Where the Nile began: The perilous journey to seek the river’s source

An expedition to discover the Nile River’s origin was the “Holy Grail” of 19th-century exploration, as Candice Millard’s “River of the Gods” shows. 

From "River of the Gods"/Doubleday
Richard Francis Burton was a British explorer, scholar, linguist and adventurer extraordinaire. He was appointed to lead the Nile expedition.

It was a geographical mystery that had befuddled explorers, astronomers, and philosophers for two millennia: Where did the Nile begin? In “River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile,” historian Candice Millard recounts the adventures of two ambitious, Victorian-era rivals who spent years trekking through East Africa, enduring unimaginable hardships, in an effort to be the first to solve the puzzle.

European fascination with Egypt and the Middle East was sparked by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and its deciphering 23 years later. While 19th-century explorers were scattered across the globe, filling in the map of the world, none had been able to locate the headwaters of the White Nile, the longest branch of the longest river in the world. The question of where the Nile began constituted, in Millard’s words, “the Holy Grail of exploration.”

Eager to seize the grail was Richard Francis Burton, a British explorer, scholar, linguist, and adventurer. Fluent in Arabic, as well as 24 other languages and 12 dialects, he disguised himself as a Muslim pilgrim and became the first Englishman to travel to Mecca, which was forbidden to non-Muslims, in 1853. The next year the newly formed Royal Geographical Society in London chose him to locate the headwaters of the Nile. 

Burton hired John Hanning Speke, a soldier, surveyor, and avid hunter, as his second in command. While the two Englishmen get top billing, the third star of the drama is Sidi Mubarak Bombay, an African man formerly enslaved in India. Hired by Burton as head gun carrier, Bombay quickly became a key member of the team.

From "River of the Gods"/Doubleday
Sidi Mubarak Bombay, an African man hired originally by Burton as head gun carrier, guided the Nile expedition. Millard writes that he became one of the most accomplished guides in Africa, traveling over 6,000 miles during his career, most of it on foot.

Theirs was a daunting mission. Since traveling upriver would require crossing through regions hostile to intruders, the explorers came up with a bold alternative. They would travel inland from the east coast of Africa, following the same paths used for centuries by African and Arab traders, hoping to discover the watershed where a stream began its 4,000-mile journey north to Egypt. 

Though Speke, like Burton, was an officer in the army of Britain’s East India Company, he was also a thin-skinned aristocrat and Burton’s “opposite in almost every way.” Both men were possessed of great ambition and a desire to claim credit. While they should have made a good team, it wasn’t long before tension between the two flared up and they quickly became bitter enemies. 

"River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile," by Candice Millard, Doubleday, 349 pp.

The first expedition was short-lived, as the explorers were attacked by some 350 Somali bandits. They escaped with their lives, but not before Speke was speared twice and Burton once, through the mouth. 

A second mission, undertaken a few years later, was even more harrowing, as the explorers and their African porters, guides, and translators faced hardships that included illnesses, injuries, sweltering heat, and drenching rains. Crew members deserted. Near starvation, the explorers ate ants for protein. Speke suffered a period of near blindness and lost hearing in one ear.  


Eight months and 850 grueling miles later, the expedition reached Lake Tanganyika. Burton was convinced they had found the Nile’s source, but an Arab traveler told them that a lake further north, Nyanza, was the river’s actual source. While Burton recuperated from an ailment, Speke led a small group north to Lake Nyanza (later renamed Lake Victoria). He believed this to be the source of the White Nile, but could not prove it because all the expedition’s scientific equipment had been ruined. 

After a second trip, in 1861, Speke declared that “the Nile is settled.” Though Burton was not convinced, Speke’s claim gained acceptance, and many years later, was proved to be correct. 

A former writer and editor for National Geographic, Millard combines the research skills of a historian with the on-the-ground reporting of a journalist and the storytelling chops of a novelist to bring episodes vividly to life. 

From "River of the Gods"/Doubleday
A map of East Africa shows the route the expedition followed.

In “River of the Gods,” she makes extensive use of archival material in addition to several trips of her own to East Africa, following the path of Burton, Speke, and Bombay, to render a complicated narrative both understandable and exciting. While telling the story of two European explorers and their ambitions and rivalry, she never loses sight of the enormous toil and contributions made by scores of Africans, Arabs, and others who made their adventures possible. 

This is especially true of Bombay. Following Speke’s early death in a hunting mishap and the end of Burton’s career as an adventurer, Bombay continued to explore the African continent, quietly adding to his list of achievements. He helped Henry Morton Stanley find the elusive David Livingstone (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”) and, with Britain’s Verney Lovett Cameron, was among the first explorers to cross the entire continent of Africa. 

“In the end,” Millard writes, “Bombay would become not only one of the most accomplished guides in the history of African exploration but likely the most widely traveled man in Africa, estimated to have covered some six thousand miles of grasslands, forests, deserts, and mountains, most of it by foot.”

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