This edited article about Sir Richard Burton originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 732 published on 24 January 1976.
Most explorers who ventured into unknown lands and unknown oceans had as their goal a single exploit or a single place. Richard Francis Burton, however, was different. For him all strange, foreign places held an irresistible lure and no matter where the unknown existed – in Africa, South America, Arabia or India – Burton was agog to go there, to explore, to study and afterwards to write about it.
Though none of Burton’s contemporaries were quite so travel-struck, Burton was in many ways typical of his time. Born in 1821 in Torquay, the 70 adventurous years of his life covered a time when Britons were becoming increasingly conscious of their growing overseas Empire and increasingly curious about the lands in and near it. They were fascinated by the vast, unexplored interior of Africa, the unknown deserts of Australia and particularly by the mysterious, exotic Indian subcontinent.
In 1842, when Richard Burton arrived in Bombay, large numbers of Britons who went to India entertained notions of lording it over the natives, making a fortune from trade or tea planting and returning to a life of idle luxury in England.
Burton’s intentions were completely different. He wanted to get under the skin of the Orient, to learn its languages, observe its customs and probe its strange fatalistic faiths.
In order to do so, Burton would stain his skin brown with henna, wind a turban round his head, dress in long, loose robes and wander unnoticed through the native bazaars, markets and city back-streets. Burton revelled in the pungent smells, the strange sights, the hubbub of dialects and the twanging music that marked the colourful, teeming character of Indian life. Before he left India in 1849, he had more than achieved his aims: he was fluent in five Indian dialects, as well as in Persian and Arabic, and had learned to think, walk, talk, gesture and even pray like a native of the Orient.
It was this knowledge that enabled Burton to remain undetected during the most dangerous journey a European and a Christian could undertake at that time. In 1853, Muslim Arabia had for hundreds of years been a closed and secret world. No one who was not a Muslim was allowed to set foot in it. Most who made the attempt never lived to tell of the experience.
Particularly forbidden to “unbelievers” were two Arabian towns most holy to the Muslims – Mecca and Medina. In these circumstances, it was not surprising that European knowledge of the area was so sketchy that, as Burton himself put it, Arabia made a “huge white blot . . . on the maps.” It was not surprising, either, that Burton found this vast stretch of unknown territory an irresistible challenge.
On April 3, 1853, a brown-skinned, bearded Muslim hurried on board a steamer bound for Egypt. He soon made friends with other Muslims on the ship, and told them that he was an Afghan called Mirza Abdullah and was going on a “haj” (pilgrimage) to the holy city of Mecca.
No one doubted that he was telling the truth, particularly after Mirza happened to brush the arm of a British Indian army officer while he was strolling on the deck. The officer turned fiercely on the Muslim and in language heavily laced with swear-words, cursed him for daring to approach that close to a white man.
Mirza backed away, bowing and apologising in the servile manner the arrogant Englishman expected. As he did so, a faint smile played across his face: Richard Burton was congratulating himself, for his disguise as Mirza had not only fooled the Muslims, it had fooled one of his own countrymen.
Burton was so convincing as Mirza Abdullah that no one guessed his true identity on the crowded vessel that took Muslim pilgrims across the Red Sea, nor on the long caravan trail across the Arabian desert. In September, 1853, Burton even managed to penetrate safely into the holiest of all Muslim places, the “Daaba” (Sanctuary) in Mecca. He prostrated himself in the Muslim manner, intoned the appropriate prayers, then bent down to kiss the holy Black Stone in the south-east corner of the Sanctuary.
Burton’s “performance” was so flawless that none of the ecstatic pilgrims who hemmed him in on all sides suspected that an “unbeliever” was in their midst. Had Burton made the slightest mistake, the knives would soon have been unsheathed and, like too many Europeans before him, Richard Burton would have been slashed to death.
By the end of September, Burton was back in Egypt and his most daring adventure was over. When his book on the experience, “Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Mecca”, was published, readers were thrilled at the picture he painted of the strange, exotic and in many ways savage world of the Muslims. To adventure-mad Victorians, it was as if the “Arabian Nights” had come true.
However, by the time the book appeared in 1855, Burton had completed another exploit – exploring the dangerous deserts of Somalia, in north-east Africa. He was so thirsty for adventure that once an expedition had ended, his only interest lay in the next one. This was why his life was so chock-full of hectic activity.
After Arabia and Somalia, Burton searched for the source of the Nile and discovered Lake Tanganyika (1856-9), explored Dahomey, the Gold Coast and Nigeria (1861-4), served as British consul in Brazil, Syria and Italy, revisited India (1875-6) and for four years, until 1880, prospected for gold near the Red Sea.
By this time, Burton was nearly sixty, an advanced age for the time, and an age when most people had settled down to a quiet, uneventful life. Richard Burton never settled down: his wanderlust burned on to the end. When he died in Trieste in 1890, he had just returned from a tour of Europe, and was already planning his next trip – to Greece and Turkey.
Burton’s wife, Isabel, brought his body back to England and had him buried in the most appropriate tomb this compulsive wanderer could possibly have had. It was a marble and copper replica of the tent which wandering nomads used in the deserts of Arabia.
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