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Book Club Discussion Questions: River of the Gods by Candice Millard

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

For those of you that haven't or couldn't attend book club lately, we're publishing this months' discussion questions here. All previous book club selections have been posted, complete with summary, discussion questions and, when necessary or appropriate, additional resources to better understand the topic or context. Here are the questions from our current title, River of the Gods. We hope these questions spark discussions of your own.


River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile

by Candice Millard


NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The harrowing story of one of the great feats of exploration of all time and its complicated legacy—from the New York Times bestselling author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic


"A lean, fast-paced account of the almost absurdly dangerous quest by [Richard Burton and John Speke] to solve the geographic riddle of their era." —The New York Times Book Review

For millennia the location of the Nile River’s headwaters was shrouded in mystery. In the 19th century, there was a frenzy of interest in ancient Egypt. At the same time, European powers sent off waves of explorations intended to map the unknown corners of the globe – and extend their colonial empires.

Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke were sent by the Royal Geographical Society to claim the prize for England. Burton spoke twenty-nine languages, and was a decorated soldier. He was also mercurial, subtle, and an iconoclastic atheist. Speke was a young aristocrat and Army officer determined to make his mark, passionate about hunting, Burton’s opposite in temperament and beliefs.

From the start the two men clashed. They would endure tremendous hardships, illness, and constant setbacks. Two years in, deep in the African interior, Burton became too sick to press on, but Speke did, and claimed he found the source in a great lake that he christened Lake Victoria. When they returned to England, Speke rushed to take credit, disparaging Burton. Burton disputed his claim, and Speke launched another expedition to Africa to prove it. The two became venomous enemies, with the public siding with the more charismatic Burton, to Speke’s great envy. The day before they were to publicly debate,Speke shot himself.

Yet there was a third man on both expeditions, his name obscured by imperial annals, whose exploits were even more extraordinary. This was Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who was enslaved and shipped from his home village in East Africa to India. When the man who purchased him died, he made his way into the local Sultan’s army, and eventually traveled back to Africa, where he used his resourcefulness, linguistic prowess and raw courage to forge a living as a guide. Without Bombay and men like him, who led, carried, and protected the expedition, neither Englishman would have come close to the headwaters of the Nile, or perhaps even survived.

In River of the Gods Candice Millard has written another peerless story of courage and adventure, set against the backdrop of the race to exploit Africa by the colonial powers. -- Publisher Description


Discussion Questions

  1. Before this book, what did you know about the Royal Geographical Society (RGS)? Did your opinion change over the course of the book? How so?

  2. Ancient cartographers had what is known in the art world as “horror vacui” or fear of blank spaces. It is the reason why you see so many sea monsters and land masses that don’t exist. What do you think this says about them? About society of the time as a whole?

  3. NonEuropean cartography was often discounted at the time of Burton and Speke. What would it have changed if this hadn’t been the case?

  4. Have you had a chance to see any of these alternative methods of cartography? If so, what was your impression?

  5. At one point, the author mentions that at the point in time when Burton is trying to get the RGS to support his expedition into central eastern Africa that despite what he might have put on the documents as the purpose of the expedition and despite what any other mission might be (in this case ethnographic, linguistic, and biological in nature), any mission to that area of Africa was considered a failure regardless of outcome if it failed to discover the source of the White Nile (the other two tributaries having already been discovered). Discuss.

  6. Do you see similar politics in today’s explorations and endeavors or have we moved beyond being dictated by politics/ulterior motives? Why or why not? If not, do you see us ever doing so?

  7. What do you make of Isabel’s childhood and her interactions with the Romani? How do you see this shaping Isabel into the woman she would become?

  8. Why do you think Burton took Speke on the second time?

  9. In what way do you see the two explorers playing off one another? Do you think the ending was inevitable?

  10. The concept of slavery was very different in India than it was in Europe and the Americas. Discuss.

  11. Were you surprised by Speke’s end? There are a number of questions in regards to his end. Do you believe it was suicide, an accident, or something else? Why do you think it ended that way? Discuss the effect of Speke’s death on Burton’s life.

  12. Do you agree with the author that the underlying theme of the story is the arrogance of exploration? Is this strictly a European tendency? Do you see it elsewhere? Why do you think this is or is not?

  13. What observations are made in River of the Gods? Does Millard adequately consider the various angles such as politics, religious beliefs, cultural values, etc.?

  14. Was there a particular passage that you found particularly memorable? What drew you to it?


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