River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile

Candice Millard


Like others at the time, Burton and Speke were unapologetic in their racism, with all of its attendant arrogance and ignorance, but they were sickened by the slave trade, which, Burton wrote, “had made a howling desert of the land,” and took great pride in their country’s efforts to end it. But […] little had changed in East Africa, where the shackling and selling of human beings was still a common occurrence. “Zanzibar is a peculiar place,” Burton wrote a friend. “An admirable training ground for damnation.”

            from River of the Gods



Adventures of the armchair kind

Within many of us there dwells a latent adventurer. A Walter Mitty on steroids who yearns for the epic life, who scoffs at danger, laughs in the face of fate, and bears unbearable hardships with a stiff upper lip, and stiff lower lip too. You know who you are: There is no mountain too high, no sea too deep, no challenge too great that you can’t read about.

This book is for you, you of stout-heart and indomitable though sedentary spirit, willing to suffer everything to solve one of the earth’s great mysteries: finding the source of the Nile, the longest river in the world.

Actually, it was “found” in 1863, so you must settle for once again reading about it, but Candice Millard is a vivid storyteller who captures the dangerous, frightening, painful, heartbreaking, and sometimes icky experiences without you needing to leave the comfort of your armchair. She did this in her earlier bestseller, The River of Doubt, a harrowing account of Theodore Roosevelt’s near-fatal exploration of the Amazon.

River of the Gods centers on two English explorers whose friendship turned into a bitter rivalry. One was Richard Burton (no, not Elizabeth Taylor’s husband.) A larger than life character, Burton was an explorer, writer, poet, anthropologist, and accomplished linguist, fluent in more than 25 languages. His translation of the Arabian Nights was the first to include its sexually explicit tales, what he called the “uncastrated version.”

The second explorer was John Hanning Speke. A young lieutenant in the Bengal Native Infantry, experienced traveler, skilled surveyor, accomplished hunter, he desperately wanted to be larger than life like Burton. Africa, though a huge continent, was not large enough to contain both men’s egos.

From their expeditions together and separately, they each claimed a different source for the great river. Burton said it was Lake Tanganyika; Speke argued it was Lake Victoria (or Nyanza to the people who actually lived by it.) Spoiler alert: Burton was the better explorer, but Speke was correct.

There is a third character in this story: their guide, Sidi Mubarak Bombay. Courageous, patient, kind, and invariably reliable, he would prove essential to their explorations. It was also Bombay who guided Henry Morton Stanley in finding David Livingston, and Verney Lovett Cameron in being first to cross the African continent. Yet he remained modest, a quality never attributed to Burton or Speke.

So, pour your glass of lemonade, turn up the air conditioning, and settle in to your favorite armchair for an adventure.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15, 2022.) Reprinted with permission.