Travellers such as Richard Francis Burton gave the world many dubious gifts—first-hand English accounts of parts of the world hitherto unknown to Europeans, a robust appreciation for the unfamiliar and unknown, and contact with people and cultures who were rarely connected with societies distant from them.
Respected, adored and read widely during his lifetime, Burton is today best remembered for high jinks that would not be out of place in an Alexandre Dumas novel. These include: infiltrating a Mecca pilgrimage in disguise (inter-religious respect? Clearly for weaklings); translating the Arabian Nights and commissioning a translation of the Kama Sutra; his secret marriage to a Catholic Englishwoman, who was to produce a fawning two-volume biography detailing his triumphs after his death; his eventful, but highly successful quest to locate the present Lake Victoria and his quarrel with the far less talented but more powerful John Hanning Speke, his nominal leader in his African expeditions.
Intrepid traveller: Richard Francis Burton. Getty Images
First Footsteps in East Africa is one of Burton’s early works, detailing an expedition to the city of Harar, on the edge of the Great Rift Valley in present day Ethiopia. A prophecy that the city would decline were a Christian to enter it clearly did not impress him much; on the other hand, a sanguinary encounter with Somali waranle or warriors, which ended up with him being impaled by a javelin, which flew through his left cheek and exited through his right, did.
It was a thrilling expedition, a clear hint of the glory that lay in store for Burton’s difficult but legendary career. His anthropological curiosity, generously leavened with the moral arrogance on which the self-regard of the British imperialist project was based, and the orientalism that marred global discourse through centuries of colonialism, also hints at the more ominous aspect of the Victorian spirit of exploration. In his resolute consciousness of racial and intellectual superiority, it is possible to glean the attitude that characterized Britain’s “Cape Town to Cairo” boast in the late 19th century; a boast that would bring unparalleled destruction to Africa in the future.
Richard Francis Burton’s ‘First Footsteps in East Africa’ is now in the public domain and available on Project Gutenberg. Selected excerpts:
Burton meets the Emir of Harar
The Amir, or, as he styles himself, the Sultan Ahmad bin Sultan Abibakr, sat in a dark room with whitewashed walls, to which hung—significant decorations— rusty matchlocks and polished fetters. His appearance was that of a little Indian Rajah, an etiolated youth twenty-four or twenty-five-years-old, plain and thin-bearded, with a yellow complexion, wrinkled brows and protruding eyes. His dress was a flowing robe of crimson cloth, edged with snowy fur, and a narrow white turban tightly twisted round a tall conical cap of red velvet, like the old Turkish headgear of our painters. His throne was a common Indian Kursi, or raised cot, about five feet long, with back and sides supported by a dwarf railing: being an invalid he rested his elbow upon a pillow, under which appeared the hilt of a Cutch sabre. Ranged in double line, perpendicular to the Amir, stood the “court,” his cousins and nearest relations, with right arms bared after fashion of Abyssinia.
First Footsteps in East Africa: Originally published by Tylston and Edwards, digitized by Project Gutenberg, 544 pages.
I entered the room with a loud “Peace be upon ye!” to which H. H. replying graciously, and extending a hand, bony and yellow as a kite’s claw, snapped his thumb and middle finger. Two chamberlains stepping forward, held my forearms, and assisted me to bend low over the fingers, which however I did not kiss, being naturally averse to performing that operation upon any but a woman’s hand. My two servants then took their turn: in this case, after the back was saluted, the palm was presented for a repetition. These preliminaries concluded, we were led to and seated upon a mat in front of the Amir, who directed towards us a frowning brow and an inquisitive eye.
Some inquiries were made about the chief’s health: he shook his head captiously, and inquired our errand. I drew from my pocket my own letter: it was carried by a chamberlain, with hands veiled in his Tobe, to the Amir, who after a brief glance laid it upon the couch, and demanded further explanation. I then represented in Arabic that we had come from Aden, bearing the compliments of our Daulah or governor, and that we had entered Harar to see the light of H. H.’s countenance: this information concluded with a little speech, describing the changes of Political Agents in Arabia, and alluding to the friendship formerly existing between the English and the deceased chief Abubakr.
The Amir smiled graciously.
Burton plays the world’s smallest violin
You see, dear L. (James Lumsden, a friend in Bombay), how travelling maketh man banal. It is the natural consequence of being forced to find, in every corner where Fate drops you for a month, a “friend of the soul,” and a “moon-faced beauty.” With Orientals generally, you must be on extreme terms, as in Hibernia, either an angel of light or, that failing, a goblin damned. In East Africa especially, English phlegm, shyness, or pride, will bar every heart and raise every hand against you, whereas what M. Rochet calls “a certain rondeur of manner” is a specific for winning affection. You should walk up to your man, clasp his fist, pat his back, speak some unintelligible words to him,—if, as is the plan of prudence, you ignore the language,— laugh a loud guffaw, sit by his side, and begin pipes and coffee. He then proceeds to utilise you, to beg in one country for your interest, and in another for your tobacco. You gently but decidedly thrust that subject out of the way, and choose what is most interesting to yourself. As might be expected, he will at times revert to his own concerns; your superior obstinacy will oppose effectual passive resistance to all such efforts; by degrees the episodes diminish in frequency and duration; at last they cease altogether. The man is now your own.
New shores: One of the illustrations in Burton’s book.
Burton admires Speke’s great escape
Lieut. Speke’s captor went to seek his own portion of the spoil, when a Somal came up and asked in Hindostani, what business the Frank had in their country, and added that he would kill him if a Christian, but spare the life of a brother Moslem. The wounded man replied that he was going to Zanzibar, that he was still a Nazarene, and therefore that the work had better be done at once:—the savage laughed and passed on. He was succeeded by a second, who, equally compassionate, whirled a sword round his head, twice pretended to strike, but returned to the plunder without doing damage. Presently came another manner of assailant. Lieut. Speke, who had extricated his hands, caught the spear levelled at his breast, but received at the same moment a blow from a club which, paralyzing his arm, caused him to lose his hold. In defending his heart from a succession of thrusts, he received severe wounds on the back of his hand, his right shoulder, and his left thigh. Pausing a little, the wretch crossed to the other side, and suddenly passed his spear clean through the right leg of the wounded man: the latter “smelling death,” then leapt up, and taking advantage of his assailant’s terror, rushed headlong towards the sea. Looking behind, he avoided the javelin hurled at his back, and had the good fortune to run, without further accident, the gauntlet of a score of missiles. When pursuit was discontinued, he sat down faint from loss of blood upon a sandhill. Recovering strength by a few minutes’ rest, he staggered on to the town, where some old women directed him to us. Then, pursuing his way, he fell in with the party sent to seek him, and by their aid reached the craft, having walked and run at least three miles, after receiving eleven wounds, two of which had pierced his thighs. A touching lesson how difficult it is to kill a man in sound health!