River of the Gods Summary

River of the Gods is a 2022 work of nonfiction about the nineteenth-century British quest to discover the origins of the Nile River.

  • Explorer Richard Francis Burton set out on an expedition to find the source of the Nile, accompanied by John Hanning Speke, who became Burton’s rival.
  • The expedition was difficult, and the men failed to find the river’s source at Lake Tanganyika. Speke fell ill and railed against Burton in his delirium.
  • Speke promoted himself and denounced Burton to the Royal Geographical Society. He later discovered the Nile flowing from what became known as Lake Victoria.


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Last Updated on July 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1263

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River of the Gods opens with a description of the newfound interest in Egypt in the early nineteenth century. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone and other cultural treasures led to a craze in Europe as well as “cultural plunder.” One major question occupied the minds of scholars and explorers: what was the source of the great Nile?

Richard Francis Burton, the Royal Geographical Society believed, was the man who might provide the answer. A lieutenant in the British East India Company army, an adventurer, a linguist, and a student of culture, Burton had already disguised himself as a Muslim and risked his life to enter Mecca on pilgrimage, knowing that one slip could get him killed. He made enemies during his rise to success, including fellow linguist Christopher Palmer Rigby, but Burton never cared about that. He was out for adventure, and the thought of finding the Nile’s source intrigued him. He was willing to enter into the danger.

Burton’s first expedition was to leave in 1854. He was opposed by James Outram, the commandant of Aden, who feared the danger, but Lieutenant G. E. Herne, William Stroyan, and Lieutenant John Hanning Speke agreed to accompany him. While the main expedition was delayed, Burton successfully visited Harar in Ethiopia, but Speke failed to make it to Wady Nogal due to the corruption of his Abban, Sumunter, and the insubordination of his men. Sumunter was harshly punished, sparking Somali wrath.

In April 1855, the expedition could finally begin, but it was stopped by violence before it even left the coast when a group of Somalis attacked the camp. Speke and Burton were seriously wounded. Herne managed to escape. Stroyan was killed. A chance comment by Burton during the attack insulted Speke, who took it to mean that Burton was calling him a coward.

Burton and Speke both participated in the Crimean War after they regained their health. Speke’s resentment against Burton increased when Burton published part of Speke’s journal. Burton also gained the enmity of Speke’s friend Laurence Oliphant. Burton somewhat surprisingly fell in love with Isabel Arundell, who was determined to marry him, despite her parents’ objections.

After the war, Burton began to plan his next East African expedition, this time to the “Sea of Ujiji,” the rumored inland sea supposed to be the source of the Nile. He chose Speke as his second in command. Funding was slim for the expedition, although Burton received support from Lieutenant Colonel Atkins Hamerton, British consul of Zanzibar, including the promise of money to cover rewards for members of the company. Delays once again plagued the expedition, and tensions rose between Burton and Speke.

Burton hired formerly enslaved man Sidi Mubarak Bombay as a guide, and Bombay proved to be a cheerful, hardworking, and knowledgeable companion. Burton also hired Said bin Salim as caravan guide. Other preparations included purchasing kuhonga, gifts, for the locals along the route and recruiting porters and guards for the company. Burton and Speke both fell ill with fever and were still not fully recovered when the expedition set out in June 1857.

The expedition was plagued with difficulties from the start. There were not enough men or animals to carry all the supplies, and much had to be left behind. Men soon began to desert the company after a few marches, taking supplies with them. Arguments broke out among those who stayed. Burton and Speke both fell ill again, as did many of the men. The donkeys refused to cooperate and ran away. The weather beat down upon all, and supplies and equipment rotted in the harsh climate. Burton received word that his supporter Hamerton had died, to be replaced by his old nemesis, Christopher Palmer Rigby.

By the time the expedition reached Kazeh 134 days into the journey, everyone was exhausted, and supplies were running low. Speke wanted to turn toward Lake Nyanza, but Burton held course toward Tanganyika. Illness struck again, nearly paralyzing Burton and nearly blinding Speke.

The expedition finally arrived at Lake Tanganyika, but the company was hindered in their efforts to fully explore the lake by more illness and by Speke’s failure to secure the necessary boat. The source of the Nile remained a mystery, for the river at the north end of the lake flowed into it rather than out. It was time to return to Zanzibar.

On the way back, Speke convinced Burton to let him take a side journey to Nyanza. He faced one disaster after another along the way, but he finally saw the lake and was at that moment completely sure he had discovered the source of the Nile. Burton would not believe it without proof, and this increased Speke’s resentment and made him determined to lead his own expedition next time.

Speke almost died on the way back to Zanzibar, and in his delirium, he expressed every complaint against Burton, who was shocked. When the expedition finally returned, Rigby was less than welcoming and refused to honor Hamerton’s monetary commitments, meaning that Burton could not afford to reward the men, except for the loyal Bombay. Speke agreed with Burton’s decision and left for England, promising not to go to the Royal Geographical Society until Burton also returned. Burton remained in Aden to recover his health.

The first thing Speke did back in England was to go directly to the Royal Geographical Society to promote himself. He received the patronage of society president Sir Roderick Impey Murchison. Burton was awarded the Founder’s Medal, but Speke was given command of the next expedition. Speke also viciously denounced Burton and promoted himself as the real leader of the expedition. Burton, accused by Speke, received a government reprimand for not properly rewarding the company.

Burton fell into depression but renewed his relationship with Isabel, who could still not obtain permission to marry him. He traveled and regained his strength. Speke began planning his new expedition, choosing James Augustus Grant as his second in command and setting up his route to Nyanza. He also set up a meeting in Gondokoro with John Petherick, who was worried about having enough money to resupply the expedition.

Speke’s new expedition set out in 1860 with Bombay once again as guide. The company faced many hardships, and Speke’s harshness and insistence on posing as a foreign prince did not help. Speke explored the Nyanza and did discover the Nile flowing from it, but he was over a year late for his meeting with Petherick. Angry that Petherick was not waiting for him in Gondokoro, Speke would not accept the explanation that Petherick had gone to find food and medicine and had left plenty of supplies for Speke’s company.

Meanwhile, Burton toured North America and married Isabel. He received the consulate of Fernando Po and did his best to remain active.

When Speke returned to England, he continued to malign Burton even after receiving many honors. He published his work (thanks to the help of an editor) with Blackwood’s and lost favor with the Royal Geographical Society after a false accusation against Petherick. A debate was planned between Speke and Burton in September 1864, but the day before it was to take place, Speke died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Burton took various consulate positions and focused much of his attention on writing and translating. He died in 1890. Bombay continued to guide explorers and increase his vast knowledge of Africa. Speke’s memory faded over time as other explorers learned more about the source of the Nile and the African interior.


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