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'River of the Gods' dives into the 19th century British exploration of the Nile

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The quest to find the headwaters of the Nile River was the space race of the middle of the 19th century. Candice Millard's book, "River Of The Gods: Genius, Courage And Betrayal In The Search For The Source Of The Nile," tells the true life tales of men who trekked into uncharted places, contending with the forbidding terrain of heat, drought, fever, typhoid, smallpox and beetles that burrowed into ears. The men wound up with contending claims. Candice Millard, author of previous bestsellers, including "River Of Doubt," joins us now from Kansas City. Thank you so much for being with us.

CANDICE MILLARD: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: I want to get you to tell us about each of these three distinctive personalities. Let's put it that way. First, Richard Burton - brilliant, self-taught, much to admire, but kind of hard to like, wasn't he?

MILLARD: Yeah. You know, he was one of these once-in-a-century characters. He wrote dozens of books. He spoke more than 25 languages. He was the first Englishman to enter Mecca, disguised as a Muslim, because his Arabic was so good. But he studied every religion and every culture but respected none. He was in many ways sort of an equal opportunity offender - obviously very deeply flawed in many ways, but absolutely fascinating.

SIMON: And Sidi Mubarak Bombay - he was kidnapped from his village in East Africa, sold for cloth...

MILLARD: Yes.

SIMON: ...Into slavery in western India, and then he made his way back to Africa. How did he become a part of the story in this trek?

MILLARD: Yes, he very quickly became the heart and really the hero of the story and of that expedition. He nursed the men. He helped feed the men. He was always keeping their spirits up, keeping them going. And he did that again and again for expedition after expedition. And really, in many ways, he did more to map East Africa than any explorer ever to enter the continent of his birth.

SIMON: And tell us about John Hanning Speke, an aristocrat who seemed to care more for animals than people, but he cared for animals 'cause he wanted to shoot them.

MILLARD: That's right. So Speke was what Britons expected their heroes to be. So he was blond and blue-eyed. He was born into the aristocracy. He was a lieutenant in the British army. And yes, he loved to hunt. But he burned with this sort of quiet, unspoken ambition that led to incredibly deep envy and resentment for Burton, his commander, that in the end really destroyed them both.

SIMON: Why was it important to the Royal Geographic Society to fund their ventures to try and find the source of the Nile?

MILLARD: So at this point, Victorian Europe really was obsessed with Egypt. And obviously what gave birth to that civilization was the Nile, the longest and most storied river in the world. And so people had been searching for the source of the White Nile. There's the Blue Nile and the White Nile that come together in Khartoum. They had known the source of the Blue Nile, which is in Ethiopia, but still unable to find the source of the longer White Nile. They finally decided, what we need to do is we need to start on the East Coast, well below the equator, and head into the interior that way.

SIMON: Well, the only way to phrase it is what a treacherous landscape this became.

MILLARD: Incredibly dangerous - I mean, they endured the strangest, most terrifying diseases. Both Burton and Speke were blind at one point. Burton was so ill with malaria, he was paralyzed for nearly a year. He couldn't walk. He couldn't even hold a pen. At one point in an earlier expedition in East Africa, they had been attacked one night. Speke had been stabbed 11 times. Burton had had a javelin thrust through his jaw from cheek to cheek, which gave him this long, jagged scar down his face.

SIMON: We should explain. They stepped into the middle of other people who considered them outsiders and, for that matter, had had their contending rivalries.

MILLARD: Yes, of course, of course. And there - this is really at heart a story of the arrogance of thinking that you can discover a land that has been populated by millions of people for millions of years and you can somehow make their lives better by trying - and at heart, this is what they're trying to do. They're mapping it, but they want to take the land. They want to take the resources. And so, yes, of course, you're going to encounter people who are going to defend their land.

SIMON: I've got to ask you to tell us about the beetle in the ear because I have felt one in my ear ever since.

MILLARD: (Laughter) So one night, Speke - he's in his tent. There's a huge, huge storm that knocks down his tent, so he lights a candle to put his tent back together. And all of a sudden, this horde of beetles descends - I mean, like, just hundreds and hundreds of beetles filling his tent, and he's trying - flailing away, trying to get rid of them. And he finally just gives up, and he lies down to go to sleep, and then one crawls into his ear. And he can feel it, and he can't get it out, and it's burrowing deeper and deeper and deeper, and it's driving him insane. And he tries butter. He tries oil. He tries everything. And finally, out of desperation, he grabs a penknife, and he digs it deep into his ear. And he does kill the beetle, but unfortunately, he deafens himself in that ear for the rest of his life.

SIMON: Oh, my word.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLARD: I know. That's why we like to read about these stories, so we don't have to experience them ourselves.

SIMON: You include in this extraordinary narrative a quote from Samuel Johnson, who wrote, "I do not wish well to discoveries, for I am always afraid they will end in conquest and robbery." Did these consequences ever occur to these explorers? And by the way, I mean Sidi Mubarak Bombay as much as I mean Speke and Burton.

MILLARD: Yes, absolutely. I mean, they - obviously the European explorers - it occurred to them that is what they wanted. You know, they knew that that was going to be the end result. For Bombay, you know, he, I think, was surviving, and then he took great pride in trying to understand his land. And, yes, a lot of tragedy came out of this, but also some knowledge, you know? The people who lived there understood what was the source of the Nile. They understood what their land was like, but nobody else in the world did. And these expeditions did map that part of the world. And, you know, Bombay went on - so he helped Burton and Speke. He helped Speke get to the Nyanza - which Speke then named for his British queen, Lake Victoria - and then Bombay helped Henry Morton Stanley find David Livingstone. You know, the famous quote, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

SIMON: Yeah.

MILLARD: That was Bombay helping him. And then he helped Verney Lovett Cameron be the first to cross an entire continent from sea to sea, east to west. So...

SIMON: That's amazing.

MILLARD: Bombay, you know, as so often happens, has been forgotten - has been largely forgotten. So that was one thing I hoped to do with this story, is to remind and to emphasize the incredible role that Africans played in the mapping of their own continent.

SIMON: Candace Millard - her new book, "River Of The Gods: Genius, Courage And Betrayal In The Search For The Source Of The Nile" - thank you so much for being with us.

MILLARD: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.