Review: ‘River of the Gods,’ by Candice Millard

This is not new ground — the most recent writer to have come this way is Tim Jeal, author of the thorough and engaging “Explorers of the Nile”but Candice Millard has earned her legions of admirers. She is a graceful writer and a careful researcher, and she knows how to navigate a tangled tale.

Curiously, Millard provides few of the natural history vignettes that were highlights of “The River of Doubt,” her Teddy Roosevelt book. There are hardly any mentions of elephants, except as their tusks figured in the ivory trade, and only the briefest mention of lions. Leopards and giraffes and wildebeests turn up in only a single paragraph.

Millard sticks close to Burton and Speke, even dashing past such important and colorful figures as David Livingstone and Henry Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame). But she takes pains to put her story in context. Unlike Scott and Amundsen, say, whose race to the South Pole played out on an empty continent, Burton and Speke set out into territory that, Millard notes with characteristic liveliness, “had in fact been occupied continuously by human beings for hundreds of thousands of years longer than London or Paris.”

But the Nile had never yielded its secrets, though traders had long recounted stories of towering mountains and giant lakes that might have given rise to a mighty river. The problem for locals and traders alike was scale — knowing a great deal about one region or stretch of river was far different from knowing the full course of the longest river in the world. Just how all those lakes and rivers connected, across vast watersheds, no one knew. Explorers since Roman days had tried to follow the Nile upstream to its headwaters. They had all failed. The new strategy was to make an end run instead, by marching inland from the coast.

Burton and Speke and other explorers wound their way like armies on the move, in caravans of 100 or 200 men. Most of the paths they followed had been laid down over the course of centuries by African and Arab traders in ivory and enslaved people. Even in the 1850s those trade caravans continued to thrive. Throughout East Africa, Millard writes, “the shackling and selling of human beings was still a common and daily occurrence.”

Porters staggered along with tusks that weighed up to 100 pounds, cut from slaughtered elephants. Victims of smallpox lay dead along the trail. Hordes of unfortunate souls who had been captured in raids or purchased like animals trudged their weary way along, destined for slave markets.

One of the heroes of Millard’s story had once marched in one of those slavers’ caravans, in ropes and chains. Sidi Mubarak Bombay would play an indispensable role as a guide to Burton and Speke — he was, Burton said, “the gem of the party” — and he had endured a lifetime of hardships that surpassed anything that befell his employers.

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