The lure of uncharted territory.
The Rosetta Stone—discovered by French soldiers in 1799, seized by a British envoy, and deciphered 23 years later—set off an obsessive interest in Egypt, including by the newly established Royal Geographical Society, to find the headwaters of the Nile. Bestselling author Millard, a former writer and editor for National Geographic, offers a tense, vibrant history of several dramatic expeditions across East Africa that finally resulted in a successful discovery. Drawing on archival sources and her own multiple trips to Africa following the explorers’ paths, Millard creates a palpable sense of the daunting task undertaken by three ambitious men: the magnetic, impulsive, and often combative Richard Burton; John Hanning Speke, an aristocratic infantry lieutenant and passionate hunter whose initial interest in East Africa was largely for the animals he could kill; and their devoted and resourceful native guide, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a former enslaved person whose intimate knowledge of tribes and terrain proved to be indispensable. Guides like Bombay, Millard argues persuasively, formed the indisputable backbone of British exploration. After abortive starts, the expedition left Zanzibar on June 27, 1857. The explorers and their team, woefully underfunded, faced innumerable hardships: scorching heat, drenching storms, near starvation, massive desertions, and threats from “large, powerful, and politically complex” East African kingdoms. Illness and injury dogged them, as they suffered from typhoid, smallpox, infected wounds, and bone-shattering fevers. Speke suffered near blindness from ophthalmia, and he became deaf in one ear after a beetle burrowed into his ear canal. For nearly a year, Burton lay paralyzed. Although they became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika, they could not proceed together to Lake Nyanza, which Speke insisted was the Nile’s source. Back in London, Speke cruelly denounced Burton’s leadership, securing funding for his own expedition. Although Burton died poor and angry, his legacy, unlike Speke’s, has endured.
An engrossing, sharply drawn adventure tale.
Pub Date: yesterday
Page Count: 368
Review Posted Online: March 30, 2022
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2022