Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, a biograpy
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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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