Monday, July 1, 2013

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1990) by Edward Rice

Well, they do say you should never meet your heroes. And in this case, it’s not because my hero was an asshole, necessarily. It’s more the sense of crushing inadequacy that reading about Burton fills me with. I can never be as amazing as he was, not even if I brought mammoths back to life. Mammoths that shit out anti-global-warming unobtaneum.

Though, to be fair, the same can probably be said for most people who have ever lived. Sure, there were probably better people who have lived: Burton, after all, was not really any kind of philanthropist. He didn’t really work to better the world’s lot. In fact, in many ways, he probably made bits of the world indirectly worse off, by laying the foundation for British colonial rule. He did occasionally try to act as a just and fair governor in the various odd places he wound up. But, by and large, he spent his life doing things that he wanted to do for himself, and sod what anyone else wanted.

But there have been few people as genuinely awesome as Burton. Winding through the potted history of 19th-century colonialism, Burton appears like a real-life combination of James Bond, Indiana Jones and Harry Flashman. He investigated interesting cultures from the inside. He travelled to forbidden places. He was a spy. He was present at game-changing historical events. He was a reckless, brilliant rule-breaker who was never entirely trusted by the establishment, and he was tall, mysterious, scarred, and alluring to women.

 Aside from my all-consuming jealousy (I can never compete with his knowledge of 19th-century exotica because he had the unfair advantage of living through it), would I have liked him as a man if I met him? Unlikely. Despite sharing more than a few of his interests, Burton would probably have soured me with his sarcasm and unsociable ways.

Rice must have had a devil of a task researching Burton: aside from his own insanely prolific (I’m inclined to coin the phrase ‘diarrheic’ for this man who seemed to positively shit out books) tendencies, the resources on Burton are varied and conflicting, with his wife’s input attempting to paint him as a saint (and a Catholic to boot; good luck with that, love) and her jealous nemeses colouring him far more negatively. It seems that everyone had their own version of the man. Burton’s bizarre sense of humour does not help matters much either, with him frequently coyly referring to himself in the third person, hinting at ‘a certain officer known to me,’ with Rice having to guess whether the blackguard is referring to himself or not. The sheer amount of things the man got up to that were deemed not acceptable to Victorian society, but which he simply had to commit to paper, means that he adopts this approach rather frequently. Whether, ahem, examining the gay brothels of Karachi for his superiors or measuring the average penis size of Ethiopians, Burton just has to write about it.


So who was this guy, exactly?

I feel as though the man did so many varied and interesting things that I must resort to a list in order to cover them all, adding some commentary where I feel it’s appropriate.

-he travelled Europe as a young man and learned multiple languages. Prodigy, then.

-he went to Oxford, and though a genius at multiple subjects, could not tolerate the stuffiness of the establishment. He antagonised staff and students, fought duel (whenever someone insulted his moustache, seriously) and was expelled. He left by tramping the flower beds with his horse and carriage. That's how much he didn't care.

-he signed up for the East India Company and went soldiering in exotic lands. This is exactly what I would have done had I been living in the early 19th-century, no question. I too, am ‘fit for nothing but to be shot at for sixpence a day.’ He left for India, having been ‘duly wept over.’ Cynical bastard.

-he became, more-or-less, a believer in Islam. This gave him a significant edge on other contemporary Orientalists, whose sympathies for those they studied was sometimes suspect. Old 'Ruffian Dick', on the other hand, was a true believer.

-he became an initiate into various cults and secret societies including the Sufis and the Hashassins. To be honest, for me this section of the book gets somewhat bogged down in theological matters. But then, I’m not a genius like Burton was.

-he (probably) acted as a British spy during the wars of the North-West Frontier, becoming enemy and advisor to various Muslim Khans and religious leaders. Let’s just say that various places he scouted out during this time later fell under the protective embrace of the British Empire. Who knows how that happened? Oops.

-he was involved in the Crimean War, though, as always with Burton, things didn’t exactly go to plan. His ragtag regiment didn’t come out covered with glory (they were more like the dirty dozen, in the first half of the movie anyway).

-he became one of the first white men to visit Mecca and Medina… and survive. Even though he went in disguise, his deep belief in Islam means that this trip was a religiously meaningful one to him, and not just an act of colonial bravaggio or cultural insensitivity.

-he took a spearhead through his cheek when ambushed by Somalians in his tent. This gave him a scar that made him look like a serious badass for the rest of his life.

-he travelled (and fought) with John Hanning Speke across central Africa to find the source of the Nile. This is one of the things Burton is most remembered for. The story of the two men’s friendship and eventual hatred is one of the most interesting parts of the book. The hardships the two underwent are almost unimaginable. Burton’s attitude towards the Africans, however, is far less enlightened than his attitude towards the Arabs.

-he underwent a mid-life crisis of sorts, travelling through the US alone on an epic drink bender, about which almost nothing is known. Despite the fact that Burton inevitably wrote multiple doorstoppers about his impressions of American life, this bit of his own chronology remains comparatively blank, and we know little of his feelings or motivations apart from a deep sense of melancholy. I think someone needs to fictionalise a series of adventures about these hard-drinking days. Maybe he even had a native American sidekick.

-he served in diplomatic positions in various exotic locations, from the island of Fernando Po, off West Africa, to regions of Brazil and Damascus, and finally Trieste. Most of his time in these places, however, he seems to have spent skiving off to investigate archaeological ruins or write books.

-he wrote the most popular English translation of the Arabian Nights. But he wasn’t content merely to translate; if he felt that an appropriate English word didn’t exist, he didn’t hesitate to make one up, resulting in some of the most bizarre writing you’ve ever come across. His Nights, like his Kama Sutra, was stacked with sex and scandalised Victorian society.

Quite apart from many of the other great characters of the era, Burton was never exactly what you might call successful. His knighthood came late in life, and most of his cushy posts were begrudging favours given by those who could no longer deny his achievements. He seems to have spent a good deal of his life being at odds: with his university, with the army, with the government, with his colleagues, his superiors and his friends. None of his frequent schemes to make money worked out. Even his achievements were often tinged with scandal – especially his writing, which was always criticised for so flagrantly ignoring the conventions of Victorian society. By the end of his life, he seems to have been afforded a certain reluctant, uncertain credit by the powers that were, and his funeral was a lavish one attended by the great and good.

Rice’s book… well, it seems unfair to sum up. This is not a review, after all – I could no more review a book about Burton than I could review Burton’s life itself. Like the man himself, it is many-faceted, complex, puzzling, maddening but ultimately fascinating. Rice seems to have traveled half the globe in researching it, and is probably a pretty interesting guy himself. The difference is that Burton did all this stuff first, back when it was not just dangerous but socially unacceptable. The man simply did not give a shit what anyone though, and that’s what made him a real hero. It’s also why I’d probably have hated to meet him.

1 comment:

  1. I like him very much. I´ve read the book about his travel across the São Francisco´s river in State of Minas Gerais, in Brazil. (I´m a brazlilian, by the way). His sarcasm and point of view about the places that he visited were very intresting and his style at writting is very funny to me.
    Greetings from Brazil. (if you like real heroes that existed in the XIX century, read about Alexander Van Humboldt, he was a incredible scientist and explorer)