Skip to main content

'River of the Gods' captures the epic quest to find the source of the Nile

Writer Candice Millard tells the dramatic story of two 19th-century British explorers who spent years trekking through East Africa, enduring injury and illness in a search for the source of the Nile.

42:07
This recent segment plays exclusively on
Why is this?
Due to the contractual nature of the Fresh Air Archive, segments must be at least 6 months old to be considered part of the archive. To listen to segments that aired within the last 6 months, please click the blue off-site button to visit the Fresh Air page on NPR.org.

Other segments from the episode on June 15, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 15, 2022: Interview with Candice Millard; Review of TV show 'The Old Man.'

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest, writer Candice Millard, has a knack for burrowing into a little-explored corner of history and spinning out a page-turning yarn that illuminates a part of our past. Her latest book details the efforts of mid-19th century British explorers to find the source of the Nile River. One was a brilliant linguist, writer and explorer with endless self-confidence and a lifelong interest in pornography. The other, an aristocratic soldier and surveyor devoted to hunting big game. They would share arduous journeys into East Africa in the process, getting serious injuries and suffering from fevers and afflictions that at times rendered one or another of them deaf, blind or paralyzed. Their expeditions would indeed reveal the source of the world's longest river. But when they returned to London, the two men engaged in a bitter public quarrel over their discoveries, leading to moments of high drama. A third figure in the story is a resourceful, formerly enslaved African who guided the explorers through hundreds of miles of inhospitable terrain, helping negotiate physical obstacles and the demands of tribal leaders.

Candice Millard is a former editor at National Geographic who's written three previous books. Her latest is "River Of The Gods: Genius, Courage, And Betrayal In The Search For The Source Of The Nile." Well, Candice Millard, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

CANDICE MILLARD: Thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: You know, I think of the age of exploration as the time of Vasco da Gama and the Spanish conquistadors. This story is in the middle of the 19th century, back at a time when a lot of the African continent was unknown to Europeans. There would be maps with blank spaces where, you know, people hadn't - from Europe hadn't explored. Why was there such interest in tracking the source of the Nile River?

MILLARD: Well, this is a mystery that had been going on for thousands of years. People had been obsessed with it from, you know, Egyptian kings to ancient philosophers, wondering, where is the source of the longest and most storied river in the world? You know, and you think of the Nile River, you think of Egypt, you know, so it brought life to this desert. So it gave us one of the oldest and richest continuous civilizations in history. So - and that civilization relied on that. And that was an obsession at the time of the Victorian age, where they're very interested in Egypt and all the promise and majesty of this ancient land and this ancient history. So obviously, the question was, where did it begin? And no one knew, even though people have been talking about it, again, for thousands of years. So it was really the holy grail of exploration at that time.

DAVIES: All right. So it was a time when, you know, exploration and geography had popular appeal. And this was a mystery to be solved. A central figure in this story is a guy named Richard Burton, not to be confused with the mid-20th-century actor. This is this is Richard Francis Burton, pretty extraordinary fellow. Tell us about him.

MILLARD: He was one of these once-in-a-century characters. He was an extraordinarily gifted writer. He wrote dozens of books and poetry and translations. He was already an incredible explorer. He had been the first Englishman to enter Mecca disguised as a Muslim. He studied every religion and respected none. And he was also an incredible linguist. He spoke more than 25 different languages, plus another dozen or so dialogues.

But no matter what he accomplished, he was always considered an outsider in England. He was always looked upon with suspicion and distrust. You know, he had been born in England. His parents were British. But he had been raised in Europe, moving from country to country, picking up seemingly effortlessly languages and cultures along the way. He was, as you said, he was interested in sex. He was interested in drugs, all these sort of alarming things to Victorian Britons. And to the British, he didn't even really look English. He had these black, black eyes and mesmerising eyes, this black hair. And even Bram Stoker, who would go on to write "Dracula," met Burton and was obsessed with him. And he writes all these, like, amazing descriptions of him, saying he's steel, he'll go through you like a sword. But he was especially mesmerised by his teeth. And he describes his gleaming canines that look like daggers to him. So people think that Burton may have been the inspiration for "Dracula."

DAVIES: Yeah, quite a character for the middle of the - for the center of the story. You mentioned in passing that he was the first Englishman to go on the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Let's explore that for just a moment. He decides he's going to impersonate a Muslim on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. No non-believer would have been accepted there. This was a pretty audacious thing to try, wasn't it?

MILLARD: It was very audacious. And he knew that he might not survive it. You know, he knew that officially, you know, that it's not sanctioned to kill any outsider who comes into Mecca. But there would be such rage, understandably, because this is, you know, the holiest site of Islam. And he - but he didn't want - he thought, you know, people can do it if you're converted. But he didn't want to do that. He wanted to be completely accepted. And he wanted to rely on his own knowledge to get there. So he spoke Arabic very, very well. He deeply, deeply studied Islam. He could recite an entire quarter of the Quran by heart. So he really immersed himself. He used walnut juice to sort of deepen the color of his skin. He did everything that he could think of to really be accepted.

And so, of course, he didn't want to die when he was there, but he mostly - he wanted to go in and truly understand it. And what's interesting, I mean, he's obviously a deeply flawed person or was, but what's interesting about him is he was the real deal. You know, he was truly interested in knowledge, truly interested in trying to understand our world, to understand our history, to understand different cultures. And he went in through the front door. He deeply, deeply studied everything.

DAVIES: Did Muslims discover this act of his and condemn him for it or try to do anything about it?

MILLARD: No, not really. And, you know, his audience, they were not, you know, it's obviously a very different time when people looked at things differently. And there wasn't a lot of respect, really, for other cultures or other religions. And so they just found it interesting and exciting. And they didn't see it for what we would see it as this violation of this very important religious rite.

DAVIES: So Richard Francis Burton was one of these characters in this search for the Nile. The other character in the story, his partner at times with whom he would have a complicated relationship, was a guy named John Hanning Speke. Tell us about him.

MILLARD: So John Hanning Speke was as unremarkable as Burton was extraordinary. He was really what Britons expected their heroes to be. So he was blond and blue eyed. He was born into the aristocracy. He was an officer in the British army. And he was an avid hunter. That was really what he loved to do. Everywhere he traveled, he would try to hunt big game and try to find rare animals. And he wanted to establish a natural history museum in his ancestral estate, Jordans. But when he met Burton, he quickly changed. And he - at first, you know, it's interesting. I think we all have seen this play out in our own lives, how admiration can turn to envy which can turn to resentment, which can easily turn to hatred. And that's certainly what happened in the relationship between these two men.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Candice Millard. Her new book is "River Of The Gods: Genius, Courage, And Betrayal In The Search For The Source Of The Nile." We'll talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORATONE'S "FRONTIERS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Candice Millard. Her latest book tells the story of two 19th-century English explorers who spent years in East Africa trying to find the source of the Nile River and years after that, in a bitter public dispute over their findings. Millard's book is "River Of The Gods."

The first of these expeditions starts out in 1854, which kind of led nowhere because Burton and Speke and their large party were attacked by a large number of Somalis near the port city of Berbera. Do I have this right? This put an end to this expedition. Tell us what happened and why it matters.

MILLARD: So this is when Burton and Speke first met, as you said, in 1854. Burton was getting together his first expedition to try to search for the source of the Nile. And they were going to start in Aden, go across to Somalia. And he found out one of the members of his expedition had died suddenly and wouldn't be able to make it. Speke was there on a hunting trip and asked to be taken along, and Burton was concerned about him. He was concerned that he didn't speak any of the languages. He didn't seem to be interested in the people whose land they'd be traveling through. But he thought, OK, this kid is going to lose all of his money and all - and he'd lose his life. And so he agreed to take him along with him.

And so they go over to Somaliland, and they're camped out one night, and they're attacked by hundreds of Somali. And again, of course, this is not their land. They have not been invited there. And the people who live there, many of whom were extremely peaceful and had these long-lasting and long-stretching networks with ivory and enslaved people and things for many years, they were going to defend their land.

And so Burton and Speke's camp was attacked. One member of the expedition was killed. Speke was stabbed 11 times. It's really astonishing that he survived it. And Burton had a javelin thrust in his jaw. He was impaled from cheek to cheek for hours. He couldn't get it out until they finally found help, and it left him with this long, jagged scar down his face, which made him seem even more dangerous to his fellow Britons. But yes, it ended the expedition, so they lost, you know, all the funding that they had had. They lost a year of preparation. They lost the opportunity to search for the source of the Nile.

DAVIES: Yeah, it's hard to imagine people surviving injuries like that and wanting to come back and do it again. But they did.

MILLARD: Yeah, they did.

DAVIES: Speke, John Hanning Speke, kind of the No. 2 guy here, kind of resented some things that Burton had said during the attack, and that would rankle their relationship, right?

MILLARD: That's right. So, again, they're in these tents. There are three different tents, and they've all kind of gotten together in the middle tent. And Speke steps outside to see what's going on. And it's just this crazy fighting chaos. And he steps back inside, and Burton turns to him and just says, hey, don't step back. They'll think we're retreating. And then Burton thinks nothing more of it. But Speke is deeply wounded by this because what he wants most of all is to be admired for his bravery, for his courage. And so he thinks that Burton is essentially saying that he's being cowardly. And he doesn't say anything at the time, and he doesn't say anything for years, but he holds on to this deep resentment, and it festers over time.

DAVIES: A couple of years later, the Royal Geographic Society funds another expedition to find the source of the Nile. Richard Burton is the commander. He chooses John Hanning Speke as his second in command. There's one other figure we should bring into the story here, a guy named Sidi Mubarak Bombay. Tell us about him. He's known as Bombay in the story.

MILLARD: Yes. Bombay was a formerly enslaved man. He had been kidnapped from his village in East Africa when he was just a child. He had lost everything. He'd lost his family. He'd lost his home. He even ended up losing his name. And he was dragged to the coast, eventually taken to Zanzibar, where he is sold for cloth and then taken to western India, where he was enslaved for 20 years. When the man who owned him died, he was given his freedom, and he made his way back to East Africa. And it's there that he met Burton and Speke. And it was very interesting because Burton and Speke were there in East Africa. They were trying to hire as many men as they could as porters and translators and guides to go with them. And these expeditions took years. I mean, this expedition took almost two years. And they're going - they're traveling more than a thousand miles. So they need as many men as they can find.

And when they meet Sidi Mubarak Bombay, however, they both - it's very interesting, both in their writing, they say they knew immediately they had to have him with them. And the reason is he spoke several languages, and he was incredibly hard working. But what was to me so interesting and difficult to understand is that even after surviving this staggering tragedy, he somehow emerged with - not with bitterness but with kindness. He was incredibly kind, incredibly generous, almost to a fault. And that shows up in every single - he ends up going on many expeditions, and every single person talks about this aspect of Sidi Mubarak Bombay.

DAVIES: And it's just worth mentioning that these expeditions, which, you know, yielded important findings, you know, got a lot of attention back in London. The Royal Geographic Society gave Burton and Speke a lot of recognition. Bombay never got recognized in London. He was recognized with some medals, I believe. But how important was he to the success of all of these expeditions?

MILLARD: He was crucial. And what was so interesting to me was at the time - you know, so back in England, you have these armchair geographers. You have this gentleman scientist. And they always dismissed anything that they would refer to as, quote, unquote, you know, "local knowledge." So - because, you know, how could anybody who actually lives there know anything about the land?

And so - but the explorers themselves knew how much they relied on these men that they - and women that they would meet as they journeyed. And that's the first thing they did, was they sought out people who could guide them but also could tell them, you know - explain the land to them. And so they relied on it heavily, but they would not talk about that really. And so at the time, that was - yeah, it wasn't really acknowledged, this heavy, heavy debt that they owed to all of these people - and not just in Africa, all parts of the world. None of these expeditions would have gotten anywhere without, obviously, the people who lived there helping them.

And Sidi Mubarak Bombay in particular was really extraordinary. So he was with Burton and Speke on this expedition when they were the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika, which is also one of the largest lakes in the world and Burton thought was the source of the Nile. He was - he took Speke up to the Nyanza, which is the source of the Nile and the largest lake in Africa.

He was - then, Speke came back with James Grant. He was with him when he went back to the Nyanza. Then, he took Henry Morton Stanley to find David Livingstone. You know, Dr. Livingstone, I presume? That was Bombay taking him there. And then, with Verney Lovett Cameron, he became the first to cross the entire continent from east to west, sea to sea. So I think it's hard to say that anyone had a greater impact on the mapping of East Africa than Sidi Mubarak Bombay.

DAVIES: So they're trekking these long distances. A lot of their helpers desert, sometimes taking equipment or food with them. There's - you know, there's heat. There's exhaustion and lots and lots of diseases, fevers. How badly afflicted were Burton and Speke and these folks by these illnesses, which they were ill-prepared for?

MILLARD: Horribly. They were horribly afflicted. I mean, you can't even imagine how they survived it. So both of them were blind for months at a time. They had these horrible eye infections that - you know, they're trying to stagger along. They can't see. Burton had such severe malaria that he is paralyzed for nearly a year. He can't walk. And he was - you know, his - part of his job is writing constantly. And he - but his hands were also paralyzed. He couldn't hold a pen.

Then, the - Speke, at one point, he was attacked one night by this horde of beetles. They - there was a storm, and his tent was knocked down. And he lit a candle to try to put the tent back up. And it attracted this - like, hundreds of beetles suddenly were filling his tent, and he's flailing away at them, trying to get them to fly away, and they won't. And he finally - out of exhaustion, he just gives up, and he lies down to go to sleep.

And pretty soon, he feels a beetle, not on his head, but in his head. It's burrowing away into his ear, deeper and deeper, sort of angrily digging, digging deeper into his ear. And he jumps up, and he tries everything he can to get rid of it. He pours salt into his ear, butter, oil. Nothing is working. And so finally, out of desperation, he grabs a pen knife, and he sticks it deep into his ear. And he does kill the beetle. It stops the burrowing. But he deafens himself for the rest of his life in that ear.

And it also causes this string of boils down his face and over his shoulder, and his shoulders kind of tensed up. And he can't really eat then for weeks afterwards. And the - and bits of the beetle, over the next few weeks, start to come out in his earwax. There's a wing or a leg or something (laughter). It's really, pretty horrible.

DAVIES: Yeah, this was just horrific. And you said at some point, I think, it did such damage to his eustachian tube that he - when he would blow his nose, a noise would come out his ear, which his companions...

MILLARD: (Laughter) It would whistle (laughter), right.

DAVIES: ...Could hear. Right. And yet, oddly, it helped his blindness in some weird way.

MILLARD: Right. It did clear it up. And it was interesting because I thought, you know, we have this arrogance in the 21st century about our medical science, and we think, oh, they really didn't know what they were doing at that time. So I contacted a friend of mine who's an eye surgeon, and I said, could this really be connected, you know, this infection in the ear help clear out the infection in the eyes? And he said, yes, that does - it did affect the inflammation, and it helped him at least be able to see.

DAVIES: Let's take another break here, and let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Candice Millard. Her latest book is "River Of The Gods: Genius, Courage, And Betrayal In The Search For The Source Of The Nile." She'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON'S "LOOSE WIG")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with writer Candice Millard. Her latest book is the gripping tale of two colorful, mid-19th century English explorers who endured injury and illness in journeying into Africa to discover the source of the Nile River. They were assisted by a formerly enslaved African whose resourcefulness likely saved their expeditions and their lives. Millard's book is "River Of The Gods."

So this expedition is in East Africa. And the two British, Burton and Speke, are terribly afflicted by their illnesses and injuries. Burton, the commander, is paralyzed. And so Speke actually manages to get a canoe and explore Lake Tanganyika, which was not the largest of the lakes, but a large one and which might have been thought to be the source of the Nile. They can't conclusively discover whether there's a river going out of Lake Tanganyika that might feed the Nile. And they're about to go back. But Burton, who is paralyzed, agrees to let Speke go off and look for a much larger body of water, right?

MILLARD: That's right. One of the things they found pretty quickly when they got fairly deep into the African interior is that those German missionary explorers were right in that this is a lake region. But they were wrong in that there wasn't one large lake but three enormous lakes. So yes, Lake Tanganyika, as - I think it's one of the longest lakes in the world. It's incredibly long and very, very, very deep and full of crocodiles. And so Burton had every reason to think that this could be the source. But he, as you said, was so ill. And they were running out of supplies. They didn't have the ability to circumnavigate the entire lake to confirm whether or not it was the source. And so they're heading back. And, yes, he's so ill. He still can't walk. And he thinks, we just need to get back to Zanzibar and kind of regroup, see if we can get more funding and get our health back and then try again. But they stop along the way. And Speke, who's better by this point, says, look; let me try to go. They've heard a story of an even larger lake to the north in what is today Uganda. And he said, Let me take Bombay and a few other men and go see it.

And so Burton says, yeah, sure, go ahead. He's kind of tired of speaking at that point. And it was a tragic, tragic mistake because in this sort of brutal twist of fate, Speke goes and is the first European to see the Nyanza, which is the source of the White Nile. It's the largest lake in Africa. It's the second-largest freshwater lake in the world. I mean, it's mind-bendingly huge. It has an area of some 26,000 square miles. It's so enormous. Now, Speke gets there. He's in the southern reaches of it. The Nile actually issues from the northern reaches far, far, far away from where he was. He's only there for a couple of days. He doesn't have any ability to circumnavigate it, to really do the scientific measurements he needs to know. But he just decides that he knows in his heart that this is the source of the White Nile.

DAVIES: Right. And we should note that this is the lake that's known to many as Lake Victoria. But, yeah, a huge, huge body of water. So he concludes that they have found this. They go back. They decide to make their way back to the coast and leave. At the end of this grueling two-year trip, what is their relationship like?

MILLARD: Well, so Speke comes back. He's very excited. He says to Burton, hey, I found - I discovered - quote-unquote, "discovered" the source of the Nile. And Burton says, maybe, maybe, you know? It certainly could be. We just don't know. And Speke, again, is deeply offended by this. He's shocked. And he just thinks that Burton should just take his word for it, again, even though they have no proof. And so, again, he sort of - he keeps it to himself. However, when they got closer to getting back to the coast, Speke falls very, very, very ill. And he thinks he's going to die. And he's in this feverish delirium. And he starts - he lashes out. And Burton's trying to help him.

And all of these resentments that had been building up for all of these years come out. And he - and Burton is shocked, you know? He really had no idea. He sort of knew that Speke was kind of grumpy sometimes. But he had no idea that there were these deep-seated resentments. And so they get back to Zanzibar. Burton is too ill to head back to England. But Speke is well enough. And he's very, very eager to get back. And he says to Burton, you know, don't worry. I'm not going to talk to anybody until you can join me.

DAVIES: A promise soon broken. Yeah. This is a fascinating moment because it's almost as if Speke gets a truth serum, this bizarre illness that he has, which gives him this delirium and says all these things which he had never said out loud. So Burton is ill, recuperating in Zanzibar, I guess. And Speke gets to London a few weeks before Burton. And questions would arise about what exactly the expedition had discovered. Who found what? Who deserved credit? What happened?

MILLARD: Well, first of all, Speke gets on this ship called the HMS Furious, which was this English ship that had come from China and offers them a ride back to England. And on the ship is this man named Laurence Oliphant. And Speke had met Laurence Oliphant in the Crimean War, which was - which had happened just sort of before this expedition. And Oliphant is this sort of wealthy, kind of bored guy who sort of likes to make trouble. And he, too, was kind of resentful of Burton because Burton was everything he wanted to be. He was an Islamist. He was - you know, he was a writer. He was an explorer and this - all these things Oliphant wanted to be. So Oliphant essentially says to Speke, you know, Burton is a genius. Burton is famous. Burton has - Burton is the commander of this expedition. He has all of these things. But you have something he doesn't, and that is you're going to get there first. So as soon as Speke gets to London, he goes directly to the Royal Geographical Society. And he says, I have discovered the source of the Nile.

DAVIES: So our two main characters, Richard Burton and his second in command, John Hanning Speke, had come back to England after an expedition which may have discovered the source of the Nile. Speke says, yes, we found it. Burton says, not so clear. There's a long public debate about it. And there would be another expedition just led by Speke. What was the plan this time? I mean, there was, they - Speke wanted to go and find this huge lake, which we now know as Lake Victoria. What was the plan with this third expedition?

MILLARD: So Speke knows immediately that he, A, he needs to have Sidi Mubarak Bombay with him again. And, B, he needs a second command who is not like him, so is someone who will be very, very loyal and also someone who doesn't hunger for command of the expedition and for the spotlight. And he finds that man in James Grant, and they get along very well there. Their challenge is to essentially do the same thing. They're going to start in Zanzibar. They're going to go on the coast into Africa, but then they're going to go immediately north back to the Nyanza, as you said, which Speke then named for his own queen. He named this African lake for the British queen, Victoria. And so - but this time, they're going to go all the way to the northern reaches of this lake, hoping that they will see the Nile issuing from it.

DAVIES: And do they?

MILLARD: And they do. They do see the Nile. Now, again, they're not there long enough. They - you know, essentially, the same things happened that Speke before had criticized Burton for. They have a lot of desertions. They don't have all the supplies that they need. They're very sick. So the same things happen. And they don't - they're not able to stay as long as they'd like. They can't completely circumnavigate the lake. So they do see the Nile issuing from the Nyanza. But it hasn't been completely confirmed to the satisfaction of the geographers at the Royal Geographical Society back home.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Candice Millard. Her new book is "River Of The Gods: Genius, Courage, And Betrayal In The Search For The Source Of The Nile." We'll talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Candice Millard. Her latest book tells the story of two 19th-century English explorers who spent years in East Africa trying to find the source of the Nile River, and years after that, in a bitter public dispute over their findings. Millard's book is called "River Of The Gods."

So as this debate unfolds in London, you've got Speke saying I discovered the source of the Nile. I saw this water flowing from this huge lake. The matter is settled. Burton believed that it wasn't so clear and that Lake Tanganyika, the other large lake that they had visited, could conceivably be the source of the Nile. There was going to be a debate between the two of them. People thought - I mean, the Royal Society thought, well, this would be - it'll be great for us. We'll get a lot of attention. It's set for the city of Bath in England. Speke was kind of nervous about debating Burton over this, wasn't he?

MILLARD: Yes. So Burton is a famously electrifying speaker, and he also has all this knowledge at his fingertips. And Speke doesn't really have all the history. He doesn't understand the land very well. And Speke is bumbling and nervous. And he also still doesn't hear very well. And they're supposed to do this debate, and everybody is coming. And Speke is also - a lot of people are unhappy with him, so he knows he's not going to have many friends and supporters in the audience. So he's really worked up and really nervous and anxious and angry about it.

DAVIES: Do we want to say what happens to him then? (Laughter).

MILLARD: That I would rather leave it to the readers to decide, but I - or to discover. But I will say it's shocking. It all builds up to this shocking, tragic event that nobody could have seen coming and really destroys both men.

DAVIES: I think what we can say is that Speke encounters Burton in the debate hall the day before this is to occur, and he seems unnerved by seeing Burton. He would soon die in circumstances that people can read about in the book. How did Burton react to losing his former friend and adversary?

MILLARD: Burton is shocked and absolutely grief stricken, and he feels at first also that Speke's death has silenced them both, that now he won't have a chance to explain what he believes is the truth about the search for the source of the Nile. And he's, you know, he's also - he's angry. You know, at this point, the Royal Geographical Society was sort of finished with both men. And so Burton is cast out. You know, all these years in sacrificing his health, risking his life again and again, and he feels like his thanks is to be then cast out. And he has very little money. And he doesn't have that next challenge. And he's sort of searching. He goes to the United States. He meets Brigham Young. He writes about that. He's - he goes to West Africa. He hates it there. And he feels - he's feeling really suicidal and angry. And, really, it's interesting. You can sort of see a man's heart begin to rot.

DAVIES: You know, we should note that in terms of the factual question, the great explorer David Livingstone sets out on another expedition. And that's a whole nother story that you can read about in the book. But he confirms, in fact, he circumnavigates this lake and confirms, in fact, that the Nyanza, now known as Lake Victoria, was the primary source of the Nile.

MILLARD: With Henry Morton Stanley.

DAVIES: Right. And so, you know, you say in a book, yes, Speke was right. In a way, he was lucky. It occurred to me, as you write about the back and forth between these two guys who at various times had debates, had troubles when they were on their expeditions, but renewed their friendship and certainly supported each other in life-threatening illnesses. And then came to this debate, which, by the way, never happened because of because of Speke's untimely death. It struck me that, like, you, in doing all this research, we're kind of doing the 19th-century equivalent of a social media fight. I mean, you know, you read this party, you read that party, somebody's memoirs, somebody's letters. Was it hard for you to figure out for your own self who had the most credibility, where your heart lay?

MILLARD: I don't know if I succeed, but I try to just lay out what I learned from doing my research and let people decide for themselves, you know. And I'm honest. I mean, Speke, you can't, I hope, walk away from this book without thinking he was incredibly brave, and he was incredibly hard working, as well as being obviously very envious and very embittered and ambitious and Burton, too. Burton was brilliant. And Burton was also very ambitious and really, really fascinating. But he, too, was a deeply flawed individual. And I think that at heart, really, that's what this book is about. It's about the dangers of obsession but also the dangers of arrogance, which really always goes along with ignorance. Ignorance and arrogance always seem to go hand in hand.

DAVIES: While Europeans were wondering about the source of the Nile, what did Africans who lived around the lake understand about its dimensions and whether it fed the Nile? Do we know?

MILLARD: Yeah. So many of them - obviously, the people who lived right as it's issuing out - again, you know, these are vast, vast expanses of space. And so obviously most Africans, most East Africans didn't know where the Nile began, but certainly the people who lived right around it did. But also, you know, there were these Africans who worked as messengers, as travelers, as traders. And so they - and they traveled vast expanses of land. And so they were very, very knowledgeable about it. And as I said, the explorers relied almost completely on this information, as well as their own travels.

DAVIES: Particularly in the second half of the 19th century, so many European countries would colonize and occupy much of Africa. To what extent were these expeditions related to efforts to, you know, control or colonize parts of the continent?

MILLARD: They were directly related. The British government and the Royal Geographical Society both knew that - what the consequences would be of this mapping. I mean, look, mapping is a good thing. A human curiosity, an interest in our world is a good thing. But sometimes what comes out of that is very, very bad and very tragic. And that was the case here. I mean, I mentioned, you know, this arrogance and ignorance, you know, somehow thinking that you're going to improve the lives of the people by - who live somewhere by taking their land, by taking their resources, by appropriating their history and their culture. And that's, as we know, was the result. So much of - almost all of Africa was colonized in the end by Europeans.

DAVIES: Well, Candice Millard, it's been nice to talk. Thank you again for joining us.

MILLARD: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

DAVIES: Candice Millard's new book is "River Of The Gods: Genius, Courage, And Betrayal In The Search For The Source Of The Nile." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews "The Old Man," a new FX miniseries starring Jeff Bridges. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GREAT AMERICANS' "MAPLE LEAF RAG")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Actor Jeff Bridges has had a rough couple of years battling lymphoma, from which he's currently in remission, and contracting COVID-19. But during that same prolonged period, he filmed a new seven-episode miniseries called "The Old Man," which premieres tomorrow on FX and begins streaming on Hulu on Friday. Bridges, 72, plays a former CIA operative who resurfaces after decades off the grid. "The Old Man" co-stars John Lithgow and Amy Brenneman. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Jeff Bridges began his acting career on television in the 1950s, as a young boy playing occasional guest roles on "Sea Hunt," the series starring his dad, Lloyd Bridges. But once he came into his own in the '70s, the younger Bridges set out on a long and stellar film career. He's logged triumphant roles in virtually every decade since, from "The Last Picture Show" and "The Fabulous Baker Boys" to "The Big Lebowski" and the Coen brothers' remake of "True Grit." His most recent film, "Bad Times At The El Royale," was four years ago. But now, after some health issues and a production schedule delayed by the pandemic, Jeff Bridges marks his return in a strong role in yet another new decade. And this time, it's on television, where he began, as the star of a new FX miniseries called "The Old Man."

Based on the novel by Thomas Perry, "The Old Man" is adapted for television by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine. The first two episodes are directed by Jon Watts, director of "Spider-Man: No Way Home." I've seen the first four of seven, and they've really pulled me in. The mood and feel of "The Old Man" is like a more modern "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Everyone has very complicated relationships with each other. Few people can be trusted completely, and almost no one is who they appear to be.

The drama starts out at a deliberately slow pace. Jeff Bridges plays Dan Chase, a widower living in a remote patch of New England with two dogs. Early on, while he's exercising his dogs outside and heading back into the kitchen for breakfast, he gets a concerned phone call from his daughter, Emily.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OLD MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) You don't sound like yourself. You're preoccupied when we're talking. You're not sleeping. I'm just asking you, what's the difference now?

JEFF BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) I don't know. Something, you know, is just off.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) Listen, if this is about what I think it's about, then I understand why it frightens you. But I think you're fine, unless there's something you're not telling me. Is there something you're not telling me?

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Oh, sorry. No, no, of course not. I got to run, sweetie. I'll call you when I can.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) OK.

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) OK. Bye-bye. Love you.

BIANCULLI: It seems like an ordinary father-daughter moment, but nothing about this drama or its characters is anything close to ordinary. The man using the name of Dan Chase used to be a CIA operative decades ago and has since gone into hiding. He senses that he may finally have been found, and he's right. And after a brutal confrontation, he hits the road with his dogs and calls his daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OLD MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) Hello?

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Hey, kid. It's me. Sorry to be calling you at this hour. They found me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) What? Are you OK?

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Yeah, I'm fine. The dogs are fine. But if they found me at the house, I can't go back.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) Are you sure it was them?

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Yeah. Yeah, I'm sure.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Emily) Just because after all this time, you know, it seems pretty unlikely.

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Emily, Emily, I'm sure. I've been feeling it for a few weeks now. I thought maybe it was my imagination or my head making up ghosts to remind me I'm getting lazy and I still have things to worry about. But, no, this is not a drill. This is happening.

BIANCULLI: Once Dan is on the run, "The Old Man" gets more and more intricate. John Lithgow plays Harold Harper, an FBI agent called in to help track this flushed-out former spy because of their shared past. Alia Shawkat, from "Arrested Development" and "Search Party," plays Harold's very capable protege. And Amy Brenneman from "NYPD Blue" and "Judging Amy," plays Zoe, a divorced mother. She becomes involved in the intrigue when she rents a room to the character played by Jeff Bridges. By Episode 2, she asks him to take her to a restaurant. And to avoid suspicion, he does, and even engages in some uncharacteristically truthful conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OLD MAN")

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) How long has it been for you since your last first date?

AMY BRENNEMAN: (As Zoe) George Bush. Thereabouts.

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Oh, which one?

BRENNEMAN: (As Zoe) Read my lips.

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) Oh, that's a long time ago.

BRENNEMAN: (As Zoe) Yeah, I'm just now realizing just how long. How about you?

BRIDGES: (As Dan Chase) A bit longer than that.

BIANCULLI: This miniseries builds slowly but grippingly. The action sequences are intense and sloppy, less like stylized choreography than anything-goes, hand-to-hand combat. But most of "The Old Man" is slower and quieter. Bridges even conducts a conversation while cooking eggs in real time, like Stanley Tucci in the "Big Night." Both Shawkat and Brenneman give performances that erupt and shift at surprising times with great effectiveness. And Lithgow, opposite Bridges, is as mercurial and mysterious here as he was playing the Trinity Killer opposite Michael C. Hall on "Dexter" and may be just as dangerous. Since I've only seen half of this miniseries, I don't know how dangerous he is or anyone else. I do know that, as in "Homeland," perspectives and sympathies keep shifting. I'm hooked and I worry about these characters, but I'm not quite sure whom to trust or even whom to root for, except for those two dogs. I really like "The Old Man," but I love those dogs.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "The Old Man," starring Jeff Bridges. The series premieres tomorrow on FX.

On tomorrow's FRESH AIR - Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler. In a new series, he calls "We The Users," he says our phones and apps are allowing private companies to take our data, spy on our kids and limit our choices. He says our internet laws and practices have to change, and he has some ideas. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUNGE LIZARDS' "NO PAIN FOR CAKES")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Users beware: Apps are using a loophole in privacy law to track kids' phones

Washington Post technology columnist Geoffrey Fowler says smartphones and apps are harvesting our personal data — and that of our kids — on a scale that would shock most users.

42:07

'River of the Gods' captures the epic quest to find the source of the Nile

Writer Candice Millard tells the dramatic story of two 19th-century British explorers who spent years trekking through East Africa, enduring injury and illness in a search for the source of the Nile.

09:23

Jeff Bridges makes a triumphant return to TV in 'The Old Man'

Bridges plays a former CIA operative who re-surfaces after decades off the grid in FX's seven-episode miniseries. The Old Man will hook you with its slow build and shifting perspectives.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue