Friday, March 22, 2013

Captain Sir Richard Burton


I once had an alarm clock that I found particularly abrasive.  Whenever it would sound in the morning, a clanging, jangling double-bell that would vibrate the entire mechanism off of the nightstand and send me close to cardiac arrest, I felt as if I had been assaulted somehow.

Now, imagine waking one morning to discover a Somali spear rammed completely through your face from cheek to cheek.  That alarm clock doesn't seem so bad anymore.

Such was a day in the life of Sir Richard Burton, a captain not in the British Army, but of the East India Company [yes, it had its own army], a linguist who had knowledge of an estimated 29 languages, a cartographer who was the first to chart portions of East Africa, a swordsman who wrote the manual on the strategic and tactical use of the blade in combat [a manual still read by officers in the Royal Army], an explorer who was the first European to set eyes upon Lake Tanganyika, and a diplomat with the Foreign Office.

I should mention that he dualed rather a lot while at university; they didn't have "beer pong" in those days.

He was also a spy, a poet, a translator of works such as The Arabian Nights, and, in particular, an accomplished master of disguise.  In other words, he was a typical 19th century adventurer: bold, educated, audacious, curious and, when necessary, mildly homicidal.

Burton was born in 1822 to a military officer father and a mother who was from a family of property.  That meant that, since birth, he would be guaranteed both an education and a position in the army. Since his parents had a love of travel and the wherewithal to indulge it, Burton grew up living throughout Europe, picking up a variety of conversational languages from his various tutors.  Eventually, he was formally schooled in London and at Oxford's Trinity College.  In keeping with the tradition of accomplished Victorians, he was expelled.  The one lasting experience for Burton at college was learning Arabic to fluency.

[Some day I'm going to compile a list of men and women of letters and science who either never participated in higher education or were invited to leave the hallowed halls.]

He then "accepted" a commission in the East India Company's army, hoping to fight in the First Afghan War, but the conflict ended before he arrived in India.  For someone like Burton there could have been nothing more dull than a peacetime military, so he threw himself into the further study of fencing, into investigating Hindu culture, and into a working knowledge of Hindi and Persian.  When offered the chance to lead a survey into an area highly dangerous to European officers, he jumped at the chance.  In order to survive the command, he disguised himself so successfully that neither the locals nor his fellow officers recognized him.

Burton disguised as a camel.  No, no, that's not right.  Burton disguised as an Arab shepherd.
[Readers familiar with Kipling's thrilling yarn Kim will recognize Burton as the inspiration for the character of "Colonel Creighton"; as well as for the protagonist in George MacDonald Fraser's extremely entertaining "Harry Flashman" novels.]

As his interest in Islam and its culture and languages began to increase, along with his facility at successful disguise, Burton decided to undertake one of the most dangerous experiences of his already dangerous existence.  Using his ability in Arabic, his close study of Islamic custom, and his knowledge of the Koran [he had already published his translation of the sacred book], he would disguise himself as a Muslim trader and join in the pilgrimage to Mecca in order to...well, in order to do what no Britisher had done before.  Does there need to be a better reason?

Burton practicing trying to kill people with his mind.

So he did, risking discovery and inevitable death during every hour of the Hajj.  He was successful, though, and marked the occasion by writing a two-volume book, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah.  [Note: the book is now in public domain and may be "purchased" at no cost for those with electronic reading devices.]  The pilgrimage was so transformative that he practiced Islam for the remainder of his life.

And what a life it was.  His adventures in Mecca were merely the beginning, as Burton became one of the eminent explorers of the African continent, determined to discover the source of the Nile River.  To do so, Burton and his colleagues had to travel through remarkably dangerous territory [What else is new?] in the eastern portion for the continent, meeting tribes both friendly and hostile; some of them friendly one day and hostile the next.  Hence the moment described earlier, which necessitated Burton beating a hasty retreat from his attackers with a spear still protruding from both sides of his face.  In later life he would complain that he lost a tooth because of it.

Two years later Burton, with his co-explorer Richard Speake, began a second journey that was beset with so many maladies that it's a wonder both men were not kept in jars for study at a medical school.  Plagued by dysentery, fevers, ear infections leading to partial deafness, blindness, and lame-ness, the two explorers finally arrived at what they named Lake Tanganyika in February of 1858.  Speake, in a subsequent adventure, would come upon Lake Victoria and declare it the Nile's source.

There were other adventures for Burton, not the least of which was having to prove himself not a fraud before the Royal Geographical Society and dealing with a lawsuit filed by Speake, the impetus for which is still a little cloudy.  It would remain so as Speake died from an accidental [?] discharge from a shotgun before things between the two men were resolved.

Burton would live to the age 69, serving during the final third of his life as a British counsel in a variety of posts, from the Congo to Brazil to Damascus, with the final posting in Trieste, Italy.  For those of us raised on British boys' magazines, filled with the lusty adventures of explorers and soldiers, Burton's always set the highest standard.  For all of the derring-do, it should be noted that, before the era of formalized anthropological study, Burton kept very detailed and scientific notes on all of his explorations and discoveries.  Since his range of interests was so broad and deep, these mid-19th century notes were invaluable to the next several generations of cartographers, anthropologists, ethnologists, archaeologists, and diplomats.

Burton is interred in a stone crypt in London that is carved to resemble the tents still used by the hajji during the spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca.  The fact that a practicing Muslim is buried in a Roman Catholic churchyard is the result of some subterfuge by Mrs. Burton; subterfuge being the theme of Burton's life, that seems rather perfect.

Burton's narratives and translations are still in print, with many, as noted above, now in public domain and thus available at no cost.  A rather good biography by Edward Rice entitled simply Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, which was originally published in the mid-1990's, is still in print and worth reading.  A film entitled Mountains of the Moon, primarily about Burton and Speake's African explorations, was released about 25 years ago and is available on DVD and in digital format.  I seem to recall it earned "two thumbs up" from a corpulent film reviewer and his partner.