History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 May 2010

Sir Richard Burton: The Ugly Englishman?

Sir Richard Burton was many things - explorer, linguist, cultural anthropologist, and person of interest in the mid-19th century. He also reveals himself in his “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah” as arrogant, racist, a social snob, and master of disguises.

Burton traveled for the Royal Geographic Society (after browbeating them into submission), and his explorations as delineated in the “Personal Narrative” were to investigate Moslem life in a Moslem country. One wonders why: was it for scientific edification? Or was it to make a name for himself doing the unthinkable: enter Meccah as an Englishman?

Burton first disguised himself as a Persian wanderer, but soon discovered that a Persian is not considered an Arab by either Persians or Arabs. Nevertheless, he sailed to Alexandria and garbed himself in robes and sandals, ostensibly to investigate markets for horses between Central Arabia and India, in actuality to make geographic assessments of watersheds, etc. for the Royal Geographic Society, and to “assess the racial makeup of the ‘Arab family.’”

Naturally, he kept a journal. His studies in Oriental manners came first, and they were surprisingly specific. He received instruction on, for example, how to drink a glass of water:

“With us [English] the operation is simple enough, but his [the Moslem’s) performance includes no fewer than five novelties. In the first place he clutches his tumbler as though it were the throat of a foe; secondly, he ejaculates, ‘In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful!’ before wetting his lips; thirdly, he imbibes the contents, swallowing them, not sipping them as he ought to do, and ending with a satisfied grunt; fourthly, before setting down the cup, he sighs forth, ‘Praise be to Allah!’ ... and fifthly he replies “May Allah make it pleasant to thee!’ in answer to his friend’s polite ‘Pleasurably and health!’ He also avoids the irreligious action of drinking the pure element in a standing position.”

Further instructions included (1) using the right hand exclusively; (2) shaving one’s head and growing a beard; (3) speaking Arabic; (4) reviewing religious practices and the art of prostration; (5) reading the Koran; (6) practicing how to behave in coffee houses, baths, and bazaars, and (7) behaving with good manners in the mosque.

Burton quickly learned that passing himself off as an Arab doctor gained him better acceptance, and this he did with many embarrassingly arrogant revelations about his prejudice about his patients: “Moreover, the practice of physics is comparatively easy amongst dwellers in warm latitudes, uncivilized peoples, where there is not that complication of maladies which troubles more polished nations.”

Thus buoyed by his success, Burton set off on his journey, traveling in disguise. His packing list is astounding: a softwood toothstick; soap; wooden (not horn) comb; 2 changes of clothing; a goatskin waterbag; coarse Persian rug for sleeping and sitting; pillow, blanket, and sheet (which can be used as a tent or a mosquito curtain); sewing items (thread, needles, buttons, cobbler’s wax);
a huge yellow cotton umbrella; dagger; brass inkstand and pen holder; prayer beads; money carried in a cotton purse secured in the breast pocket or in a leather money belt, along with important papers; a pair of saddlebags; medicine chest, with drugs (purchased in Egypt) in tin or wooden boxes, not glass bottles which labels them as “Frankish.”

Methods of securing money varied: gold links covered with leather can be worn as a belt; an even more extreme method is to make a shallow slit in one’s shoulder and hide jewels under the skin!

Thus Burton sets off, as he describes it, “...mounted in a ‘trap’ - a cross between a wheelbarrow and a dogcart, drawn by a kicking, jibbing, biting mule” to his next destination, Cairo.

Burton was not a happy camper. He refers to his trip and stay as “The Comedy of Cairo” and complains in his journal about everything: “The Nile... you see nothing but muddy waters, dusty banks, a sand mist, a milky sky, and a glaring sun; you feel nought but a breeze like the blast from a potter’s furnace.”

The scenery: “...Birds peeped out from among bright green patches of palm-tree, tamarisk, and mimosa, of maize, tobacco, and sugar-cane. Beyond the narrow tongue of land on the river banks lay the glaring, yellow Desert, with its low hills and sand slopes... the chocolate-skinned, blue-robed peasantry; the women carrying progeny on their hips, with the eternal waterpot on the heads; and the men sleeping in the shade or following the plough... The lower animals, like the higher, were the same: gaunt, mange-stained camels, muddy buffaloes, scurvied donkeys, sneaking jackals and fox-like dogs.”

One has to admit his descriptions are wonderfully visual!

Burton then took the name Hakim Abdullah, an Indian name for an Afghan male, and continued his adventures as a doctor in a land where poisoning was common.

Further episodes to come in later blogs.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Around the Victorian era, many more Europeans were traveling, both men and women. They were exposed to many different cultures and societies. Some were open minded enough to observe well and judge honestly. Others viewed the world from their perch of European superiority. It often makes for interesting reading, but need to be taken for what it is.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've always found Sir Richard Burton fascinating. Have you ever seen Mountains on the Moon Lynna?

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Lynna Banning said...

Elizabeth, No I've not seen Mountains on the Moon. What is it?

10:04 AM  
Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

Lynna - you and I have such similar interests. There are many books contained in his life - and I don't just mean the ones he wrote!

12:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Lynna! I've seen Mountains on the Moon, Elizabeth. Lynna, it's a film about Burton and Speke. There was also a great British series about the search for the Nile back in the 70s in which Burton was an important character.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Thanks for this marvelously detailed post, Lynna! I've always been fascinated by Burton, though I know little of his background other than being credited with translating the Kama Sutra into English. I have seen "Mountains on the Moon" (I've been a big Patrick Bergin fan for years!)

11:33 AM  

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