‘River of the Gods’ takes readers on perilous journey

By Ted Ayers | February 1, 2023

River of the Gods,” by Candice Millard (Doubleday, 2022, 349 pages, $32.50)

Candice Millard made a name for herself as a scholar-writer with books on Winston Churchill, James Garfield and Theodore Roosevelt. In her new book, she tackles one of the best-known expeditions of all time, the search for the Nile led by Sir Richard Francis Burton. The book offers a true and dramatic story of the harsh realities of exploration and discovery in East Africa in the mid-1800›s.

Millard, of Overland Park, is a former editor and writer for National Geographic. She now works out of a corner office of her husband’s publishing company in Overland Park. For “River of Gods” she traveled extensively, with stops in Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Uganda, the kingdom of Buganda, Edinburgh, London and Cambridge.

The principal protagonists in this book are Burton, a famed explorer, writer, poet, anthropologist and one of the world’s most accomplished linguists, speaking more than twenty-five languages and at least another dozen dialects; John Hanning Speke, whose life as an explorer began in earnest when he met Richard Burton and joined his expedition; and Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who served as a principal guide with Burton and Speke and was considered to be among the most accomplished guides in the history of African exploration at the time of his death.

Determined to find the source of the White Nile, the Royal Geographical Society sponsored the Burton and Speke expedition, which covered a three-year period from 1856 to 1859.  

Burton and Speke were required to oversee porters, serve as negotiators and interpreters, administer medical care and navigate safe passage through hundreds of miles of unmapped land. While Burton and Speke were accomplished men, they were also both egotistical, temperamental and overly ambitious and the physical and mental challenges, jealousies and misunderstandings that arose along the way did not facilitate the type of leadership required for ultimate success.

Africa and the Nile have always been fascinating and somewhat mysterious topics for writers. Millard’s research and writing will take you on an extraordinary true-life adventure in the comfort of your own home. Safe travels!