River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile
Candice Millard, Kansas City’s finest reanimator of history, discusses her new book River of the Gods with the Library’s Anne Kniggendorf. Like Millard’s other three books, River of the Gods is a wide exploration of a little-told story voiced in a manner that lends urgency and immediacy.
In the mid-1800s, European leaders were eager to discover – and exploit – Africa’s resources. In the race to stake the first claim, the Royal Geographical Society of England sent linguist and writer Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, an explorer and hunter, to search for the source of the Nile River, a mystery that had eluded cartographers and adventurers for roughly 2,000 years.
The men’s relationship deteriorated, and it was a third, lesser-known member of the party who acted as the expedition's backbone. Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a former enslaved East African, guided the pair as they attempted to trace the great river. Speke, alone, made the trek to Lake Victoria (Nyanza), the world’s second largest freshwater lake, and felt – but did not determine empirically – that he'd identified the source. Speke continued to damage his relationship with Burton by insisting on full credit for the discovery; a tragedy prevented the two men from facing off on the subject in a highly anticipated public debate.
The expedition irreversibly altered the men’s careers and lives.