Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Amazing Richard Burton (but not the one you are thinking about)

If you could pick one person from history who died before you were born, and relive their life, who would you pick? It takes some thought and obviously the question is highly personal. If it were something we could actually do, it might have its pitfalls.

Someone, for example, might decide they would like to be The Great Emancipator. Signing the 13th amendment announcing the end of slavery, delivering the emancipation proclamation, winning the Civil War, the joy of discovering the attributes of General Grant, being a renowned country lawyer, celebrated by your peers for your wealth of anecdotes, fairness and physical strength, all sound great.

On the other hand, suffering long bouts of depression, having two young sons die on you, a marriage which caused you to frequently flee your home and make months long trips on the road, spending a few years losing the bloodiest war in our history before the tide turned, and, let’s not forget, getting shot in the head in your mid-50s, might make you want to pick Bertram Russell (he lived to 98) or someone like that.

The same thing goes for Mozart (died young), Beethoven (went deaf), Jim Thorpe (stripped of his medals), Jesus (well, you know), Van Gogh (depression, the ear thing), King Tut (died really young), Martin Luther King (assassinated at his height) and so on. You get the point.

There are good choices too, or so it seems. Ben Franklin might be a good choice, unless his sad personal break with his son and long absence from his wife are signs of things we just don’t know enough about. And don’t forget his painful gout. You don’t really know until you go for it and live their life. He’s still in my top ten. Gandhi might not be a bad choice either. A life filled with purpose and lots of devotion. Although he got shot in the end too, he was 87 at the time. Not bad. Still, all that fasting and chastity might rule him out.

Shakespeare might be a good choice for other reasons. At least you would know if you really wrote those plays or were just a front as some recent commentators (wrongly!) claim.

My personal choice would be the great Richard Burton, despite a hefty downside. Not the actor who married Liz Taylor so many times. I refer to Sir Richard Francis Burton the adventurer, swordsman, historian, explorer, super-linguist, best selling author, primal-anthropologist, Royal Army Captain, translator of Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra, tactician, ground breaking chronicler of sexual habits, secret agent and roving diplomat. I may be understating his achievements, but it’s best to overlook his mediocre poetry and claimed prowess at hypnosis.

Burton was seemingly born with his testosterone pedal permanently floored, his synapses firing in overdrive and his sense of English Victorian entitlement ever present. His parents were relatively well off, enough to cart Richard and his siblings about Europe for most of their youth. There, he and his brother Edward terrorized nannies and tutors, but got a unique education, including picking up a number of languages.

Burton attended Oxford and, like all good English rakes, managed to get himself thrown out, although the reason, his honesty to the college administration about attending a steeplechase, would hardly qualify today. Supposedly, he was happy as hell to leave, and road over their flower gardens blowing on a trumpet on his way out.

Joining the East India Company as an officer at age 21, Burton narrowly missed the slaughter of British troops in Afghanistan which would have ruled out our ever having heard of him. Assigned to Britain’s colony in India, Burton began picking up languages at an sizzling pace from Arabic (some of which he already knew in addition to Greek and Latin) to Hindu to Farsi, among many others, eventually about 40 or so, including dialects, through his life. He also began his own method of self-instruction by taking a local servant as a mistress in order to speak the language as the natives did. Apparently, it worked well.

Already no stranger to scandal (don't forget Oxford), he participated in an Army sting concerning a homosexual brothel frequented by English soldiers. His report, unfortunately released later on, gave some the idea that he participated in the then highly illegal and questionable activities.

Returning to Europe after 8 years in India, he authored his first book on Goa, the Portuguese colony in India. Several other books followed, but none caught on. On official leave, Burton became one of the first and very few Europeans ever to take the Haj and enter the Holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Median disguised as a Afghani doctor in 1853.

The Haj is the duty of every Muslim, if possible, and concerns traveling to Islam’s holiest city, Mecca (the direction in which Muslims still pray). Millions of Muslims make the Haj every year. One who goes on it is ever after known as Hajji as has an exalted place in Muslim culture. Despite his subterfuge, he was respected his whole life by Muslims for his achievement.

Burton’s feat is remarkable, not only for his perfection of the language skills enabling him to pull off the subterfuge, but also for his adept imitation of the rituals, customs and day to day habits of an Islamic doctor.

His mastery of the rudimentary medicine of the time and place is in itself an astonishing feat, but his sheer courage in accomplishing this deception in the face of certain death and likely horrific torture, if caught, is unbelievable. On at least one occasion, he was almost unmasked after using the one European tool he had brought with him. Leaving that aside, even for a genuine Muslim, the travel was fraught with risk, including being killed by bandits, which he almost was. Ironically, the group he was traveling with was helped in defending themselves by Wahabis, the same Islamic traditionalists known for their intolerance, and today associated with the Saudi Arabian monarchy (where, after all, Mecca is located).

Reading A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca & Medina is a rare experience, but it’s not for everyone. I don’t doubt that many people would find it quite boring, as a formidable appetite for things Eastern is required (I’ll give you a sample below). Nevertheless, like all of Burton’s works, it is a virtuoso performance.

The sheer volume of information Burton seemed to be able to accumulate was not just impressive, it seems super-human. That he could learn as much as he did in less than a year, well enough to write an extremely long and fact intensive account with enough scholarship to contest the findings or beliefs of the few earlier travelers who had their written reports, that he could acquire endless amounts of cultural, historical, religious and linguistic minutia (e.g., even the history of the families who were caretakers of various mosques and holy sites), his descriptions of events, names, places, a seemingly innate ability to look through proto-sociological and anthropological lenses, although neither discipline had been invented, make one wonder when he had time to eat, drink, sleep, pray five times a day, and travel. Yet he managed to do this while maintaining his disguise and even running a medical practice. There is no doubt, that after a few months, Burton knew more about the Middle East than most of those who had spent a lifetime there, and perhaps more than any Westerner ever had.

Actually, a heavily edited version of Pilgrimage would be much more interesting to most of us, but we have to keep in mind that his audience’s minds were not filled up with television, movies, music and the internet. Many craved information about the world unknown to them such as only a Burton could provide.

For those who crave Middle Eastern lore or romanticize it, Pilgrimage contains battles with other Hajjis, fights to the death with bandits, fascinating bits of linguistic trivia, a caravan full of strange characters worthy of a modern reality show, and a description of Ramadan (the major Muslim holiday) that imprints itself on your mind.

The trip and his successful publication was enough for a lifetime for most of us, even a magnificent lifetime for one person, but it is just one part of Burton’s tale. Made famous by Pilgrimage, and more easily able to get his way in planning his adventures, Burton became one of the world’s great explorers, fearlessly delving into the African interior. He explored present day Somalia, where he accomplished entering the fabled city of Harar, something no Christian had accomplished before.

In his next trip, he teamed up with John Speke, who would not far in the future become his great nemesis and destroy one of his fondest dreams. While preparing to leave camp, they were set upon by several hundred warriors. Speke was captured but managed to escape. His captors made the same mistake that all bad guys manage to do in modern movies, they tied his hands in front. He clobbered his guard and ran zigzag fashion into the water, dodging a blitz of spears. Burton was less lucky. He was nearly killed when a spear literally went in one side of his face and came out the other. Yet he lived. Burton seemed to have a guardian angel watching over him at all times.

The exploration being a disaster, Burton traveled to the Crimean Peninsula (modern day Ukraine) for the war of the same name. Despite all his experience fighting, he was not to be a war hero or even see any action.. He was limited to training Turkish irregular fighters, which landed him in another scandal, not worth going into here. Returning to Africa, Speke and he again moved into the interior in order to discover the Source of the Nile River, sort of the holy grail of the time.

The two eventually took separate paths when Burton became ill, not an unusual occurrence for any explorer. Burton discovered Lake Tanganyika and Speke, Lake Victoria (of course, "discovering" only as far as Europeans were concerned). Each claimed the lake he discovered as the true source of the Nile. Burton couldn’t take it. Back in England the two, now bitter enemies, engaged in a harsh public debate about who was right.

Finally, years later, this heated discussion led to the scheduling of a real debate at the Royal Geographical Society. It was greatly anticipated, but, in the end, not to be. One day before the debate Speke mystifyingly shot himself to death. It was said to be a hunting accident, but the specter of suicide hung all about it. Burton only learned of it while awaiting Speke to begin the debate and was shaken. Perhaps Speke, suspecting he was wrong, could not bear the dishonor of being proved wrong by Burton after now staking his growing reputation on it. Or perhaps he just feared Burton as a debater. Either way, too bad for him, because it turned out that he was right and Burton wrong. Victoria was the Nile’s source.

Although his trip to Mecca, and his African explorations were probably the peak of his career, Burton was far from through. He was in his young thirties when he went to Mecca and only a few years older when he and Speke discovered the lakes.

Burton eventually became a British consul, which included escaping at least one massacre, traveling and writing. He was most famous for his translation of Arabian Nights (which Burton translated as A Thousand Nights and One Night), various erotica, including the Kama Sutra. Much of his writing was quite shocking to Victorian society and caused his wife (more on her later) more than a little grief. He even came to America just before our Civil War and wrote City of the Saints (referring to the Mormon Salt Lake City), which is also packed with so much information gained on such a short trip, it just boggles the mind (it is really heavy reading – don’t try it at home).

Burton was always an independent thinker, particularly about culture and sex. Aside from the controversy from his publication of Eastern erotica like The Perfumed Garden, Burton argued against British policy to end slavery in Africa. He believed that it was a much different type of arrangement than slavery in America, and necessary for many poverty stricken Africans to survive. Kind of hard to swallow that one nowadays, but Burton was no picnic.

He was also one of the world’s great fencers in an age before professionals, sometimes easily defeating famous instructors despite the little time he spent training. He wrote a treatise on swords (The Book of Swords) and a training manual for using the bayonet, which, at first caused great ire in the military, but was later adopted by them. Supposedly, in exchange for using the book, the military advised him that he was due one shilling for the work, a customary and nominal fee, which he insisted on collecting but then gave to the first beggar he saw.

Burton was married at age 40 to Isabel Arundell, who had been long and ardently devoted to him despite a lopsided relationship. Isabel literally seemed to worship him despite his many faults. Over the years, she obeyed his command to "pay, pack and follow," suffered long absences from him early on, and later traveled with him, defended him, protected and cared for him. Educated and very spiritual, she eventually became quite a successful writer in her own regard. Their marriage was unusual, but admirable.

Queen Victoria named him Sir Richard in 1886. He died four years later and was buried at Mortlake, London within an unusual mausoleum built in the shape of a nomad’s tent. Regrettably, when he died, Isabel burned his papers, in order to protect his reputation from further damage. The loss is heavy.

Here is a taste of Burton, first from his book First Footsteps in East Africa concerning his travels to Harar in Somalia:

"The punishments, when money forms no part of them, are mostly according to Koranic code. The murderer is placed in the market street, blindfolded, and bound hand and foot; the nearest of kin to the deceased then strikes his neck with a sharp and heavy butcher’s knife, and the corpse is given over to the relations for Moslem burial. If the blow prove ineffectual a pardon is generally granted. When a citizen draws dagger upon another or commits any petty offence, he is bastinadoed in a peculiar manner: two men ply their horsewhips upon his back and breast, and the prince, in whose presence the punishment is carried out, gives the order to stop. Theft is visited with amputation of the hand. The prison is the award of state offenders: it is terrible, because the captive is heavily ironed, lies in a filthy dungeon, and receives no food but what he can obtain from his own family,—seldom liberal under such circumstances,—buy or beg from his guards. Fines and confiscations, as usual in the East, are favourite punishments with the ruler."

This one is from Pilgrimage:

"I had scarcely composed myself upon the carpeted Mastabah, when the remainder was suddenly invaded by the Turkish, or rather Slavo-Turk, pilgrims inhabiting the house, and a host of their visitors. They were large, hairy men, with gruff voices and square figures; they did not take the least notice of me, although feeling the intrusion, I stretched out my legs with a provoking nonchalance. At last one of them addressed me in Turkish, to which I replied by shaking my head. His question being interpreted to me in Arabic, I drawled out, "My native place is the land of Khorasan." This provoked a stern and stony stare from the Turks, and an "ugh!" which said plainly enough, "Then you are a pestilent heretic." I surveyed them with a self-satisfied simper, stretched my legs a trifle farther, and conversed with my water-pipe. Presently, when they all departed for a time, the boy Mohammed raised, by request, my green box of medicines, and deposited it upon the Mastabah; thus defining, as it were, a line of demarcation, and asserting my privilege to it before the Turks. Most of these men were of one party, headed by a colonel of Nizam, whom they called a Bey. My acquaintance with them began roughly enough, but afterwards, with some exceptions, who were gruff as an English butcher when accosted by a lean foreigner, they proved to be kind-hearted and not unsociable men. It often happens to the traveller, as the charming Mrs. Malaprop observes, to find intercourse all the better by beginning with a little aversion."

If that rings your bell, you will find a lifetime reading Burton. If not, read one of his biographies which will spare you his mania for facts, and satisfy you with his adventurous life. Books by Burton are still published, particularly Pilgrimage, his translation of the Arabian Nights and some of the erotica. Modern biographies are plentiful. I particularly recommend A Rage to Live: A biography of Richard and Isabel Burton, which focuses on their unusual marriage, and The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography is good too, although not my favorite, but easiest to find.

Getting back to the original premise, would it be worth it to live Burton’s life? Spear through the face, long periods of starvation and physical suffering, near death experiences, public bickering and a controversial life, venereal disease and depression in exchange for the excitement, the scholarship, phenomenal accomplishment, swashbuckling adventures and derring-do. It is hard to think of a more renaissance character than Burton’s or a life more challenging and fulfilling.

For me, the answer is yes? Apparently, he is everything that I would like to be, and the negatives seem bearable phantoms in comparison (although the spear through the face thing, well . . .).

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:16 PM

    Kinda interesting and more than I ever knew existed about Richard Burton. BTW, Beethoven remained sighted until he died. He did however become profoundly deaf.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .