Review of “River of the Gods” by Candice Millard

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

This saga recounts the story of the 19th-century search by a team of explorers, beginning in 1854, to find the source of the White Nile River, the longest river in the world. The Blue Nile (its eastern branch) had been traced to the mountains of Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia), but no white man had been able to traverse the White Nile past southern Sudan. Central Africa remained terra incognita to Europeans.

The river was not navigable much south of the equator for reasons the author does not explain. Thus, the Royal Geographical Society reasoned that the most efficient route to its source was an overland westward trek from Zanzibar.

Arab slave traders had penetrated the interior of the “Dark Continent,” but they did so in rather large caravans in search of slaves. Financial constraints limited the English foray to a group of fewer than 150 men. That proved to be quite perilous because, among other things, the local tribes were usually unfriendly to travelers.

There are three main characters in this story.  Two of them were British, sent by the Royal Geographical Society. Richard Francis Burton, a linguist (he spoke twenty-nine languages), previously had been the first Englishman to enter Mecca (he was disguised as a Muslim). John Hanning Speke was an officer in the British army and an avid hunter.  But a third and equally important figure was a formerly enslaved East African named Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who played a crucial role by guiding the other two through hundreds of miles of rough terrain and past threatening tribal leaders to reach their goal.

A map showing the White Nile and the Blue Nile in East Africa, via Wikipedia

The first exploratory journey was led by Burton, with Speke his second in command. They were able to reach Lake Tanganyika, the second largest freshwater lake (by volume of water) in the world, stretching over 400 miles north to south. The explorers were unable to fully explore the lake (Burton was very ill by the time they found the lake). Nevertheless, Burton believed and claimed he had found the source of the Nile.

While on the shores of Tanganyika, the troupe heard rumors of an even bigger lake to the north, the Nyanza. Speke took a small party, along with Bombay, away from the main group, traveled north, and found the Nyanza. It was much larger in surface area than Tanganyika, but not nearly as deep. He was unable to find a large outflow that could be the source of the Nile, but he maintained that had to be the source.

Burton and Speke managed to find their way back to England, where Burton, who was already famous for his previous exploits and writings, claimed to have found the source of the Nile in Lake Tanganyika. Speke demurred, claiming that the Nyanza (which only he had seen) was the actual source. Bombay, not being white enough, never got to England.

Richard Burton (left) and John Speke in an engraving by Emile-Antoine Bayard (1837-1891).Credit… DeAgostini/Getty Images, via New York Times

Several years later, Speak led another expedition to explore the Nyanza, which he renamed Lake Victoria. This time he was able to find some evidence (although not conclusive) that Victoria was the source.

Burton and Speke became estranged over their competing claims, and did not reconcile for many years. Burton, who was an excellent speaker and accomplished writer, achieved more fame than Speke, who was an indifferent speaker and a dreadful writer.

Evaluation: The author found Burton to be much more interesting and sympathetic than Speke, and she definitely is on Team Burton rather than Team Speke in her account. She gives Bombay the credit he deserves for guiding both expeditions, but he gets short shrift at the end of the book because he did not engage in the ensuing debate that took place in England over the results of the expeditions. Millard’s story is riveting and her writing is compelling. I listened to the audio book, which was vividly read by Paul Michael, who deftly changes voices while quoting different characters. This is a first rate story.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in hardcover by Doubleday Books, 2022 and published in audio by Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2022

About rhapsodyinbooks

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3 Responses to Review of “River of the Gods” by Candice Millard

  1. harvee says:

    I remember reading The White Nile and The Blue Nile by Moorehead many years ago and being totally fascinated. This new book on the White Nile looks excellent too, as is your huband’s review.

  2. cindy knoke says:

    I have this, but have yet to read. Your review has encouraged me to read it. Thank you.

  3. This is an amazing story, that’s for sure. There was a very good movie about this topic back in the 1990’s I think. Mountains of the Moon, maybe. I remember a wonderful scene where Burton and Stanley, of Dr. Livingston I presume fame, compared scars.

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