Candice Millard’s River of the Gods tells the story of Richard Burton’s and John Hanning Speke’s bitter and fever-stricken quest to find the source of the White Nile, highlighting a specific slave who accompanied them
Review by David Eimer
Candice Millard has made a name for herself as the author of fast-paced, accessible and well-researched histories that focus on headline-grabbing subjects, such as Winston Churchill’s adventures in the Boer War. In River of the Gods, she turns her attention to the mid-19th century quest to find the source of the White Nile, considered by both Millard and the then relatively new Royal Geographical Society to be the holy grail of exploration.
This isn’t uncharted territory. The rivalry between Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke – the two men who led the RGS’s 1857 East Africa Expedition – is well documented. Burton was a bohemian polymath, while the vainglorious Speke was almost a caricature of a hearty colonial explorer. The men distrusted each other even before the expedition departed Zanzibar. Their subsequent feud over who discovered the source of the White Nile was exacerbated by the RGS leadership, which had a habit of playing rival explorers off against each other, and of not providing sufficient funds for the expeditions it backed.
Millard, a former National Geographic journalist, writes well about the landscapes through which the squabbling, fever-stricken pair struggled. She notes, too, that Arab traders were criss-crossing East Africa decades before Burton and Speke and, most interestingly, focuses also on the servants and slaves who accompanied them. In particular, Millard highlights Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a Yao African who was enslaved as a child and spent 20 years in India before being freed and returning to Africa.
Bombay would later be a guide and interpreter for Henry Morton Stanley on his expedition to find David Livingstone and confirm the source of the White Nile. His role as a majordomo to some of the most storied Victorian explorers isn’t unknown – he features, for example, in Mountains of the Moon, the 1990 movie about Burton and Speke. Millard’s admirable aim, however, is to tell something of Bombay’s story, while also revealing just how dependant European explorers in Africa were on locals to achieve their goals and even simply to stay alive, and what little recognition those men received at the time. A redressing of that glaring discrepancy is long overdue.