Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, a biograpy

by Edward Rice  

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If a Victorian novelist of the most romantic type had invented Capt. Sir Richard Francis Burton, the character might have been dismissed by both the public and critics in that most rational age as too extreme, too unlikely. Burton was the paradigm of the scholar-adventurer, a man who towered above others physically and intellectually, a soldier, scientist, explorer, and writer who for much of his life also engaged in that most romantic of careers, undercover agent.

Burton was born in 1821 and died in 1890, a crucial period in the history of his country. Queen Victoria was his sovereign and Karl Marx a fellow searcher in the reading rooms of the great institutions of London. The Industrial Revolution was in full bloom, turning the verdant countryside of the English poets into slag heaps of human misery; the European powers had divided the world rather raggedly into colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence; inventions that daily changed the tenor of ordinary life arrived in an avalanche, and as literacy became widespread, ideas of all sorts—revolutionary, intellectual, scientific, and political—percolated throughout the world with the force of an epidemic.

Burton was unique in any gathering except when he was deliberately working in disguise as an agent among the peoples of the lands being absorbed by his country. An impressive six feet tall, broad chested and wiry, "gypsy-eyed," darkly handsome, he was fiercely imposing, his face scarred by a savage spear wound received in a battle with Somali marauders. He spoke twenty-nine languages and many dialects and when necessary could pass as a native of several Eastern lands—as an Afghan when he made his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, as a Gypsy laborer among the work gangs on the canals of the Indus River, and as a nondescript peddler of trinkets and as a dervish, a wandering holy man, when exploring the wilder parts of Sind, Baluchistan, and the Punjab [= "India] for his general. He was the first European to enter Harar, a sacred city in East Africa, though some thirty whites had earlier been driven off or killed. He was also the first European to lead an expedition into Central Africa to search for the sources of the Nile, a venture as daring and romantic then as going to outer space a century and a half later.

Such exploits reflect only the "surface" Burton and obscure the inner man, a man of extraordinary complexity, sensitivity, and intelligence. Although he was one of the best-known individuals of his age and was especially popular with the public, there were times when he was almost an outcast among his own people. His opinions on various subjects—English "misrule" of the new colonies, the low quality and stodginess of university education, the need for the sexual emancipation of the English woman, the failure on the part of Government to see that the conquered peoples of the empire were perpetually on the edge of revolt—were not likely to make him popular at home. Nor did his condemnation of infanticide and the slave trade endear him to Orientals and Africans. His scholarly interests often infuriated the Victorians, for he wrote openly about sexual matters they thought better left unmentioned—aphrodisiacs, circumcision, infibulation, eunuchism, and homosexuality. He had some private opinions that angered his wife, Isabel, normally a tolerant person, for he passionately believed in polygamy as a means of reinforcing family stability, alleviating the household burdens on a single wife, and lessening the evils of prostitution.

In India, because of his odd beliefs and strange practices, his fellow officers of the army of the Honourable E$ast India Company called him the "White Nigger" and "that Devil Burton." (His own description of himself was "Amateur Barbarian.") He learned early to keep certain opinions and interests to himself and became a master of the Shi'a Muslim practice known as taqiya—dissimulation or concealment—in which one's private religious beliefs are kept hidden. And he had his unpleasant side, unfortunately all too public—he could be harshly intolerant of other men and brutally sarcastic, reflecting to an extreme the popular prejudices of the age against blacks, Jews, and Asians. Yet he understood the evil effects of Westernization on native people and warned against its threat, and he had a great sympathy for the Arab race in general as well as for the desert peoples loosely called Bedawin. There was also a strong touch of snobbery in his remarks about fellow Englishmen, when class consciousness was an open and cruel fact.

Burton's adult life was passed in a ceaseless quest for the kind of secret knowledge he labeled broadly as "Gnosis," by which he hoped to uncover the very source of existence and the meaning of his role on earth. This search led him to investigate the Kabbalah, alchemy, Roman Catholicism, a Hindu snake caste of the most archaic type, and the erotic Way called Tantra, after which he looked into Sikhism and passed through several forms of Islam before settling on Sufism, a mystical discipline that defies simple labels. He remained a more or less faithful practitioner of Sufi teachings the rest of his life, seeking the mystical heights denied all but the elect, what certain Muslims define as Insan-i Kamil, the Perfect Man, who has attained the most profound spiritual goals.

Burton erected such a formidable barrier around himself with taqiya that his religious interests have been virtually ignored. He passed several years among a Shi'a sect, the Isma'ilis, a once-formidable messianic movement whose excesses in the past gave the world the term "assassin." But it was his more sensible lifelong commitment to Sufism that deserves acknowledgment and study. Judging by the bibliographies of scholarly works dealing with Islam, Burton was the first Westerner to write popularly but as an insider about Sufism, yet this commitment remains a blank in biographies of both this and the previous century. Islam dominated his writings in the last fifteen years of his life, and he made several elegiac statements about what he called "the Saving Faith" that cannot be ignored today.

Even then he found other esoteric interests to investigate: spiritualism, Theosophy, the doctrines of Hermes Trismegistus, and extrasensory perception. (Burton was the first to use the term "ESP.") Despite his private searches, however, he was often a scoffer and skeptic, particularly of organized religion, and wrestled constantly with the problem of "God and No-God."

Beyond this, there were his investigations of the mores and customs of primitive and semibarbarous peoples, who in some cases have already disappeared from the earth, and his vast comprehension of native life. He was a pioneer in ethnological studies and might be ranked with the great American Lewis Henry Morgan (League of the Iroquois, 1851), although Burton's contribution to the science has only recently been recognized. Perhaps as important as any other preoccupation was his role in what was later called the "Great Game," a phrase Rudyard Kipling popularized in Kim.

The Great Game absorbed much of England's energies in the nineteenth century. The competition between the European powers for control of Asia and the Levant—the reasons were primarily economic—narrowed down to a struggle between Britain and Russia, mostly undercover, sometimes military, for the domination of large areas of the world east of Suez.

Burton's role in his country's colonial policies was important but ill defined. He never wrote openly about it but left clues scattered throughout his works—notably in his cryptic references to the use of "Secret Service funds" in the overthrow of certain native princes and to the "shady side" of great military victories. Some of his exploits had major implications at the time, such as his involvement in the 1840s in a plot to overthrow the Shah of Persia. And he was one of the agents who helped put the Indian provinces of Sind, Baluchistan, and the western Punjab firmly under British control. (They now form the modern state of Pakistan.) Under the pretense of amateur archaeological investigation, he explored areas of Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria that his government considered worthy of expropriation. There were other areas that, sometimes virtually alone, he scouted out for England and then suggested taking. In his somewhat acerbic entry under "Burton" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (eleventh edition, 1911), Stanley Lane-Poole, one of Burton's most energetic "unfriends," tried to point out without actually revealing state secrets that Burton's "East African pioneering coincided with areas which have since become peculiarly interesting to the British Empire" and that his later explorations "on the opposite side of Africa, at Dahomey, Benin, and the Gold Coast … have also entered among the imperial 'questions' of the day."

In the East, religion and sex are not incompatible, as they have been so often in the West. In his writings, Burton opened sexual vistas that Victorian England dared not enter. He was adamant that women enjoy sex as well as men, this at a time when Victorian brides were told at marriage, "Lie still and think of the Empire." Burton translated a number of books that today stand as classics in their field and helped bring about new attitudes toward sex in the Western world. His versions, given substance by his own opinions and experience and heavily annotated, of erotic works like the Ananga Ranga, the Kama Sutra (which he discovered), The Perfumed Garden, and even his Arabian Nights lead the reader to see that in Burton's view sex, for women as well as men, was not an uncomfortable duty for the propagation of the race but a pleasure to be enjoyed with enthusiasm and vivacity.

Underlying Burton's relentless physical and intellectual energy was an inner turmoil. He suffered frequently from severe bouts of depression, and he was a drug addict. Cannabis and opium were his principal escapes, and he experimented with rare narcotics like khat, which is said to have a priapic effect. During his early middle age he became such an alcoholic that his career was threatened. He worked his way out of his addictions and dependencies and was able to pass the last years of his life free of narcotics and alcohol, though by this time his health had deteriorated seriously. His interest in sex was at one point virtually an uncontrollable obsession, yet when he married, he seems to have remained faithful to his wife.

His marriage is another matter that has not been studied fully. At a time in England when Roman Catholics were considered second-class citizens, even though laws had been passed for their emancipation, he married an English Catholic, Isabel Arundell. To his family and his contemporaries, he might as well have married a woman from tribal Africa. His marriage was thus the forcing of barriers more formidable than the deserts and Bedawin nomads he encountered on the way to Mecca or the miasmic swamps he crossed in Central Africa. Victorian England was scathing about Lady Burton, and the prejudices that surrounded her then echo still in some of today's writings about her husband. But this marriage, seemingly so perilous to both Burtons, was happy and solid and needs to be considered afresh.

   Burton was a great raconteur but wrote very little about himself except in cryptic terms and in a curiously detached way—he was in actuality a very "private" person—as if the very intense adventures he had undergone were to remain in oral tradition and not to be written down for the public. Sadly, very few of these stories were collected and put on paper by his friends. Isabel Burton remarked that she wished her husband had written a novel about his life, but he never did. "First he thought that [it] would never suit Mrs Grundy [the mythical censor of British morals], and though he could retain a crowd of friends around him till the small hours of the morning, to listen to his delightful experiences, in print he could never be got to talk about himself."

Despite this, Burton has been a popular biographical subject and also the basis for fictional characters. Rudyard Kipling used him at least twice, once as Strickland in the short story "Miss Youghal's Sais" and rather vaguely as Colonel Creighton, the mysterious unattached British agent in Kim; there are also shades of Burton in the strange shopkeeper Lurgan. Kim is filled with anecdotes that sound as if Kipling had heard them directly from Burton or from Burton's friends, and his description of Strickland in the short story is Burton down to the last characteristic and is based on a portrait of "a young English officer" (as Burton often referred to himself) in Burton's travel book Goa, and the Blue Mountains, from notes he had made in India in the 1840s.

Kipling's description of Strickland is virtually Burton in his Indian days—"a quiet, dark young fellow—spare, black-eyed— and when he was not thinking of something else, a very interesting companion." Strickland "held the extraordinary theory" that an officer in India "should try to know as much about the natives as the natives themselves."


Following out his absurd theory he dabbled in unsavory places no respectable man would think of exploring—all among the native riff-raff. He educated himself in this peculiar way for seven years and people could not appreciate it. He was perpetually "going Fantee" among natives, which, of course, no man with any sense believes in. He was initiated into the Sat Bhai [the Seven Brothers, a Hindi and Tantric cult] at Allahabad, when he was on leave; he knew the Lizzard Song of the Sansis, and the Hálli-Hukh dance, which is a religious can-can of a startling kind. When a man knows who dance the Hálli-Hukh, and how, and when, and where, he knows something to be proud of. He has gone deeper than the skin. ... He had helped once, at Jagadhri, at the Painting of the Death Bull which no Englishman must even look upon; had mastered the thieves' patter of the chángars, had taken a Eusufzai horse-thief alone near Attock; and had stood under the sounding board of a border mosque and conducted services in the manner of a Sunni Mollah.

His crowning achievement was spending eleven days as a faquir or priest in the gardens of Baba Atal at Amritsar, and there picking up the threads of the great Nasiban Murder Case. … The Nasiban murder case did him no good departmentally; but after his first feeling of wrath, he returned to his outlandish custom of prying into native life. When a man once acquires a taste for this particular amusement, it abides with him all his days. It is the most fascinating thing in the world. … Where other men took ten days to the Hills, Strick­land took leave for what he called shikar [the hunt], put on the disguise that appealed to him at the moment, stepped down into the brown crowd, and was swallowed up for a while.

And in summary, "Natives hated Strickland; but they were afraid of him. He knew too much."  

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