River of the Gods by Candice Millard


Years ago I read books about the discovery of the Blue Nile and the White Nile by Alan Moorehead, a great biography of Henry Morton Stanley, and a biography of Richard and Isabel Burton. It was interesting to revisit the European discovery of source of the White Nile and that dramatic struggle between Richard Burton and John Speke. The recent book by Candice Millard is good, but left me more conscious of what unpleasant people both Burton and Speke were.

Burton was the more sympathetic character as he was brilliant; he spoke 29 languages, made scholarly studies of religion, was meticulous about documenting his explorations, and wrote many books. He traveled to Mecca and his ability and bravery to make his way into the holy shrine disguised as a member of the faith is impressive, but displayed his arrogance and lack of respect. Speke was an English gentleman trained for warfare; he spent years in the military in India. He met Burton when on a trip to East Africa, as Burton was preparing for his expedition to explore Somaliland. The man who was to be Burton’s second in command died, and Burton asked Speke to join him.

They suffered illness, theft, and finally were attacked during this expedition and returned to England. Despite Speke developing resentment toward Burton, they returned to Africa together in 1857 to explore the lake region of East Africa to find the source of the White Nile. Though they were again beset by difficulties, including Speke suffering blindness and later a bug which he could not extract from his ear canal, they came upon Lake Tanganyika. Speke was well enough to travel while Burton was suffering from a fever and it was Speke on his own who saw Lake Nyanza which he later renamed Lake Victoria. Though he was there for only a few days and did not have time or possibility for any exploration, he was convinced it was the source. They returned to England, Speke arriving first, announcing that he had found the source of the Nile. Burton was not convinced by Speke’s unsubstantiated claims. Nevertheless Speke was congratulated and given funding to closely explore Lake Nyanza.

When Speke returned to England two years later he said he had found the river leaving the lake that was the source of the Nile. It turned out that he was unable to write coherently about what he saw and both the Royal Geographical Society and a private publisher became disenchanted with him.

Speke and Burton were to debate the question of whether the source had been found at a scientific forum; the two men briefly encountered each other the day before the debate and Speke left abruptly. The next day shortly before the debate was to begin word came that Speke had died as a result of wounds from his gun while hunting. One might suspect it was self-inflicted given how careful he was known to be with guns. Ultimately it turns out he was right that the sources of the White Nile arise from Lake Victoria, although the river he identified was not the sole or primary source.

The author wrote of the importance of the native people who made it possible for the Europeans to explore their lands. She highlighted Sidi Mubarak Bombay who was particularly helpful to the Europeans.

The narration of the book was almost intolerable. The narrator gives Speke an accent that does not include the letter r. The words alone clarified that Speke was an upperclass twit, we didn’t need that fake speech impediment.

Candice Millard, River of the Gods, Doubleday, 2022, 349 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.

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