"River of the Gods" | Reviewed by Nelson Appell
Candice Millard returns with her fourth popular history, a fascinating tale of British exploration and exploitation, “River of the Gods.” If you have enjoyed any of her previous books, this is a must-read.
If you’ve never read about the British Explorer Richard Burton (not to be confused with the famous actor of the same name), you are in for a treat. Burton is one of the more intriguing people to live during Britain’s centuries of empire and colonialism. If fact, his accomplishments outside of his search for the Nile are so compelling it is sometimes difficult to believe Burton did not spring from a novelist’s imagination.
“River of the Gods” takes a sweeping look at the relationship between Burton and his partner John Spekes, their arduous and often tortuous quest to find the source of the Nile, and the often forgotten third man—Sidi Mubarak Bombay.
Kidnapped as a child from his East Africa and sold into slavery in India, Bombay found freedom when his enslaver passed away. He returned to his home continent. Millard gives Bombay his due: “...it could be argued that he accomplished more than any single explorer to ever enter the continent of his birth.”
In the early 1800’s Europe, in general, focused much archeological and geographical inquiries into Egypt and her long history. European countries plundered Egypt’s artifacts. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the British controlled Egypt. When the Rosetta Stone was removed to London and deciphered, it “opened a floodgate of interest and scholarship” that grew into “a full-scale frenzy.” That included the romantic quest to discover the Source of the Nile, presumably a lake somewhere in the East African Rift.
There were countless hardships preventing explorers from finding the source of the Nile—the length of the river, itself, the local peoples, dangerous predators, bugs and ants, heat and humidity, disease, and rough, unmapped terrain. Burton, Bombay and Speke endured all of these hardships and more.
Burton and Speke both nearly died many times. Burton succumbed to sickness (malaria and otherwise) several times. He had a spear thrust through his jaw. Speke lost his hearing in one ear after a beetle burrowed into his ear canal. Though the hardships they endured seem hardly worth the price of discovery, their reward was a presumed and lasting greatness. For what was at stake at the time was “... the secret heritage of the entire modern world.”
Millard traces the lives of Burton and Speke, and the growing and ultimately tragic animosity that developed between the two men. Together they searched for the source of the Nile, and later they argued over whether they had found it. The author has less to say about Bombay, but there are fewer source documents written about Bombay. She also covers other memorable explorers, such as Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone.
Millard acknowledges the ultimate tragedies that resulted from these explorations of Africa for the African nations as a whole. She notes that Speke’s “most lasting legacy” may well be his “reckless baseless theories connecting race and religion.”
If you wish to read more, there are many biographies written about Burton in particular. If you wish to read further about the age of exploration, I also recommend Robert Harms’ “Land of Tears,” which picks up the travels of Stanley Morton and follows those to their end results.