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.

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

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

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!