke’s pride chafed at being considered second-in-command to Burton, and he frequently inflated his contributions on their two expeditions together. After returning to England, Speke, jealous of Burton’s fame, began publicly disparaging Burton and others who inflicted perceived slights against him, in some cases ruining innocent people’s lives. While Richard Burton’s name has lived on in history, Speke’s has been mostly forgotten despite the fact that he, not Burton, correctly predicted the source of the Nile (although the matter was not definitively settled until after Speke’s sudden and shocking death). Instead, Speke’s most lasting and terrible legacy was his baseless theories surrounding race and religion that were used to fuel prejudice. Over a century later, the twisted ideology espoused by Speke led to the Rwandan genocide of some 800,000 people.
The third member of Burton and Speke’s expeditions was a former African slave named Sidi Mubarak Bombay. Up until recently, the West’s early explorations of the African continent focused only on the accomplishments of European or American explorers to map its hidden depths; meanwhile, the native guides’ roles had been erased from history. Whenever possible, Millard attempts to make clear just how indispensable guides like Bombay were to these explorers’ survival. Bombay was responsible for everything from negotiating with locals, maintaining good will amongst members of their expedition, and nursing Speke and Burton back to health. Millard’s heavily researched book includes many quotes taken directly from the explorers’ private journals and letters, giving us fascinating insight into their thoughts and feelings. It’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that no such writings exist from Bombay. While we can never know his true feelings for Burton and Speke, nor his private thoughts on being a frequent guide to foreign men, the acknowledgement of Bombay’s irreplaceable contributions paints a more complete historical record of their momentous geographical discovery.
In pursuit of answering one of the most complex geographical questions of its time – the mysterious source of the White Nile – Burton, Speke, and Bombay endured and overcame numerous hardships including: typhoid, smallpox, impalement, stabbings, infections, blindness, deafness, paralysis, and numerous fevers. I wouldn’t have believed that mere mortals could survive all that, while also continuing to document every step of their journey, if not for the fact that said events were so well-documented. With River of the Gods, Candice Millard has, once again, written an incredible, engrossing adventure. I, for one, can’t wait to read what she has in store for us next.