Let in the Djinns

Maya Jasanoff

  • The Highly Civilised Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World by Dane Kennedy
    Harvard, 354 pp, £17.95, September 2005, ISBN 0 674 01862 1

Trieste, it has been said, is a nowhere of sorts: unreal, isolated, out of time, attractive to exiles, unknown to almost everybody else. So it was an apt city to serve as the final home of a man regarded as one of the most unreal, isolated and timeless figures of the Victorian era. Richard Burton arrived in the Adriatic port in 1873 as Britain’s consul. He had pretty much seen everything. He had visited sacred centres from Benares to Salt Lake City, with a pilgrimage to Mecca in between; he had trekked thousands of miles into central Africa and out, seeking the source of the Nile; he had mastered swordsmanship in numerous styles and learned falconry in Sindh; he had lived in Brazil and visited war-torn Paraguay, hunted for gold in West Africa, and surveyed Icelandic sulphur reserves. He had published some twenty books and could chatter freely in at least two dozen languages. No wonder this ‘nowhere’ seemed to hold nothing for him. He was bored and in physical decline; his requests for a transfer or early retirement were denied. There was nothing for it, he realised, but to let in the djinns. Burton began translating Arabic stories he had long loved, hundreds of them. His pages swelled with rocs, afreets, talking fish, wonderful lamps, wizards, eunuchs and stallions from the sea. His encyclopedic store of memories poured into explanatory notes on the shape of bottles in Egypt, the style of beards in Persia, on twig toothbrushes, ant attacks, preparations of ambergris and opium – and, most copiously, detailed varieties of sexual technique. If for nothing else, the world should remember Trieste for the 16-volume Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885-88), Burton’s literary triumph, and a vast exercise in vicarious thrills.

His translations of the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra (1883), together with his celebrated explorations in Arabia and Africa, have made Burton a familiar historical character. The greatest achievement of Dane Kennedy’s stimulating, elegant book is to reveal a fresh and different Burton. Kennedy begins with an arresting photograph. Burton huddles in a blanket on a floor, leaning his tousled head against a wall, glowering into the camera. He looks hunted, defensive, homeless. Beneath the curious image he wrote an even more curious caption: ‘the highly civilised man’. At first the remark seems sarcastic, but might he have meant more? Could this apparent misfit be understood in the context of his self-consciously ‘civilised’ age? The Highly Civilised Man treats Burton as an authentic product of his times rather than a flamboyant exception to them. The result is a clever intellectual history, structured around the chief guises – Orientalist, impersonator, explorer, racist, sexologist – adopted by Burton during his improbable career.

Burton often likened himself to a Gypsy, which was hardly a surprise given that he was more or less raised as one, moving south with his parents through the expatriate enclaves of France and Italy, as they searched out congenial climates. The one effort to send Richard and his brother to school in England turned into a Dickensian nightmare for the boys, and the family swiftly returned to France. Burton spent his adolescence on the Continent, flirting with juvenile delinquency. By the time he turned up as a freshman at Oxford, sporting a ‘splendid moustache’ that shocked his envious peers, he was a skilled fencer, sexually precocious and able to curse in every dialect spoken from Lyon to Naples. He immediately set about getting himself expelled, and took ship for India in 1842 as an ensign in the East India Company army.

Burton’s fame as an Orientalist rests chiefly on his 1880s translations. But he earned his spurs forty years earlier when, as Kennedy demonstrates, he became an ‘exemplary agent of the colonial state’. Burton fitted into a long line of officer-Orientalists. With no wars forthcoming, his best path to promotion was language study, which was actively encouraged by the army. In just five years, he passed government exams in Hindustani, Gujarati, Marathi, Persian, Sindhi and Punjabi. His abilities also earned him a place in the Sindh Survey, where he cultivated his ethnographic skills – and his penchant for non-Western dress and fraternising with the locals. His methods may have appeared extreme, but they earned tacit approval from the East India Company, which sponsored Burton’s later voyages in disguise in Arabia and East Africa.

Burton made much of his intimacy with Indians, and was called a ‘white nigger’ by some of his peers. In his provocative ‘Terminal Essay’ to the Arabian Nights he revealed what is now the most notorious feature of his Indian career: his commission to investigate the male brothels of Karachi. Burton claimed that his report – never yet found – betrayed a suspicious familiarity with the services on offer, and was used by his enemies to stymie his progress. But, Kennedy reminds us, as with virtually every other detail about Burton’s Indian persona, Burton himself is our only source. Such revelations say more about his desire to be seen as transgressive than whether he actually was. Burton has been celebrated as a proto-hippie, high on bhang, searching for enlightenment with Sufi mystics. This streak of ‘look at me, I’m different’ suggests more a present-day ‘traveller’, heading east to be unique with a Lonely Planet guide and a Moleskine notebook in his pack.

It was disguise that made Burton famous. Dressed as ‘Sheikh Abdullah’, a Sufi and a doctor, Burton set out from Egypt in 1853 to undertake the hajj to Mecca. He was not the first Christian in disguise to enter the holy city, but his description of the journey, A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Medina and Mecca (1855-56), was the most detailed account yet published. For Burton, disguise was far more a performance than a veil. Indeed, Kennedy observes, this elaborate piece of acting was largely unnecessary: Burton could easily have entered Mecca posing as a British convert to Islam, and there is ample reason to suspect that his falsehoods were detected. The impersonation may have been for the benefit of his British audience, who might otherwise have suspected him of being a genuine convert.

Burton’s success at Mecca encouraged him to take up another quest: locating the source of the White Nile. This was the holy grail of Victorian exploration, and Burton’s ultimately unlucky search would cement his reputation for both better and worse. An initial foray into East Africa in 1855 – where he became the first European to enter the Ethiopian city of Harar – had ended in disaster, when his camp was ambushed. One of his three companions was killed; another, John Hanning Speke, was badly wounded; Burton himself was pierced through the cheek with a javelin. Undaunted, he set off the following year to find the ‘Great Lakes’ of eastern central Africa in which he believed the river began. Travelling in blackface was taking disguise too far, so he cultivated instead the persona of a man of science, armed with six thermometers, five compasses, two chronometers, two sextants, one mountain barometer, a pocket pedometer, a telescope, a sundial, and a rain gauge – among other things – many of which were promptly broken, stolen or lost. He also, notoriously, brought with him his Harar colleague Speke.

They could have complemented one another wonderfully: Burton the shape-shifter, using his polyglot talents to acquire cultural knowledge; phlegmatic Speke, an avid hunter and country squire, doggedly collecting scientific data. Instead, they clashed. (Alan Moorhead, in The White Nile, portrays them as mismatched a pair as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.) They got sick, they got waylaid, they got on each other’s nerves. In February 1858, they at last reached one of the lakes that promised to be the Nile’s source, Lake Tanganyika. While Burton, paralysed by malaria, recuperated in the Arab slave-traders’ settlement of Kazeh, Speke hiked off to verify reports of another great lake, 16 days’ march to the north. He ‘discovered’ (and named) Lake Victoria and returned to Kazeh trumpeting that it was the real source of the Nile. Given that Speke had spent all of three days at the lake’s southern shore, and saw no sign of an outlet, Burton was understandably sceptical. Speke would later criticise Burton’s lack of ‘observing’ skills on the journey, and his inability to do ‘anything but’ make ‘ethnological remarks’. Burton, for his part, would challenge Speke’s solo discoveries on the grounds that he conducted all his inquiries through an interpreter with whom he spoke pidgin Hindustani. Both men’s aspersions were justified.

The pair, at times so ill each had to be carried, undertook the arduous five-month voyage back to the coast barely able to tolerate one another. They parted ways at last at Aden, where Speke promised to hold off on reporting their discoveries in Britain until Burton returned. Burton arrived home a few weeks after Speke, to find that his rival had claimed credit for everything and was being hailed as the discoverer of the Nile’s source. Lavishly supported by sponsors for another expedition, Speke ventured back to the lakes in 1860, this time trailed by a devoted acolyte. Burton, perhaps in something of a sulk, breached a different wild place: the American West, where he looked forward to ‘a little Indian fighting’ and headed straight for the Mormon ‘Mecca’ of Salt Lake City – a polygamous desert utopia not so different, he suggested, from the Arab societies he admired. But the Nile did not die. Speke’s second voyage was spent suffering from fever, and his greatest discovery – Ripon Falls, gushing from the northern end of Lake Victoria – was again undermined by the lack of a (white) witness. In September 1864, the entrepreneurial president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Murchison, organised a public debate between Burton and Speke on the Nile question. The day before the event, and a few hours after seeing Burton for the first time in five years, Speke shot himself while hunting. It may have been an accident, but many said it was suicide, prompted by fear of being publicly bested by Burton.

The Burton-Speke controversy has proved irresistible for historians (and Hollywood), and is the best-known of Burton’s escapades. As if to deflate what others have overblown, Kennedy has remarkably little to say about it, which leaves his portrayal of Burton as an explorer disappointingly bloodless. But he uncovers less familiar aspects of Burton’s adventures: he shows, for example, how Burton’s exploring career degenerated into mineral prospecting in Iceland, Brazil and the Gold Coast, undertaken on behalf of corporate sponsors, or in pursuit of his own chimerical get-rich-quick schemes. To this extent Burton was not only a product of his times, he was an unlovely portent of our own resource-obsessed relationship with the remaining wildernesses of the world. Burton the explorer also had alarming – if, as Kennedy is quick to show, typically mid-Victorian – views on race, bolstering his sense of white racial superiority with his scientific methods. Yet it was precisely these racist convictions, Kennedy argues, that allowed Burton to ‘gain purchase on cultural relativism’ and adopt what in other contexts appear to be strikingly tolerant attitudes toward difference.

Shortly before his Nile expedition, Burton had become secretly engaged to Isabel Arundell, the daughter of an impoverished Catholic aristocratic family – an outsider-insider of a kind that must have particularly appealed to him. Isabel had been transfixed by Burton ever since a brief meeting in Boulogne in 1850; his marriage proposal, in 1856, crowned six years of quasi-adolescent fantasising, though it would be another five before the ceremony. (Their relationship has merited an illuminating book in its own right – Mary Lovell’s A Rage to Live, published in 1998.) Marriage had a tangible effect on Burton: he entered the consular service so that he could adequately support his new wife. He hoped to be posted to Damascus. Instead, he got Fernando Pó.

You wouldn’t find Fernando Pó on a map, even if you knew where to look for it. Now called Bioko, this island off the West African coast forms part of the modest Republic of Equatorial Guinea. Then, it was a Spanish territory leased to Britain as a base for its anti-slave-trade squadrons. To Burton, it was ‘the very abomination of desolation’. He sailed there seven months after his marriage, alone, insisting it was too dangerously disease-ridden for even his intrepid spouse. (Isabel had learned fencing ‘to defend Richard when he and I are attacked in the wilderness together’.) Thus began a thirty-year career in diplomacy, in which Burton served as consul in Santos in Brazil, Damascus and Trieste. These were hardly plum appointments. In the best of them, Damascus, Burton completely mismanaged the region’s competing interests, was promptly recalled and almost dismissed from the service altogether. Kennedy does not, alas, include a chapter on Burton as diplomat, instead mostly treating his postings as occasions for further travel and literary activities. To be sure, this is partly how Burton himself seemed to regard his ‘long years of official banishment’. Nevertheless, it is worth pausing over the fact that for most of his adult life this professed contrarian acted, however nominally, as the queen’s representative – more fodder for Kennedy’s portrayal of Burton as an almost mainstream man.

Burton had by this time become a noted and prolific writer, with more than 15 travel books to his name, as well as works on fencing, falconry and folklore. The consulate of Trieste, which he held from 1873 to his death in 1890, offered a sinecure such as most writers dream of: £600 a year with almost nothing to do. Though he complained of ‘dull and commonplace’ consular duties, Burton took full advantage of his free time. Much of his reputation as a cultural agent provocateur derives from his burgeoning literary production of these years, in which his cultural relativism and his desire to shock both peaked. He had earlier aired controversial views in the satirical poem Stone Talk (1865), a critique of British society that Isabel found so mortifyingly irreverent she bought as many copies as possible and burned them. (Her more infamous bonfire took place just after Burton’s death, when she destroyed an important manuscript translation, and was accused of torching his intimate private diaries.) In the mock-Oriental epic poem The Kasîdah (1880), Burton delivered himself of the opinion that ‘there is no God.’ And that ‘there is no Good, there is no Bad.’ It is hard to get more relativist than that.

It was also in Trieste that he embarked on a systematic scheme to translate Eastern erotica. It constituted, in Kennedy’s phrase, a ‘personal campaign against the forces of moral purity’. Together with an old associate from India days – and probably with funding from his close friend Richard Monckton Milnes, a noted writer, host and politician – Burton established the fictional ‘Kama Shastra Society’ of London and Benares (headquarters in the fictional city of Cosmopoli) as a way of sidestepping British anti-obscenity laws. Under its head, he brought out translations of the Kama Sutra in 1883, of a medieval Sanskrit sex manual in 1885, and of an Arabic erotic text, The Perfumed Garden, in 1886. The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night added to this repertoire not only with its explicit translation and footnotes, but with Burton’s concluding meditations on female sexuality and ‘pederasty’. The work was a smash hit.

You would have only to glance at Burton in these twilight years – the scar fainter now, perhaps; the signature moustache dyed black; his Triestine palazzo packed with Arab souvenirs; his health waning; his mind crowded with ethnographic trivia – to understand why he, more than anyone since Byron, lends himself so enthusiastically to romanticisation. Kennedy means to demystify a character who has become a poster-boy for idiosyncrasy. You will find only brief mention of Burton’s engaging exploits here – for these, Fawn Brodie’s The Devil Drives (1967) remains peerless. That said, Kennedy supplies something that yet another biography could not: he gives us a reason, beyond fascination, to care about Burton, as a figure of real intellectual substance. By underscoring Burton’s ‘larger epistemological quest to understand, explain and classify difference’, Kennedy revives him as a subject for historians and anthropologists. This Burton definitely looks different when fitted squarely back into the Victorian world: less attractively countercultural, more disturbingly dated, at least as derivative as he was novel. (One might uncharitably point out that Burton was a soldier who never fought, a diplomat who never shaped policy, an explorer whose discoveries were compromised, an impersonator whose disguises were unnecessary – and, according to some, a sexologist who felt distinctly ambivalent about his sexuality.)

Kennedy also raises a grander and more tantalising question. How different does the Victorian world look when you see Burton as its natural product? Historical scholarship on the Victorians and their empire is now dwarfed by academic and popular enthusiasm for their apparently more open-minded and stylish Georgian predecessors. This trend is ripe for reversal. As The Highly Civilised Man makes clear, Burton invites a revisiting of the Victorian world.

Take sex, everybody’s favourite punch-bag. Was Burton attracted to Speke? Was he a good lover? Was he impotent? And what did he do with the boys in the Karachi brothels? In looking at Burton as a sexologist, Kennedy – here at his most even-handed – emphasises his participation in the wider bohemian movements of the late Victorian era. His circle included Algernon Swinburne, a fellow member of Burton’s bizarre private dining society, the Cannibal Club; the homosexual icon John Addington Symonds; and the eclectic Monckton Milnes, famed for his extensive pornographic library. A vital argument of Kennedy’s work is that we are too quick to embrace Burton and his kind as pioneers of a 1960s-style counterculture, kaftans and all, when in fact they belonged to a venerable tradition of genteel Orientalist pornographers; among the first pieces of Hindu sculpture brought to Britain were erotic friezes collected by the antiquarian Charles Townley in the 1780s. This was a society in which it was possible to espouse radical beliefs and habits in some domains, while upholding conventional moral principles in others. You won’t understand Victorian attitudes to sex unless you note not only how scandalous Burton’s Arabian Nights was, but that it sold out immediately.

Or consider Burton’s relationship to empire. He is often taken to be a typical figure of high imperial Britain (and a typical racist and anti-semite), and without question many of his explorations – supported at times by the Foreign Office and the East India Company – paved the way for an extension of British imperial influence. Yet it is worth stressing that Burton’s formal engagement with the British Empire remained largely limited to his early years in pre-Mutiny India. His encounters with difference began, significantly, with the French and Italian Catholic societies in which he immersed himself as a boy, whenever he could slip away from his parents’ priggish English set. The Continental influence shines through in that self-characterisation as a Gypsy, the outcast of Europe. Burton spent his diplomatic career in the shadow of other European empires – Spanish, Portuguese and Habsburg – and developed his thoughts on race and culture in settings outside the reach of British power. The renaissance of British imperial history, stimulating though it is, has tended to subsume all treatments of Britain in the world under that heading. But the Victorian world in which Burton moved was, Kennedy rightly stresses, ‘genuinely transnational and transcultural’. It invites historians to look well beyond the empire, to consider Britain’s relationship with Europe and other parts of the globe.

His death, in October 1890, launched a final impersonation. Isabel pulled out all the Catholic stops for her emphatically non-Catholic husband: last rites, a series of masses in Trieste, burial in the Catholic cemetery in Mortlake. She interred him in a stone re-creation of a Bedouin tent, with lanterns and strings of camel bells above the coffin. Madame Tussaud’s, meanwhile, promptly moulded a wax Burton, dolled up in his Meccan robes, thus confirming his status as the nation’s favourite nonconformist. Burton, once colourful, had become kitsch.