THE TRUE ARABIAN KNIGHT AND TRAVELLER
BY WENDY HUGHES
Mention the tales of the Arabian Knights and most people will remember, and even recall the odd story or two, but the author’s name is a different matter. Sadly, the man behind their literal translation still remains an enigma, wronged by Victorian society, and even denied acknowledged acclaim by his devoted wife. Sir Richard Francis Burton’s life was packed with adventures that would make the Arabian Knights sound like a mere fairy-tale. He could speak 40 languages including dialects, and his travels took him as far afield as Mecca and Medina, and together with James Hunt he founded the Anthropological Society of London, and in his younger days he was one of the foremost swordsmen of Europe. His hawk-eyes and swarthy colouring give him the ideal cover to pass as a native and explore deepest Africa. Unchallenged he penetrated the hidden mysteries of Somaliland and gained the trust and friendship of the wild Bedouins.
Burton, the son of a Lt-colonel Joseph Netterville Burton of the 36th Regiment was born on 19 March 1821 in Torquay, and his mother was Martha Baker daughter and co heiress of a wealthy English Squire, Richard Baker of Barham House Hertfordshire. His early education was punctuated with irregularity as his father travelled between England and the continent and was provided by tutors employed by his parents. His first formal education began in 1829 when he was sent to a Preparatory school on Richard Green in Surrey. From an early age he showed a flair for languages and quickly learned French, Italian, Neapolitan, and Latin. It is claimed that in his youth he had an affair with a gypsy woman and learned the basics of her language, Romani.
In 1842 he went to India, where he enjoyed posing as a native pedlar, spending weeks in the bazaars and chatting to the local girls, and spoke Persian, Turkish, Arabic and Hindustani like a native, and even remembered the complicated ritual of Mohammedan. Elders would call upon his knowledge of the Koran to settle religious disputes, and his thirst for adventure was so immense that he once wrote of himself ‘discovery is my mania.’
He became one of the first white men to enter the holy city of Mecca where death was the penalty for discovery. Disguising himself as an Afghan, called Naji Abdullah, he sailed up the Red Sea with a throng of pilgrims. After taking a camel ride through the mountains he arrived at Mecca, mingling with the crowds who were totally unaware that the turbaned Naji Abdullah was a foreigner.
He dreamed of exploring Somaliland, a then remote part of Africa which had remained undiscovered for over 2,000 years. In 1854, posing as an Arab merchant, he set out for Somaliland. It proved to be a nightmare journey, and at one stage he was given up for dead. He spent ten days in Harar, the capital, which had a language of its own and a Sultan who swore that no white man would ever set foot within its walls. However, behind his long beard Burton hid a smile and even laughed at how he had fooled the Sultan. On his return journey many bearers died of thirst and exhaustion, but Burton’s tenacity and zest for life saw him through the ordeal.
Soon his adventures turned to finding the source of the Nile, a quest that had puzzled the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans before him. The Royal Geographical Society arranged a meagre grant of just £1,000, and on June 14th 1857 and a small expedition set out from Zanzibar. Although Captain John Speke was at Burton’s side, it was Burton who carried the responsibility of the expedition and bartered with the tribal chieftains. The two men often encountered strange attacks of illness which left them paralytic for days at a time, but Burton’s efforts were rewarded when he gazed down in awe at the waters of Lake Tanganyika, drinking in the knowledge that he was the first European to reach these shores.
For a month they sailed the lake in a hollowed-out tree trunk, hiding from the cannibal tribes and sheltering from the wild weather, but their survey proved that the source of the Nile was yet to be discovered. Burton eager to write down every detail turned the remainder of the expedition over to Speke.
Speke returned to the coast describing the great watery expanse and called it Lake Victoria in honour of Queen Victoria. Burton planned to confirm the report, but he had already spent £1,500 of his own money and didn’t have enough money to take him back to the coast. In Zanzibar Burton suffered a return of illness, so Speke returned to England alone and announced himself as the discoverer of the Nile’s source, taking all the credit for the expedition.
By now Burton was close to death, and shocked at Speke’s behaviour but this gave him the determination to push him even closer and there came a time when the two men met face to face. At the meeting the younger man turned pale and walked away. Soon after a messenger brought word that Speke and gone hunting and had lost his life when a gun was accidentally discharged. Was this suicide or a tragic accident?
Eventually Burton recovered from his ordeal and married Isabel, on 22nd January 1861, at St Mary’s Magdalene’s Church in Mortlake. Burton entered the British Diplomatic Service and accepted a post at Fernando Po, an island off the coast of Africa, and was later appointed British Consul at Damascus, and in his spare time explored Syria, visiting ancient cities and determining the source of rivers. This exploration laid down the foundation stones for future geographers.
Once Burton had established himself in Damascus Isabel, a religious person, set about a self-imposed task of converting all Islam to Christianity, but soon the outraged Moslems turned away from Burton, and after an attempted assassination on his life, the British Government were forced to recall him.
Life seemed at an end for him, but an outcry from the public forced the Government to give him another consulate, and this time he was posted to Trieste. Adventure was in his blood, and he persuaded Ismail, the Khedive of Egypt that there were gold and jewels to be found in Medina. Burton obtained leave of absence and, dressed in his flowing robes and turban, he set off on yet another adventure. Seven months later he returned with quantities of rock specimens only to find that Ismail was deposed and no one was in the least interested in his theories.
In 1880 Burton returned to Trieste where he spent the last years of his life plagued by ill-health and feelings of utter failure. Even the news of his knighthood in 1886 for his 25 years diplomatic service only lifted his spirits for a little while.
Now bored with inactivity he channelled his inexhaustible energies into writing books, in particular a work that had occupied his interest some 30 years before – The Arabian Knights. It was on his pilgrimage to Mecca that Burton had first heard these tales, and although there had been earlier translations Burton wanted to give the whole Moslem folklore his personal literal translation. It was a mammoth task and his explicate edition – all 16 volumes were privately published between 1885-88.
When published it was met with shocked protests, which were soon overshadowed by the praises from the scholars of the literary world. Immediately Burton began his translation of a volume of Arabic couplets, The Secret Garden. This was to be his first work containing all his knowledge of the Orient, and Burton thought there was beauty in the verses, and he wanted the world to appreciate them. Unfortunately Burton was not a well man, and on 20th October, 1890 he died, shortly after finishing it.
Although Burton was not a catholic, it appears that Isabel managed to convert him on his deathbed, and she asked the Dean of Westminster for an Abbey burial, but this was refused. Burton’s own wish was that he should be buried in a Bedouin tent. Now snubbed by the Abbey, Isabel resolved to his wish and he was buried, in the church where they were married, in a tomb in the style of a Bedouin tent.
Shortly after his burial, Lady Burton read the manuscript of the Secret Garden and was horrified. To this deeply religious lady, it was ‘indecent’, and she set fire to Sir Richard’s personal journals and papers destroying the very work that could have meant final acclaim to a great man who was so misunderstood.