9 November 2007

Byron Farwell - Burton

Sir Richard Burton was one of the most extraordinary men of his, or any age. As an explorer he discovered Lake Tanganyika, as an adventurer he performed the Haj to Medina and Mecca, in disguise and under great peril of discovery, as a linguist he mastered over 25 languages, and as a translator he produced the definitive edition of the Arabian Nights. Yet he never found the acclaim he felt was his due, and suffered professionally due to his arrogance and stubbornness, spending the last part of his career in the backwater of a consulship in Trieste.

There's lots of research material available for a biographer as Burton was immensely prolific, publishing about 25 volumes of travel journals, most of which weren't well written, and didn't sell particularly well. Farwell uses all this material, and much more, and is quite condescending in the appendix about previous biographers who didn't read everything Burton published (although he admits much of it isn't very readable) He plainly has a lot of affection for his subject, while admitting he was not always a very likeable man, and was rather self-destructive in his arrogance.

Burton is most famous now for his translations of the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra - the former was a huge success, partly no doubt because of the sexual content. Farwell deals with that, but, rather like Burton's wife, who burnt much of his diaries and unpublished works after his death, he is a little prudish about the sexual texts, such as the Kama Sutra and the Perfumed Garden, and doesn't much discuss this aspect of Burton's career. Farwell first published this biography in 1962, and he's plainly an old-fashioned colonialist, recognising the bravery and restlessness of Burton, but not his more esoteric tastes.

Burton was very remarkable in many ways, driven by a need to know, and by an unsappable energy, that meant he was always active, learning languages, writing up his trips, planning more trips. For several years he managed to persuade the Army to fund his travels, being nominally an officer in the Indian service; later he joined the Diplomatic Service, in Brazil and Trieste, but spent more time away from his posts than doing his duties, to the frustration of his employers.

Burton's methods were extraordinary - he developed a system that enabled him to learn languages within 2 months each. He would devote himself to vocabulary learning, carrying word lists with him during the day and devoting several hours each day to studying. He would also immerse himself in the culture in a curious way, setting up a market stall in the town bazaar, dressing up as a local, and talking to those around him. He would be able to improve his accent, and find out as much as possible of local customs. Periodically, he would go to Bombay to take the Army language exams, in Punjabi and Gujerati and Hindi and several others, and inevitably come top.

One would imagine that these methods, the languages and his travels would lead him to a particular affinity with the people he studied, as it has with many travel writers, but this appears not to be the case. Burton was a man of his age, an extreme one certainly, but he contained all the prejudices of the Empire to the extreme. While he could no doubt affect sympathy while in disguise, never more so than on his perilous Haj to Mecca and Medina, dressed as an Afghan, he was in reality very dismissive of most non-English. His interests were wide, but the objective was the accumulation and display of knowledge.

He did both in a haphazard way. Supposedly his travel writing was more or less a transcription from his notebooks, in the order that he considered them, and also full of his prejudices, rants and digressions. He made important journeys, particularly in Africa, but didn't have either the nous or inclination for active self-publicity, and the ruthlessness to see the main chance.

Because of this he lost the opportunity to discover Lake Victoria and the long-sought source of the Nile, which Speke, on a diversion from their joint trip to Lake Tanganyika, found and took the credit for. Burton never recovered from this, and bore a lasting grudge against Speke, refusing for many years to believe that Lake Victoria was as big as claimed, or was the source of the Nile. This enmity was typical of Burton, whose 'career' as an explorer ran out of steam relatively early, and who wasn't suited for routine or chains of management. He deserves to be remembered though, as he is, for his translations, of the Arabian Nights and Camoens.

I picked up my edition, a Penguin reprint from the 1990s, secondhand for £2, and it was intermittently inspiring and fascinating. It led me to visit his grave in Mortlake, a tomb in the shape of a tent, erected by his wife, and also including her coffin. Here it is:


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