Given the depth of this fascination, it is not surprising that so many books have been written about this holy grail of Victorian exploration—most notably “White NileWritten by Alan Moorhead (1960) and “Nile explorersWritten by Tim Gill (2011). Now enter Candice Millard, who has specialized in 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 NileShe takes an approach similar to a slice of the story in the decades-old drama of the Nile, focusing on the bitter rivalry between explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speck. And though her book is neither as contagious as Moorhead’s (now outdated) nor comprehensive and profound Research is like Gill’s book, except that it adds a new dimension to the story.Perhaps as a correction to the Anglo-centrism of earlier novels, it brings a third character to the fore: Sir Mubarak Bombay, a former enslaved African who served as a guide and translator for Burton, Speck and many other explorers over the years.It is a refreshing turn In focus it is certainly outdated, but since there are relatively few details about Bombay in the historical record, there are limits to how much Millard can tell us.
The lack of documentation certainly isn’t an issue for the other two members of this trio – especially Burton, who has been the subject of many biographies over the years. And no wonder why: Leaving Oxford, brilliant linguist, brave traveler, and translator of classic books deemed obscene by his peers, he was the kind of man who would masquerade as a Muslim (to the point of circumcision) in order. To be the first Englishman undercover to enter Mecca. For an arrogant like Burton, finding the source of the Nile was a very difficult adventure. By the early 1850s, nearly all that was known about Central Africa – to Europeans at least – was that there was a large mass of water somewhere within the continent, along with a group of peaks known as the Moon Mountains. So when Burton heard that the Royal Geographical Society was planning an expedition to this alluring, alluring land, his reaction was predictable: “I will strain every nerve to pass.”
Somehow, despite the fact that he had many enemies in high positions, Burton got the job. But when an old friend of his own choosing as botanist and medic on the expedition unexpectedly dies, Burton is forced to choose a stranger as his replacement—namely Speke, a blond-haired apprentice aristocrat six years younger than Burton and lacking any special knowledge of either. Botany or medicine. The two men could hardly be different. “Burton was a man of genius and eccentric taste, orientalist in character and utterly bohemian,” one of their colleagues later said. “Speke, on the other hand, was a meticulous, traditional, solid, and resolute Briton.” In other words, this was not a combination designed for success.
The incompatibility between the spouses became immediately apparent once the expedition left Zanzibar. The first attempt to get inside had to be aborted in 1855 when a group of Somalis attacked the early travelers, killing an Englishman, Speke being clubbed and brutally stabbed, and Burton suffering a side spear stab through his mouth. The second attempt in 1857 proved almost disastrous, as it was plagued by bad weather, the disappearance of supplies and porters, the wrath of insects, strange diseases, and internal strife among members of the expedition. The lovable Bombay tirelessly tried to play the peacemaker, but Burton and Speck clashed frequently, building up resentment and mutual alienation that would never be completely resolved.
Nevertheless, they made discoveries – if the monuments known to Arab merchants for decades and local residents for centuries can be considered “discoveries”. The large body of water at the heart of the continent turned out to be three separate main lakes, and the expedition took a look at two of them. Together, Burton and Speke came up with that which Europeans called Lake Tanganyika, but Speke did not glimpse the other—Nyanza, also known as Lake Victoria—in which Burton was incapacitated by disease and too weak to make a side trip. Naturally, Burton felt that the lake he saw was the likely source of the Nile; Speck was convinced that the true source had to be the lake that his rival had not seen. And although the Younger Man will eventually prove to be correct (somewhat, but the question is complicated), this fundamental disagreement would poison the rest of every explorer’s life.
Millard recounts all these hardships with a smooth grace that diminishes his learning. Some important parts of the story are left untold but show a keen sensitivity to sometimes underestimated aspects, such as the role of slavery and the slave trade in the discovery efforts. Burton and Speck note that, although they opposed slavery as an institution, they employed the enslaved as porters (for a fee). Even Bombay took her enslaved servant – an African named Mabroki. Bombay seemed to treat him with a kindness that was close to faithfulness, but we’ll likely never know how Mabrouki felt about the arrangement. Unfortunately, some viewpoints on history can only be speculated.
Gary Crist’s latest 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
double day. 349 p. $32.50