From the New York Times bestselling author of River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic comes the stirring story of one of the great feats of exploration of all time and its complicated legacy.
For millennia the location of the Nile River’s headwaters was shrouded in mystery. In the 19th century, there was a frenzy of interest in ancient Egypt. At the same time, European powers sent off waves of explorations intended to map the unknown corners of the globe—and extend their colonial empires.
Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke were sent by the Royal Geographical Society to claim the prize for England. Burton spoke 29 languages, and was a decorated soldier. He was also mercurial, subtle, and an iconoclastic atheist. Speke was a young aristocrat and Army officer determined to make his mark, passionate about hunting, Burton’s opposite in temperament and beliefs.
From the start the two men clashed. They would endure tremendous hardships, illness, and constant setbacks. Two years in, deep in the African interior, Burton became too sick to press on, but Speke did, and claimed he found the source in a great lake that he christened Lake Victoria. When they returned to England, Speke rushed to take credit, disparaging Burton. Burton disputed his claim, and Speke launched another expedition to Africa to prove it. The two became venomous enemies, with the public siding with the more charismatic Burton, to Speke’s great envy. The day before they were to publicly debate, Speke shot himself.
Yet there was a third man on both expeditions, his name obscured by imperial annals, whose exploits were even more extraordinary. This was Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who was enslaved and shipped from his home village in East Africa to India. When the man who purchased him died, he made his way into the local Sultan’s army, and eventually traveled back to Africa, where he used his resourcefulness, linguistic prowess and raw courage to forge a living as a guide. Without his talents, it is likely that neither Englishman would have come close to the headwaters of the Nile, or perhaps even survived.
In River of the Gods Candice Millard has written another peerless story of courage and adventure, set against the backdrop of the race to exploit Africa by the colonial powers.
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"Being a fan of Burton and having enjoyed River Of Doubt, I thought giving River of the Gods a go a good idea.
I wasn’t disappointed, Millard is a talented storyteller and imparts this history with an imaginative sprinkling of the novelist’s art and the narrator did a very good job.
The first half of the book deals with Burton and his part in the drama, the second part follows Speke. A great deal of the book looks at the rivalry between the two and all the bickering, pettiness and bad faith that went into it.
Despite all his faults, his conceits and foibles, Burton comes acoss as a far more glamorous, talented & sympathetic character. Speke, conversely, comes off looking like an unsteady, jealous, ambitious, spoiled, vain, churlish, scheming, petty and self-centred loser.
Millard also takes some time out to portray Isabelle, Burton’s wife, who has received a lot of historical hate mail for the post mortem destruction of much of Burton’s written work, in a not-unsympathetic light.
Overall a highly entertaining book dealing with a area of history that I've always been fascinated with. The book is chock full of revealing close-ups but, unfortunately just misses the mark and the panoramic scope that the title subject is worthy of."
BookBeast (4 out of 5 stars)