Monday, December 25, 2023

River of the Gods by Candice Millard

First Line: As he walked through the storied gates of Alexandria in the fall of 1801, a young British officer named William Richard Hamilton found himself in the middle of a stunning tableau-- abject misery set against the lost grandeur of the Pharaohs.
The source of the Nile River had been shrouded in mystery for thousands of years until a frenzy of interest in ancient Egypt inspired European powers to send out waves of expeditions to map the unknown corners of the world and extend their empires. 

Two explorers were sent out by England's Royal Geographical Society to find the Nile's headwaters: Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. Burton spoke twenty-nine languages, was a decorated soldier, and an atheist. Speke was a young aristocrat and Army officer, passionate about hunting and determined to make his mark on the world.

The two men clashed from the beginning on a journey of tremendous hardships, illness, and one setback after another. After two years, Burton became too ill to continue, but Speke did and ultimately claimed he'd found the source of the Nile. Speke rushed to take credit for his discovery, and when Burton disputed it, Speke launched another expedition to prove his claim. The two became venomous enemies.

Yet there was a third man on both expeditions, his name obscured, whose exploits were even more extraordinary. Without a former slave named Sidi Mubarak Bombay, neither Burton nor Speke would have come close to the headwaters of the Nile. In fact, neither one of them would probably have survived.


Candice Millard is a Must-Read author for me. All of her books have been fascinating. In River of the Gods, the two main characters, Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, were so diametrically opposed that I found it easy to take sides. 
Richard Burton spoke several languages, believed in traveling as a native in whichever country he found himself in, didn't believe in converting anyone to Christianity, and only killed animals when it was necessary.  His main problem was that he could be much too blunt for the delicate sensibilities of others.

John Hanning Speke was a young aristocrat who was pompous, sloppy with details, and-- as an editor found out later to his horror-- was a total nightmare as a writer. He joined Burton in the expedition to the headwaters of the Nile for the glory, and he was completely capable of lying to get what he felt he deserved. On top of that, he loved to go hunting and blast away at anything that moved whether the men on the expedition needed the meat or not.

Sidi Mubarak Bombay was even more exceptional than Richard Burton. He was captured, enslaved, and shipped from his East African home to India. When his owner died, he joined the army and eventually traveled back to Africa. There he used his resourcefulness, linguistic powers, and courage to become a guide. There is no doubt that, without men like Bombay to lead, carry supplies, and protect these European expeditions, none of them would have been a success. 

Once again, Millard has crafted a fascinating history of the exploits of extraordinary people. Although slow-paced at times, River of the Gods is riveting.
River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile
eISBN: 9780385543118
Knopf Doubelday © 2022
eBook, 424 pages
Rating: A-
Source: Purchased from Amazon.


  1. Wow, this sounds fascinating, Cathy! And it's so interesting to read their different perspectives on everything. Even that first sentence gives me a hint that the book really places the reader there, too. Hmm....why have I not read Millard's work before.? I think I should.

  2. When I was a child, my parents subscribed to "National Geographic" and I remember reading so many stories about the discovery of the source of the Nile. It has always been a subject that holds fascination for me.

  3. I just so happen to be starting chapter 2 of this book as I read your review :)

    1. Le me know what you think when you're finished, Kate! :-)


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