River of the Gods is Candice Millard’s fourth book. The first three, covering James Garfield’s assassination, Theodore Roosevelt’s Amazon exploration, and Winston Churchill’s activities during the Boer War, are all fantastic. With impeccable research and delightful prose, Millard makes these intriguing but lesser-known aspects of history fascinating. My admiration for each of these books is so high that I picked up her new book without really caring that the subject was not of much interest to me.
River of the Gods focusing on the Victorian-era effort to discover the true source of the Nile River’s headwaters. It’s a question that had been unanswered for centuries. Many had tried and failed, but Richard Burton had every reason to believe he was the man for the job. A staggeringly brilliant linguist who spoke 25 languages, Burton was also incredibly daring. He was the first European to enter Mecca, doing so in disguise as an Arab. Burton, never one to rest on his laurels, quickly turned his eye to solving the Nile question.
Among the men hired by Burton was a daring Army officer and expert hunter named John Hanning Speke. Speke’s physical courage was exemplary, but he was vain and insecure, perhaps feeling intellectually inferior to Burton since he only spoke English. Though they occasionally comforted each other through the extreme hardships of the expedition, they clashed continuously and were frequently at odds.
When a physically incapacitated Burton was unable to press on, Speke voyaged to a lake the locals called Nyanza. When he returned he shocked Burton by claiming that this was the source of the Nile. Speke couldn’t prove his claim due to a lack of proper scientific instruments, but he stuck to his story. When the men returned to Great Britain, their squabble went public, fascinating the British public.
In Millard’s hands this moment in history becomes something both human and ridiculous. As Burton and Speke lob insults at one another they each recruit allies to their cause and try to convince the Royal Geographic Society to supply the funds for another expedition. Neither men behaves all that admirably, as neither had particularly strong evidence for their beliefs about the Nile.
There is a third man on the cover of River of the Gods, a figure even more forgotten than Burton and Speke. His name is Sidi Mubarak Bombay. A former slave, Bombay was just about the only member of the expedition well-liked by both of its leaders. His loyalty and tireless work made him an invaluable member of the crew.
Ultimately, the story of Burton and Speke ends with bitterness and tragedy, an early death in one case, and a slide into obscurity in the other. Despite the rancor on each side, the question of the Nile’s source was not settled definitively by either man.
I stated above that the subject was not of much interest to me. I have to say that there were times I wondered if Millard felt the same. This is a fairly short book which starts churning through time pretty rapidly after the first expedition, giving short shrift to Speke’s later effort to confirm his hypothesis and Burton’s reasons for continuing to doubt his subordinate. She also doesn’t really go into why the question of the Nile’s source was so fascinating in the first place.
Burton and Speke are intriguing characters and their exploits were compelling to read about, but Millard’s telling fails to sell the reader on their lasting importance.