Friday, March 19, 2021

This Day in Exploration History (Birth of Sir Richard Francis Burton, Roguish Arabist, Author and Adventurer)

 Mar. 19, 1821— Sir Richard Francis Burton, who opened up previously unknown realms in geography, religion and anthropology—even as he shocked proper Victorians with his roguish exploits and prolific writings—was born in Devon, England.

Much of what the British empire knew—or thought it knew—about the Arab world came through the efforts of Burton and a later soldier-linguist: T.E. Lawrence. Both men inspired biopics: Lawrence of Arabia and the far less well-known Mountains of the Moon.

But David Lean was able to encompass most of the career of Lawrence in his Oscar-winning Best Picture, whereas Burton was so varied in his pursuits that director Bob Rafelson was only able to depict the adventurer’s relationship with John Hanning Speke, the deputy on his expedition to discover the source of the Nile.

Two decades before Rafelson’s big-screen cult film, I became interested in Burton through the small screen, via a 1971 BBC miniseries that ended up broadcast in the U.S.: The Search for the Nile, a documentary narrated by James Mason, with key scenes from the explorer’s life dramatized. Later, I was intrigued when I learned that Fawn Brodie, who made waves with a 1974 psychobiography of Thomas Jefferson, used the same approach seven years before with her life of Burton, The Devil Drives.

Brilliant enough to master 40 different languages and dialects, Burton could have been content to spend much of the rest of his life in libraries. He would have had the perfect opportunity at Oxford, where his army officer father had sent him with the inexplicable thought that the university could prepare his son for the clergy.

Even before Richard’s post-education career thoroughly disabused anyone of such a notion, he was already doing his best to ensure that he would not even make it to graduation. In short order, he was challenging to a duel another student who ridiculed his droopy moustache; running up massive debts with his tailor; frequenting wild parties and bordellos; and, in the stunt that brought about his expulsion, breaking a university rule by attending a steeplechase, then refusing to apologize.

His appearance added to the overwhelming impression he made on those he met. To that moustache he added a thick beard, which, together with his eyes (described by poet Algernon Charles Swinburne as conveying “unspeakable horror”), gave him an almost Mephistophelian look, as well as an only slightly less fearsome nickname: “Ruffian Dick.”

After Oxford, Burton became an intelligence agent for the British Army in India, where his facility with languages and physical prowess (boxing and fencing) proved useful. But after a decade, he became restless and requested permission to pull off the feat that landed him firmly in the public eye for the first time: undertaking the hajj, or Muslim pilgrimage, to Medina and Mecca.

Taking months to prepare (including his disguise as a Pathan, or Indian born of Afghan parents), he came to Mecca in September 1853. His surreptitious notes on what he saw, as a Westerner in this holy Arab city, formed the basis of a subsequent sensational account.

A secret expedition to yet another forbidden site—Harar in the Horn of Africa, the center of the slave trade—followed two years later, with the public enthralled once again by the identity he assumed for getting inside (a Turkish merchant) and his brush with death (nearly dying of thirst, until the sight of desert birds convinced him that water was nearby). 

Immediately afterward, on another trip to Africa, he survived being impaled by a javelin that entered one cheek and left the other. It left him with a scar for the rest of his life, as well as visible confirmation of his willingness to brave all perils.

In 1856, Burton embarked on his most significant, dangerous and controversial adventure: searching for the source of the Nile with Speke. The trip, up hills and through swamps in East Africa, was slow and arduous. Both men fell sick at various points. 

But Burton’s condition was serious enough that, after they had discovered and explored Lake Tanganyika, he decided to recuperate rather than accompany Speke to find another huge body of water they had been told about: what turned out to be Lake Victoria, the source of the great river.

Burton refused to believe Speke’s subsequent report that he had discovered the Nile’s source, and they had fallen out by the time they came back, separately, to Britain. 

Acclaimed for the discovery, Speke still felt the need to prove it. Just before he was to set off on another expedition to confirm the discovery—and on the very day he was supposed to debate Burton on his claim—Speke died on his uncle’s estate, in what was officially ruled an accident but which many (including Burton) believed was suicide.

After marrying the daughter of an aristocratic Catholic family, Isabel Arundell, in 1861, Burton, feeling the need for more regular employment, started working for the British Foreign Office. He used the opportunity to travel still more, but his postings, when not in hellish environments (Fernando Po, an island in the Gulf of Guinea), were tedious. But in the 1880s, he broke out of his ennui in spectacular fashion.

Already considered colorful, if not eccentric, Burton became notorious for translating explicit texts, such as The Kama Sutra and, more surprisingly, The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night and Supplemental Nights. Bad enough that he delivered an unexpurgated version of the so-called Arabian Nights, but he also created a sensation with something even more unlikely: footnotes on Arab sexual practices.

“He paid heavily for his frankness,” noted Canadian novelist-critic Robertson Davies in his 1960 collection, A Voice from the Attic: Essays on the Art of Reading, “for it was at least as hard a century ago as it is now for people of conventional mind to recognize that a man can be interested in the vagaries of sexual behaviour without wishing to practise them himself.”

Others have taken a dimmer view of Burton’s observations, notably Edward Said in his influential 1978 study, Orientalism, who saw Burton as emblematic of British imperialism and ethnocentric. Still others, such as John Wallen in Burton and Orientalism, regard the explorer as a non-judgmental guide to non-Western moral practices.

Scholars have faced major challenges in assessing Burton following his death in 1890. It’s not just that new academic theories such as Said’s have created an alternative interpretation of his achievements. Researchers also must cope with questions related to Burton’s voluminous writings:

*Absorbing his output. Burton wrote 43 books on his expeditions and translated another 30. Reading and interpreting it all is staggering.

*Weighing his veracity. Clearly, Burton loved telling tales. But to what extent were they true? Biographers who take his accounts at face value run a grave risk.

*Looking beyond holes in the record. After his death, Isabel depicted her husband as the most faithful of husbands. Yet she also took steps to ensure that nobody would second-guess her, as she burned 1,000 pages of his final manuscript.

(For an interesting account of the tomb of Richard and Isabel, in the churchyard of St. Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church in London, see Jonathan Carr's 2019 post on the "Victorian Fencing Society" blog.)

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