To the Royal Geographical Society of Victorian England, it was “the problem of all ages.” Determining the source of the Nile, traditionally regarded as the longest river in the world, had in fact been a common fixation since ancient times, prompting speculation from figures as varied as Herodotus and Alexander the Great (who guessed, oddly, that the African river’s headwaters might be found somewhere in India). By the mid-19th century, the quest had become an obsession with the British in particular. According to Sir Roderick Murchison, one of the founders of the Royal Geographical Society, the explorer who ultimately pinpointed the fabled river’s origins would be “justly considered among the greatest benefactors of this age.”
Given the depth of this fascination, it’s not surprising that many books have been written about this holy grail of Victorian exploration — notable among them “The White Nile” by Alan Moorehead (1960) and “Explorers of the Nile” by Tim Jeal (2011). Now enter Candice Millard, who has made a specialty of writing about individual episodes in the lives of colorful historical figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. With her new book, “River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile,” she takes a similar slice-of-the-story approach to the decades-long Nile drama, focusing on the bitter rivalry between explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. And while her book is neither as infectiously readable as Moorehead’s (which is now outdated) nor as comprehensive and deeply researched as Jeal’s, she does add a new dimension to the story. Perhaps as a corrective to the Anglocentrism of earlier accounts, she brings a third figure into the foreground: Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a formerly enslaved African who acted as guide and interpreter for Burton, Speke and several other explorers over the years. It’s a refreshing shift in emphasis and certainly overdue, but since relatively few details about Bombay survive in the historical record, there are limits to how much Millard can tell us.
A lack of documentation is certainly not a problem for the other two members of this triumvirate — especially Burton, who has been the subject of numerous biographies over the years. And little wonder why: Oxford dropout, brilliant scholar and linguist, fearless traveler, and translator of classic books considered obscene by his peers, he was the kind of man who would disguise himself as a Muslim (to the extent of getting circumcised) in order to be the first undercover Englishman to enter Mecca. For a swashbuckler like Burton, finding the source of the Nile was an adventure too challenging to pass up. By the early 1850s, virtually all that was known about the central African region — to Europeans, at least — was that a large body of water lay somewhere in the continent’s interior, along with a group of peaks known as the Mountains of the Moon. So when Burton heard that the Royal Geographical Society was planning an expedition into this enticing terra incognita, his reaction was foreseeable: “I shall strain every nerve to command it.”
Somehow, despite the fact that he had many enemies in high places, Burton secured the job. But when the old friend he had handpicked as the expedition’s botanist and medic died unexpectedly, Burton was forced to choose a stranger as his replacement — namely, Speke, a prim, fair-haired aristocrat six years Burton’s junior who lacked any special knowledge of either botany or medicine. And the two men could hardly have been more different. “Burton was a man of eccentric genius and tastes, orientalised in character and thoroughly Bohemian,” as one of their colleagues later put it. “Speke, on the other hand, was a thorough Briton, conventional, solid, and, resolute.” This was not, in other words, a combination designed for success.
The pair’s incompatibility became immediately obvious once the expedition left Zanzibar. A first try to reach the interior in 1855 had to be aborted when a group of Somalis attacked the travelers early on, leaving one Englishman dead, Speke brutally clubbed and stabbed, and Burton suffering with a spear thrust sideways through his mouth. A second attempt in 1857 proved nearly as disastrous, plagued by bad weather, disappearing supplies and porters, infuriating insects, bizarre illnesses, and internecine conflict among the expedition’s members. The unfailingly good-natured Bombay tried to play peacemaker, but Burton and Speke clashed often, piling up resentments and mutual antipathies that would never be fully resolved.
They did, however, make discoveries — if landmarks known to Arab traders for decades and local people for centuries can be considered “discoveries.” The big body of water at the continent’s heart turned out to be three separate major lakes, and the expedition got a look at two of them. Burton and Speke together reached the one that Europeans would call Lake Tanganyika, but only Speke glimpsed the other — Nyanza, a.k.a. Lake Victoria — as Burton was incapacitated by illness and too weak to make the side trip. Naturally, Burton felt that the lake he saw was the likely source of the Nile; Speke was convinced that the true source must be the lake his rival didn’t see. And although the younger man would ultimately prove correct (more or less, but the question is complex), this fundamental disagreement would poison the remainder of each explorer’s life.
Millard recounts all of these travails with a fluid grace that wears its learning lightly. She leaves some important parts of the story untold but shows a keen sensitivity to aspects that have at times been underplayed, such as the role of slavery and the slave trade in the effort of discovery. Burton and Speke, she points out, although opposed to slavery as an institution, did hire enslaved people as porters (for pay). Even Bombay took along an enslaved servant — a fellow African named Mabruki. Bombay appears to have treated him with a kindness bordering on devotion, but we’ll probably never know how Mabruki felt about the arrangement. Some perspectives on history, unfortunately, can only be surmised.
Gary Krist’s most recent book is “The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles.”
Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile
Doubleday. 349 pp. $32.50