in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: May 24, 2022

Podcast #804: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile

In the 19th century, the source of the Nile River remained one of the greatest mysteries of geographic exploration. The story of how the British eventually found it is one of adventure, danger, and bravery, but also arrogance, envy, and resentment.

Here to offer some snapshots from this dramatic expedition is Candice Millard, author of River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile. Today on the show, Candice shares how two men who were very much opposites, Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, ventured together on two years-long expeditions to locate the source of the longest and most legendary river in the world, the harrowing obstacles they faced in their quest, and how their partnership devolved into a bitter rivalry. Along the way, we discuss what made Burton such a compelling character, why we remember his name but not Speke’s, and the African guide who was the unheralded hero in the achievements of both men.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. In the 19th century, the source of the Nile River remained one of the greatest mysteries of geographic exploration. The story of how the British eventually found it is one of adventure, danger and bravery, but also of arrogance, envy and resentment. Here to offer some snapshots from this dramatic expedition is Candice Millard, author of River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile. Today in the show, Candice shares that two men who were very much opposites, Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke ventured together on two years long expeditions to locate the source of the longest and most legendary river in the world, the harrowing obstacles they faced in their quest and how their partnership evolved into a bitter rivalry. Along the way, we discuss what made Burton such a compelling character, why we remember his name but not Speke’s, and the African guide who’s the unheralded hero in the achievements of both men. After the show’s over check out our show notes at

Alright, Candice Millard, welcome back to the show.

Candice Millard: Thanks so much for having me.

Brett McKay: So you got a new book out called River of the Gods. It’s all about the exploration for the source of the Nile River. How did you discover this story and when did you realize there might be a bigger story here besides just geographic exploration?

Candice Millard: I first heard this basic story about 20 years ago, and I was just fascinated by these two extremely different men, and the story of their friendship and the betrayal of that friendship. And it stayed with me all these years. I’d been working at National Geographic at that time, in the meantime written different books, but I kept coming back to this story, but I didn’t want to just tell another story about two Europeans going into Africa and “discovering” something, I wanted to really understand how these expeditions worked and why there was this incredible fascination with this part of the world, and when I was doing some research, I found Sidi Mubarak Bombay who became the heart and really the hero of the story, and then I was hooked.

Brett McKay: Yeah, what I loved about this story is that there’s stories within the story, there’s lots of stories and you explore them all, it’s sort of like a river that you find these little tributaries and you go off and you see… It gives you a bigger picture of what was going on.

Candice Millard: Yeah, that’s true. And that always happens with the best story, so it takes me a lot of time, a lot of research before I even commit to writing a book on a certain subject, and it has to have those many layers, and this certainly did.

Brett McKay: Okay, so the exploration for the source of the Nile was going on like 1830s, 1840s, 1850s. What was going on in Europe at the time that kick started… It was like… There was an obsession, there was an obsession in discovering the source of the Nile. What happened?

Candice Millard: That’s right. So it used to be that Europeans were obsessed with Rome and Greece, and they taught their children and the priest and everyone was steeped in learning those languages and learning that history, but then at the very end of the 1700s, in 1798, the French were in Alexandria and they found the Rosetta Stone, and then they were fighting with Britain at that time, Britain wanted it, Britain… Every European country then was obsessed with this even older and even richer civilization, and so it just set off this frenzy in art, in architecture and fashion and everyone was fascinated with Egypt as really, we still are today.

And so you can’t have Egypt without the Nile, the longest, most storied river in the world. But people had been trying to find the source of the Nile for thousands of years. Ancient philosophers, Egyptian kings, but they kept trying to find it by going… By ascending the river, starting at the Mediterranean Sea and then going south, but they quickly hit all of these swamps and things, and they never got anywhere near, so it was still this incredible mystery, really one of the greatest mysteries in the history of human exploration, and so was finally… In the 1830s, with the Royal Geographical Society getting involved, they thought, “Okay, this is our moment. We’re going to try to find it.”

Brett McKay: And was there like national pride at stake? Were the French and the British fighting each other on this?

Candice Millard: Absolutely, absolutely. Everyone wanted… They wanted the cultural claim, they wanted… It was all about taking, taking… Taking the land, taking the history and the culture, and then having the bragging rights to that, and so they were all racing each other, and so that was something that they were thinking about, not only the dangers that they would face in that and being able to solve this ancient mystery, but also getting there first.

Brett McKay: Okay, so one of the individuals that played a big role in a European discovering the source of the Nile was Richard Francis Burton. This guy, you couldn’t make this guy up. [laughter] Tell us about his life before he went on this expedition to start looking for the source of the Nile, what was his life like? What was he doing? What was his personality like? Give us a thumbnail sketch of him.

Candice Millard: Yeah, he was one of these incredibly brilliant, fascinating, very deeply flawed character. So he was born in England, but he was always his whole life considered an outsider because before he was a year old, he moved to France and his father moved him and his brother and sister from country to country. He was in Italy, he was in Spain, he was in Greece, and moving and moving, each year he moved 13 times before he was 18 years old. And each point, he would pick up the language and pick up the culture, he was just a sponge, but he also grew up to be very… An angry, angry kid, he was always fighting, he was fighting at school, he was fighting with his tutors, he was just fighting for his place in the world, he felt like he really didn’t fit in anywhere, but he, again, was brilliant. He ended up writing dozens of books, poetry, essays, translations, books about his travels, he ended up speaking more than 25 different languages, plus another several dialects. He became the first Englishman to enter Mecca, disguised as a Muslim because his Arabic was so good and he knew the Muslim religion so well, he could recite a quarter of the Qur’an by heart, but he was one of these people who studied and was fascinated by every culture and every religion, but respected none.

Brett McKay: Yeah, he was deeply not religious.

Candice Millard: Right.

Brett McKay: And, yeah. But I was amazed, the story of him sneaking into Mecca was crazy. That he was able to do that as a European.

Candice Millard: Right, right. And you know again, he was fascinated with Islam and studied a lot, but obviously it’s a forbidden city for a reason. And he… This trip was acknowledging that what was sort of most sacred to this religion and completely disrespecting it, but that was his MO. He was kind of a serial, and equal opportunity offender. He just kind of didn’t care. And so that’s really, again, one of the things that made him outsider. He was also fascinated by sexual practices in every single culture, and he wrote about those as well, which as you might imagine was very alarming to British Victorians. And another thing about him, he… Britons would often say, he doesn’t even look British. He’s got this black hair and these black mesmerizing eyes, and even his teeth, people wrote about his teeth. Bram Stoker, who would go on to write Dracula, met Burton before he wrote Dracula and was mesmerized by him, he was just obsessed with him. And reading his descriptions are fascinating. And he even writes about watching Burton as he’s talking and looking at his teeth that gleaned like a dagger. So, many people think he might have been an inspiration for Dracula.

Brett McKay: Okay, so when did Burton get the idea that he would start hunting for the source of the Nile?

Candice Millard: So after he went to Mecca, he was always… He always sort of fell into this depression after he had some great triumph. So, unlike most people who, they just wanna kind of coast on that after glow of some great success. Burton always fell into a depression because he was happiest and most energized when he had a challenge, he needed something to really challenge him. And again, this was the heart and soul of exploration. This is the mystery everyone wanted to solve at that time. So, of course he thought no one better than himself. And he already had a relationship with the Royal Geographical Society, they’d been very interested in his trip to Mecca, and even though, again, he is this outsider and they kind of hold him at arms length, he obviously was the most experienced guy, the most obvious choice to lead an expedition to search for the source of the Nile.

Brett McKay: Okay, so Burton starts… He gets appointed for the job, like “You’re gonna be the guy.” So he starts putting together a team, it was sort of like, it reminded me of… What’s the George Clooney movie? Ocean’s 11, right? [laughter] He’s trying to like… He gets a heist here. And he started picking these guys. He knew they were good at these different things, he ended picking this one guy called John Hanning Speke that would end up being a source of a lot of just trouble for the rest of his life. How did this guy, Speke, end up on Burton’s team and then tell us about Speke.

Candice Millard: So Burton had chosen three men he knew well and really respected, they were highly skilled, and he trusted them and he liked them personally, and so he went to Aden. Which is right across… He was going to begin in Somaliland. So he went to Aden where there was a British outpost and was preparing and he was waiting for one more man from his team. And the boat that was supposed to bring that man instead brought news of his death. And Burton’s really devastated, it was somebody he really cared about. And he doesn’t know, he’s like, “Here, we’re ready, we’ve raised this money, we’ve been given this incredible opportunity, and we don’t have this other guy.” Well, John Hanning Speke was… So he was Burton’s opposite in every way. He was blonde and blue-eyed. He was born into the aristocracy. He was a lieutenant in the British Army, he was in India at that time. He loved to hunt, and so he was on leave from the army, and he wanted to go to Africa to hunt.

He wanted to go into Somalia, and when he got to Aden, the person in the British Consul who was there refused to let him go, he said, “It’s too dangerous”. But he kept trying and kept trying. And the guy said, “Okay, finally. Just leave me alone. Why don’t you talk to Burton, maybe he’ll let you go on his expedition.” And he talked to Burton, Speke did. And Burton had real hesitations. First of all, he was concerned because Speke didn’t have any knowledge of the people in East Africa, their traditions or language, he didn’t speak any language, he spoke a little Anglo-Hindustani, but that was it. And he didn’t seem to have any interest in it either, he just wanted to hunt. But Burton felt sorry for him, he thought “This guy is gonna go and he’s gonna die, he’s gonna be killed. He’s not gonna survive. I’ll give him a chance.” And so he said, “Okay, you can come with us.”

Brett McKay: So just to get our bearings here, this is about eighteen… What year is this, 1850?

Candice Millard: Yeah, this is 1854 when they met.

Brett McKay: 1854. Speke, he’s also a young guy. He’s like in his 20s, right?

Candice Millard: That’s right, so he’s about six years younger than Burton. Burton’s in his 30s and Speke’s in his 20s.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and so Burton… He kinda said like, ah you know, I kind of… I didn’t wanna have him on there but I felt sorry for him, I’ll let him come along. When did Burton realize that Speke was gonna be a liability for him?

Candice Millard: He didn’t really realize for a long time. Burton’s one of these people, I think often in history, when you have somebody who’s really extraordinarily… He’s sort of genius level, extraordinarily smart, extraordinarily skilled, and accomplished. He attracts envy that they’re not really aware of. And that could be an extremely, extremely dangerous thing, because admiration can quickly turn to envy, it can quickly turn to resentment, it can quickly turn to hate. And that’s what happened here. Burton was kind of not paying attention to Speke, which Speke hated more than anything. You know, Speke on the outside, seemed sort of modest and quiet, but inside he really burned with this ambition and he all along wanted to be the leader of the expedition, not have Burton be the leader. He wanted to lead it, he wanted the glory and the accomplishment. But Burton was unaware of that, he was focused on this expedition and this challenge ahead of him. And so it would take years and many things along the way, sort of built up offenses that he didn’t realize that he had caused and Speke is kind of keeping tally. And it doesn’t come out until much later.

Brett McKay: So, the expedition it happened in phases. So this first expedition they went on, something happened that really, really started sowing the resentment with Speke. They almost both died. Tell us about this experience. I mean, you do such a great job describing it, but kind of give us a picture, like what happened in this attack. And then how did that sort of really sow the seeds for this resentment that Speke had against Burton.

Candice Millard: So they were going to begin in Somalia and then set out into the interior of east Africa. It was believed that there might be some enormous sort of inland sea. And so they started in Berber right on the coast. And again, you know, these are people, this wider story is one of sort of arrogance and ignorance. These are people going into a land to, again, “discover” something where people have lived for a hundred thousand or more years, right. And millions of people. And of course these people are going to defend themselves. So it’s going to be dangerous. And so one night they’re just in their tents, they’re sleeping and they’re attacked by hundreds of Somali. And one of the men is killed. Again. One of Burton’s good friends. Speke is stabbed 11 times.

And Burton has a javelin thrust through his jaw from cheek to cheek, which leaves this, you know, long jagged scar on his face for the rest of his life. But in the midst of this attack, at one point Speke starts to leave the tent. And then he steps back and Burton just sort of carelessly says, don’t step back. They’ll think you that you’re retreating. And, but to Speke, this is the worst thing anyone could say to him, because he thinks in his mind that Burton is calling him a coward and that he takes great pride in being incredibly tough, incredibly brave. And so he is furious, but he doesn’t say anything to Burton and Burton has no idea. I mean, he’s, they’re all fighting for their lives and this ends the expedition and they have to go back to England to regroup. And again, Burton has no idea, but Speke is enraged. And he’s holding this sort of in his heart against Burton.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So they go back to London, lick their wounds and try to figure out, regroup and plan again. Yeah. But as you said, during this time Speke really started nurturing his resentment towards Burton, he tried to change the story of what happened and kind of saying, yeah, I was the guy, Burton… [laughter] He wasn’t doing anything. [laughter]

Candice Millard: Right, right. He’s saying, you know, he is talking about the orders that he gave and the decisions that he made. And yeah, this becomes a theme, but again, Burton is completely unaware of it. So then the Crimean war by that time is going on and they both go to take part to a limited degree in the Crimean war, and then Burton decides I’m gonna go back. I’m gonna go back to east Africa. And the Royal geographical society is gonna fund another expedition for him. And he needs a second in command and against his best judgment, even though again, he is completely clueless about how Speke feels about him, but he knows that they don’t really get along that well. And that Speke doesn’t really have as many skills as he thinks he should. But he says, he’s like, look, he nearly died the last time, we all lost a lot of our investment, financial investment as well. And he felt bad about that. So he said, you know, he invited him to come along and Speke accepted.

Brett McKay: Well, during this interlude period, Burton had a romance, this is another one of those cool little stories that happened. And it was a romantic romance like capital R Romantic with this woman named Isabel Arundell. Tell us about the relationship ’cause this, I thought this was really kind of, it really spoke to how like, sort of that romantic period that people were experiencing in Europe. So tell us about that relationship.

Candice Millard: Well, you know, it’s interesting it seems like Burton always attracted to him people who were his complete opposite. So Isabel was as well in a different way. So Isabel was also born into the aristocracy, but she was Catholic. And so while Burton had this sort of nomads, you know, growing up, moving from place to place, he was kind of on his own, kind of raised himself. She was born to this very, very strict and controlling world where, you know, literally she got to see her parents in the evening, standing next to them to say goodnight, you know, it was nannies and boarding schools and, but… And very controlled. And her mother especially was extremely controlling and wanted to choose who Isabel would marry. But Isabel dreamed of a completely different life. You know, she wanted adventure. She wanted freedom, which you just couldn’t have as a Victorian woman in Great Britain.

And so she said that she wanted to be a man. She said, “I wish I were a man, but if I can’t be a man, I want to be Richard Burton’s wife.” So she meets him when she’s just 19 years old. It’s her first trip outside of England. And they meet in Europe and she is immediately captivated by him. He’s sort of everything she wishes she could be, right? He has this incredibly wild and adventurous life and he looks dangerous and exciting. And so she immediately falls in love with him, but she’s, he’s 10 years older than she is. And obviously swept up in this world, in all of his own personal ambitions. And so they kind of meet again and again over six years, again and again, until finally he comes back from Africa and he proposes to her and it’s everything she could possibly dream of. The only problem is her mother says, absolutely not, literally any man in the universe but Richard Burton. [laughter] Because he’s such a controversial figure and he has no money and he has no family name. And he’s everything Isabel wants and everything her mother does not.

Brett McKay: No, I loved Isabel. I loved that she was… She took fencing lessons and they’re like, why are you taking fencing lessons? Like, well, I gotta know how to defend myself when I’m with Richard on adventures.

Candice Millard: Right.

Brett McKay: I liked her a lot. I mean what drew Burton to her?

Candice Millard: You know, I think… Well, for one thing, she was beautiful, she was young, and she was willing to live this really crazy life that not many Victorian women would want. It was not an easy life. And again, he really… He didn’t have any money, he didn’t really have any obvious way to support them, certainly not in the way that she had become accustomed to, but she was also completely obsessed with him. She was absolutely devoted to him. So, what was important to her was her religion and Richard Burton. And she would do anything for him. And so she… Like you said, she learned how to fence, she learned how to cook, she learned how to edit because he wanted someone who could edit all of his manuscripts and things. And she also became an incredibly gifted writer, she was really… She ended up writing some of her own books, and she… And of course, she wrote an autobiography or I’m sorry a biography of her husband, which is fascinating and beautifully written.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so he has this romance with Isabel. He goes on the second expedition to look for the source of the Nile. He brings along Speke again. Unaware that Speke is just harboring this resentment towards him. Tell us… You mentioned a character that I just… I fell in love with when I was reading about it, Bombay. This Bombay came in clutch all the time during their expeditions, tell us about him.

Candice Millard: So Sidi Mubarak Bombay had been kidnapped as a child from his village in East Africa and dragged to the coast, taken to Zanzibar where he’d been sold for cloth in the infamous slave markets there. And he had been taken to Western India where he had lived enslaved for 20 years until the man who owned him died and he was given his freedom, and he made his way back to East Africa, and he met Burton and Speke there. So when Burton and Speke go, it’s now 1856. They’re on their expedition, they’re gonna try again. And they meet… They’re hiring porters and guides and things, and they meet Sidi Mubarak Bombay, and it’s really interesting to me because both men immediately knew if they didn’t hire anyone else, they had to hire Bombay.

And he spoke many languages, he was incredibly hard working, incredibly trustworthy, he was very cheerful in everything that he did. But what’s most astonishing to me is that even after everything that he had endured, all the loss, all this unbelievable tragedy that he had survived, he had the softest of hearts. He was incredibly kind, incredibly generous. And that is obvious. It was obvious to these men the moment they met him, and this ended up being true in expedition, after expedition, after expedition, he would spend his life helping to map his part of the world. And yeah, he quickly became the heart and really the hero of this expedition.

Brett McKay: Yeah, one of the problems that Burton had and Speke had is like sometimes the porters just abandon. They just like in the middle leave, but Bombay never did. And also, Bombay did a great job of sort of, I guess, managing the relationships between the porters and Burton and Speke.

Candice Millard: Yeah, he did. And look, it’s understandable why these men would desert the expedition. So they were… Burton and Speke nearly died multiple times, and it was never clear how they were gonna pay their porters. And they never had enough porters, they never had enough donkeys, and the donkeys were always running off too, or dying. And they had so much equipment and they… People have to understand, these are vast expanses that they’re crossing. So they would spend years there and they would cross thousands of miles. And it was incredibly varied terrain, and they were… At one point, Burton had such severe malaria, he was paralyzed, he could not walk for nearly a year, and so they had to carry him with everything else too.

Both men and many of the… And sometimes Bombay, and sometimes other people, they often would be blinded, they would get infections and things for months. They couldn’t see where they’re trying to go through. And again, they’re going through land that no one has invited them into. And it’s potentially dangerous, people don’t know, I mean, it could be immediately dangerous, and it certainly was in the long term, very, very dangerous for these people on this land. So it’s a difficult, difficult expedition and so it’s no wonder people left.

Brett McKay: Right, yeah, that’s the… When I read it, it’s like, “This sounds awful. I don’t know why anyone would want to go explore in the 19th century.” As you said, most of time, they’re just… They’re sick pretty much all the… Both Burton… Everyone was sick. Burton went paralyzed, Speke lost his vision. He also lost his hearing, he got a bug stuck in his ear.

Candice Millard: Right, right. Yeah, that was a horrible… It was just one of these crazy things where he’s… One night, there’s a huge storm and it blows down his tent, and so… And it’s pitch black, so he lights a candle to try to set his tent back up, but it attracts this horde of beetles, all these beetles descend on him and fill the tent, and he’s flailing around trying to get rid of them and he can’t. And so he finally gives up and he lies down to just try to sleep, and he feels one of the beetles climbing into his ear. And he can’t get it out, and it just keeps burrowing deeper and deeper and deeper, and he tries everything you can think of, he tries like butter and oil, and nothing is working, and so finally out of desperation, he takes a penknife and he jabs it into his ear, and he kills the beetle, and for weeks after bits of the beetle, like a wing or a leg comes out in his ear wax, but unfortunately, he also deafens himself in that ear for the rest of his life.

Brett McKay: Okay. So they’re on this exploration. They finally arrived to this large lake, it’s Lake… Tell me how’s pronunciation, Tanganyika?

Candice Millard: Yes, Tanganyika.

Brett McKay: Tanganyika, and Burton thought, “Hey, this is it. I think this is the source of the Nile,” but he discovered it wasn’t. When did he figure out that this wasn’t the source?

Candice Millard:  Well, not for a while, he still held on hope for a long time, so Lake Tanganyika is one of the largest and deepest lakes in the world. It’s absolutely enormous. I was on this lake when I did research for this book, and you feel like you’re on an ocean, it’s just… It’s really… It’s sort of narrow and very, very long, and I was on it one night when there had been a big storm and the water was incredibly rough, and we were just in an open wooden boat, and we were tipping like insane… Almost completely tipping over many, many times and it’s also filled with crocodiles, so I was terrified, but it did seem like this, and it’s in the right area, it’s in what is today Western Tanzania.

And as a side note, it’s also the site of Gombe, which is Jane Goodall’s Research Institute there on the lake, but the problem is, they got there, they didn’t have boats, they are trying to find boats that they could rent or borrow and they’re sicker and sicker and they’re running out of supplies and finally they just realized they can’t stay any longer. They have to start back for the coast, but they haven’t had a chance to circumnavigate and they haven’t had a chance to run all the scientific tests that they needed to run and they haven’t seen… They haven’t gotten to… They think it’s gonna be in the northern reaches, and they haven’t been able to really get there to see if a Nile-sized river is running out.

Brett McKay: Well, at this point too, Speke decided… Burton was sick. He had a need to hold up for a little bit, and recover so Speke said, “Hey, I’m gonna go split off and go check something else out.” Why did Speke decide to do that?

Candice Millard: So at first, as I said, they had thought that there was one enormous lake in the middle of East Africa but when they get there, and they start talking to people who live there, and they find out actually there are three enormous lakes. And they talk to a guy who’s like, “If you really wanna see a big lake, you should go north,” and that is the Nyanza, and so Speke really wants to do that, but Burton again is still… At this point, he’s still paralyzed, he’s really ill, he thinks they don’t have enough supplies for it, and he says, “Let’s just wait, we’ll get back to the Coast, we’ll regroup, and then we’ll try.”

And Speke says, “You know what, when we were in… ” They’re in Kaze, which is now, Tabora, which was this big sort of a trading post. He says, “While we’re here, why don’t you recover, work on things.” Everything was falling apart, their clothes were in shreds, everything is falling apart at this point, he’s like, “Why don’t you work on that and I’ll take Bombay,” ’cause he didn’t wanna go anywhere without Bombay, “And a smaller legion, and I’ll see if I can go to this Nyanza.” And Burton is kind of annoyed with him at this point anyway, and he’s like, “Great. Why don’t you do that.” But it would turn out to be the worst mistake of his life, because Speke did go to the Nyanza, and the Nyanza is the source of the white Nile.

Brett McKay: But the thing is, okay, Speke was convinced that it was it but he really didn’t know.

Candice Millard: No, he was only there for a couple of days. He didn’t get anywhere near the north… He was in the southern part. And this lake, it’s the largest lake in Africa. It’s the second largest freshwater lake in the world. It’s absolutely mind-bendingly enormous, and he wasn’t anywhere near the northern reaches, which is where the Nile comes out of it, but he just said he had a feeling. He just knew that this was the source, and so part of it is gumption, he did go… Part of it is just luck. It just turned out that he was right but he had absolutely no proof.

Brett McKay: Okay, so Speke’s like, “Yeah, I found it,” Burton’s like, “I don’t know, maybe, you don’t have any proof about it.” They go home, and then Speke started doing these maneuvers to make sure that he got sole credit for discovering the source of the Nile. What did he do?

Candice Millard:  That’s right. So they get back to Zanzibar and Speke is really, really eager to get back to England and Burton’s still recovering, and Speke says, “Okay, don’t worry. I’ll go on without you. I’ll go back to London, but don’t worry, I won’t talk to anybody until you can join me,” and so Burton says, “Okay, great. I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.” Well, Speke decides instead, as soon as he gets to London, like the very next day, he goes to see the president of the Royal Geographical Society, and he tells him that he believes he’s found the source of the Nile, and this guy believes him and really likes Speke. Again, Speke is sort of… And this, he doesn’t have any children, Murchison is his name, and he sort of looks on Speke very affectionately and is really impressed with what he’s done, and he says, “We have to send you back as commander of your own expedition,” which is everything that Speke has always wanted.

So Burton gets back a few weeks later and is completely bewildered and shocked by what has happened. He realizes that, “Oh, Speke is not my friend. I’m not his mentor, he’s my rival,” he just… It hadn’t even occurred to him, but now everything’s been taken away. So Speke is going to be given the next expedition and Burton doesn’t have one, so he doesn’t have any way to go back and try to try to discover the source of the Nile, something he had been trying with everything he had to do for years.

Brett McKay: And during this time, Burton’s reputation just kind of plummeted, no one wanted anything to do with him.

Candice Millard:  That’s right. So he just kind of spun deeper and deeper, and as he sort of then realizes how Speke feels about him and then, yeah, the Royal Geographical Society kind of drops him. He’s just an outcast and he’s bitter and he’s angry, and again, he’s at his best when he has a challenge, when he has something he wants to solve or wants to accomplish something big and that had been taken away from him.

Brett McKay: Alright so Speke goes back to Lake… What was the name? The Nanzi…

Candice Millard: The Nyanza.

Brett McKay: The Nyanza and he names it Lake Victoria. That’s what it’s, we know it now. How did that expedition go without Burton?

Candice Millard: So it was… Speke had always been criticizing Burton first just sort of to himself and then to his family members and then sort of to a wider array of people, criticizing Burton at every point and criticizing his leadership skills. But now Speke finds that he’s in charge and he has to make all of these very difficult decisions and the same things happen to him. They get there, so the first person he knows he has to have with him is Bombay, and Bombay is absolutely willing and ready to go and then he takes a man named James Grant, and James Grant is just… Again, it’s a story of complete opposites. He is Speke’s complete opposite. So he’s a really good guy, very genuinely modest, happy for Speke to have the limelight and just kind of waiting to help however he could. But again, quickly they go in, there are desertions, they’re starving, but they are able to make it to the northern reaches of the Nyanza, and again, they don’t really have the proof that they need, they aren’t able to spend enough time, they don’t have all of the scientific measurements, but Speke is even more than ever convinced that this is the source.

Brett McKay: Okay, so he’s convinced and he’s building up his brand, basically. Like I’m the guy who discovered the source of the Nile. And most of the scientists and the researchers, they bought into like, Yeah, this guy did it. But then there came a point when they started realize that Speke was all hat and no cattle. What kind of led to his downfall when people started to realize this guy isn’t really what he says he is.

Candice Millard: Well, he just became… He’s sort of more and more manic, so first of all he gets back, and the Royal Geographical Society had been founded in 1830, it was the most respected and most powerful scientific institution in Great Britain, and they had this vaunted journal where they would publish the reports of the men that they would send on these expeditions and Burton had taken up a whole issue after their last expedition, but Speke, A, He hates to write and B, He really wants as much attention as he can get. So instead of giving all of his information to the world Geographical Society, which had sponsored him, which had sent him there, he decides he’s going to publish it with Blackwoods magazine, which was a very well-known magazine at that time, ’cause he thinks he’ll get more readership and more money and more attention that way, and so the Royal Geographical Society is outraged.

And he gives them just sort of a poorly written, poorly researched small report. And so he’s broken ties that way, he also is very critical of everyone, there’s a poor guy named Patrick who had agreed to try to help re-supply Speke and Grant’s expedition, and he had gone through hell and back, he had lost two men on the trip, he and his wife was with him, nearly died. And when he meets up with Speke, Speke’s angry that he wasn’t there earlier and is telling people that, Oh yeah, I think he’s involved in the slave trade, which he was not at all. So he ruins his reputation. And so people are starting to say, What? Who is this guy, and what does he want? He’s sort of dangerous. And so he also is kind of cast out, so he and Burton are just on their own.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the writing sample that Speke gave and you quoted in the book… It didn’t make any sense at all.

Candice Millard: No.

Brett McKay: I read it three times. This is like my eight-year-old could write better than this.

Candice Millard: I know, I know. And one of these strange twists of fate that happens in history sometimes, so out of desperation, Blackwood this publisher, he’s like Speke has this great story to tell me, he can’t write it. He just can’t write it to save himself, so they decided to hire an “editor”. It was really a ghost writer for Speke to work with, and as luck would have it, the guy’s last name was Burton.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it was a great example. Speke’s like he had this vain ambition, but his envy and resentment eventually led to his downfall.

Candice Millard: Yeah, it did. As often happens, I think when people are very arrogant, they are very also very insecure, and he couldn’t take any criticism, he just wanted to be lauded all the time. And yeah, it turns into this sort of festering resentment against everyone, and you find yourself sort of cut off.

Brett McKay: Okay, so Speke, he’s technically discovered the source of the Nile, but he pretty much lucked into it, he’s also at this time, he’s alienating the exploration community with how he’s conducting himself. And meanwhile, you also have Burton who’s on the outs in that community. He still believes Lake Tanganyika is the source of the Nile. So he and Speke decide to argue this out in a public debate, but Speke unexpectedly dies before the debate, and it’s a really dramatic, mysterious twist in the story, and we’re gonna… We’ll save that for readers of your book, so if you wanna know what happens there, get the book. But what’s interesting about Speke’s posthumus legacy is even though Speke is the first European to discover the source of the Nile, I had never heard of Speke until I read your book. But I did know who Burton was. So why does history remember Burton, but overlook Speke?

Candice Millard:  I think… Well, part of it is Speke died then soon after. And he just wasn’t the personality that Burton was. I wrote a book about Theodore Roosevelt, and I always found it interesting. Roosevelt used to say himself, if you don’t have the great event, you don’t have the great leader. So he really wanted to be president during a war or like the Great Depression or some big event where he could galvanize the nation, and he didn’t have that, but yet we remember him. He’s one of the most well-known presidents in our nation’s history. Why? I think because of his personality, and it was the same with Burton, he was just absolutely fascinating.

He was just this… You love to talk about him, he was off the charts brilliant, and he also… He wrote so much. We have all of his writings, he was an unbelievably gifted writer. He spoke all of these languages. He did all of these other things, and so he is very memorable. So, yes, you’re right, there are dozens of biographies about Richard Burton. There’s only one biography of Speke and it was written, I think in the 70s, the 1970s, so almost 100 years after his death, and it’s a really very slim biography. We don’t know that much about his childhood or anything. So there’s just, there’s not that much to say about him.

Brett McKay: Yes, he’s all hat and no cattle.

Candice Millard: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And after this Bombay had a… After these expeditions he had a… He did a lot of expeditions and exploring and map making, correct?

Candice Millard: Yes, it’s incredible. Again, it’s one of these things you think, “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of… ” Again, I worked at National Geographic for six years. We talked every day about exploration and about Africa. I had never heard of Sidi Mubarak Bombay. So Sidi Mubarak Bombay, not only was he with Burton and Speke going to the Tanganyika then going with Speke going to the Nyanza, he was with Speke and Grant when Speke came back to go to the Nyanza again. He was with Henry Morton Stanley when he found David Livingston, which was on the banks of the Tanganyika and that… You know the famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Bombay was there, Bombay helped make that happen. And then he, along with the explorer Verney Lovett Cameron, became the first to cross the entire continent from east to west, sea to sea. It would be difficult to argue that anyone did more for the mapping of East Africa, the continent of his birth, than Sidi Mubarak Bombay. But very few people have heard his name.

Brett McKay: Well, Candice, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book, which I think I told you early on, this is the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Candice Millard: Thank you so much. That really means a lot to me. So it’s available everywhere where books are sold. And I do have a website,, and I’m on Twitter and Instagram and all those things. But I really, really appreciate. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you so much for your interest in the book.

Brett McKay: Thanks Candice, this has been a pleasure. My guest today was Candice Millard. Her new book is River of the Gods: Genius, Courage and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website Also check out our shownotes at where you find links to resources and where you can delve deeper into this topic.

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