The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter IX

Home Again


Home! there is magic in that little word;

It is a mystic circle that surrounds

Pleasures and comforts never known beyond

Its hallowed limits.

Isabel did not remain long at Santos. At the end of October she went up to Rio to gain news of her husband, of whom she had heard nothing since they parted at Roça Grande nearly four months before, when he started in his canoe down the Rio São Francisco. As he did not return, she was naturally anxious. She wrote to her mother:

“I have come down to Rio to meet Richard. The English steamer from Bahia came in on November 1. I was in a great state of joyful excitement; went on board in a man-of-war’s boat. But, as once before when I went to Liverpool, Richard was not there, nor was there any letter or anything. I am very uneasy, and unless within two or three weeks some news comes I shall start to Bahia by steamer, change for the small one to Penedo Alagoas, and thence to a tiny one just put on from Penedo up the river to the falls, which are scarcely known yet [Paulo Affonso Falls, the Niagara of Brazil]. Here my difficulties would be great, as I should have to buy mules and ride round an unnavigable port and then canoe up. I fear Richard is ill, or taken prisoner, or has his money stolen. He always would carry gigantic sums in his pockets, hanging half out; and he only has four slaves with him, and has to sleep amongst them. I am not afraid of anything except the wild Indians, fever, ague, and a vicious fish which can be easily avoided; there are no other dangers. However, I trust that news may soon come. I cannot remain here so long by myself as another month. I had a narrow escape bathing the day before yesterday. What I thought was a big piece of seaweed was a ground shark a few yards from me; but it receded instead of coming at me. I shall feel rather shy of the water in future.”

As the steamers came in from Bahia Isabel went on board them one after another in the hope of greeting her husband; but still he did not come. At last, when she had made herself quite ill with anxiety, and when she had fully determined to start in search of him, he turned up unexpectedly — of course by the one steamer which she did not meet — and he was quite angry that she had not come on board to greet him. After telling her all his adventures while canoeing down the river (which have been fully described elsewhere 24), they went down to Santos.

They moved about between Santos and São Paulo for the next four months, until, in April, 1868, Burton broke down. The climate at last proved too much even for his iron frame, and he had a very severe illness; how severe it was may be gathered from the following letter:

“My Dearest Mother,

“I have been in the greatest trouble since I last wrote. You may remember Richard was very ill with a pain in the side. At last he took to incessant paroxysms of screaming, and seemed to be dying, and I knew not what to do. Fortunately a doctor came from Rio on the eighth day of his illness. I sent at once to him, and he kindly took up his quarters in our house. On hearing my account, and examining Richard, he said he did not know if he could save him, but would do his best. He put twelve leeches on, and cupped him on the right breast, lanced him in thirty-eight places, and put on a powerful blister on the whole of that side. He lost an immense deal of black clotted blood. It would be impossible to detail all we have gone through. This is the tenth day the doctor has had him in hand, and the seventeenth of his illness. Suffice it to say that the remedies have been legion, and there has been something to do every quarter of an hour day and night. For three days the doctor was uncertain if he could live. The disease is one that grows upon you unconsciously, and you only know it when it knocks you down. It was congestion of the liver, combined with inflammation of the lung, where they join. The agony was fearful, and poor Richard could not move hand or foot, nor speak, swallow, or breathe without a paroxysm of pain that made him scream for a quarter of an hour. When I thought he was dying, I took the scapulars and some holy water, and I said, ‘The doctor has tried all his remedies; now let me try one of mine.’ I put some holy water on his head, and knelt down and said some prayers, and put on the blessed scapulars. He had not been able to raise his head for days to have the pillow turned, but he raised it of his own accord sufficiently to let the string pass under his head, and had no pain. It was a silent consent. He was quite still for about an hour, and then he said in a whisper, ‘Zoo, I think I’m a little better.’ From then to now he slowly and painfully got better, and has never had a bad paroxysm since. Day and night I have watched by his bed for seventeen days and nights, and I begin to feel very nervous, as I am quite alone; he won’t let any one do anything for him but me. Now, however, thank God! all the symptoms are disappearing; he is out of danger; he can speak better, swallow, and turn a little in bed with my help. To-day I got him up in a chair for half an hour for the first time, and he has had chicken broth. For fifteen days nothing passed his lips but medicine. He is awfully thin and grey, and looks about sixty. He is quite gaunt, and it is sad to look at him. The worst of it is that I’m afraid that his lungs will never be quite right again. He can’t get the affected lung well at all. His breathing is still impeded, and he has a twinge in it. He cannot go to England because of the cold; but if he is well enough in three months from this to spare me, I am to go and remain till Easter. He has given up his expedition (I am afraid he will never make another), but will take a quiet trip down to the River Plata and Paraguay (a civilized trip). My servants have all been very kind and attentive, and our doctor excellent, and the neighbours have all shown the greatest kindness and sympathy. I have not been out of the house for ages, but I believe there have been all sorts of religious fêtes going on, and our poor old bishop has died and was buried with great pomp. I tried to go out in the garden yesterday, but I nearly fainted, and had to come back. Don’t mention my fatigue or health in writing back.”

Burton recovered slowly. His illness, however, had the effect of disgusting him with Brazil, and of making him decide to throw up his consulate, a thing he had long been wishing to do, if a favourable opportunity presented itself. The present was a decidedly unfavourable opportunity, but nevertheless he came to the conclusion that he could not stand Brazil any longer. “It had given him his illness; it was far from the world; it was no advancement; it led to nothing.” He had been there three years, and he wanted to be on the move again.

His slightest wish was his wife’s law. Though she was in a way sorry, for São Paulo had been the only home she had ever enjoyed with her husband so far, she at once set to work to carry out his desire. She sold up everything at São Paulo. Burton applied to the Foreign Office for leave; and that obtained, they went down to Santos together. Here it was decided that they should part for a time. He was to go to the Pacific coast for a trip, and return by way of the Straits of Magellan, Buenos Ayres, and Rio to London. Isabel was to go direct to London, see if she could not induce the Foreign Office to give him another post, transact certain business concerning mines and company promoters, arrange for the publication of certain books, and await the arrival of her husband.

While they were at Santos Isabel wrote the following letter to her mother:

“The Coast Near Santos, June 16, 1868.

“In this country, if you are well, all right; but the moment you are ailing, lie down and die, for it is no use trying to live. I kept Richard alive by never taking my eyes off him for eight weeks, and perpetually standing at the bedside with one thing or another. But who in a general way will get any one to do that for them? I would now like to pass to something more cheerful.

“The first regatta ever known took place at Santos last Sunday for all nations — English, American, French, German, Portuguese, and Brazilian, and native caiques: English and American in white flannel and black belts; German scarlet; French, blue; Portuguese white with blue belts and caps; Brazilians, like parrots, in national costume, all green, with yellow fixings and scarlet caps. Our boat was of course expected to win. It was manned by four railway clerks, who had ordered a big supper on the strength of the winnings; but, poor things! they had such weak arms, and they boasted and talked so much, that they were exhausted before they started. The ‘English ladies’ (?) objected to their rowing in jerseys, as improper! And they did not know how to feather their oars (had perhaps never heard of it), so they came in last. The Portuguese, who stepped quietly into their boat without a word, came in first, Brazil second, German third, and the three big nations, French, American, and English, last. We last by half a boat’s length! Tremendous fighting and quarrelling ensued, red and angry faces, and ‘bargee’ language. I am very glad; it will produce a good feeling on the Brazilian side, a general emulation, and take our English snobs down a peg, which they sadly want. The native caiques were really pretty — black men with paddles standing upright, and all moving together like a machine.

“I leave São Paulo on the 31st, Santos on the 1st, Rio on the 9th, and will reach home early in September. I could not stay here any longer without a change. I think you had better leave town for your country change now, as I cannot leave London earlier than the middle of October. All my wealth depends on my editing a book and a poem of Richard’s and two things of my own for the October press; and, moreover, I am grown so fat and coarse and vulgar I must brush myself up in town a little before appearing, and I have no clothes, and I am sure you will faint when you see my complexion and my hands. So try and start early out of town, and return early. I can join in any fun in October. I got your little note from Cossy. I dare say the woods are very nice; but I think if you saw the virgin forests of South America in which I am now sitting alone, far from any human creature, with gaudy butterflies and birds fluttering around me, big vegetation, and a shark playing in the boiling green sea, which washes up to my feet, and the bold mountain background on a very blue sky, the thick foliage covered with wild flowers and creepers such as no hothouse in England could grow, arum leaves, one alone bigger than me, which shade me from the burning sun, the distant clatter of monkeys, the aromatic smells and mysterious whisperings of the forest, you would own that even the Cossy woods were tame; for to be thoroughly alone thus with Nature is glorious. Chico is cooking a mysterious mess in a gypsy kettle for me; my pony is browsing near; and I, your affectionate child, am sitting in a short petticoat and jacket, bare-legged to the knees, writing to you and others to catch the next mail.

“Richard starts with me, and turns the opposite way from Rio. He goes viâ Rosario, Rio Grande do Sul, Buenos Ayres, Monte Video, the Plata River, and Paraguay, to see the war. A voyage de luxe for him, for these places are all within writing latitudes and some little civilization.”

On July 24 Isabel embarked for London, and arrived at Southampton on September 1, after a rough voyage. Her mother and two of her sisters came down to Southampton to meet her; and great was the joy of their meeting.

As soon as Isabel had settled down at home she turned to her work, and good luck attended her. She carried through all her husband’s mining business, and arranged for the publication of his books, notably for the one he had just written on The Highlands of Brazil. As it was to be brought out at once, she was also commissioned to correct and pass the proofs for press. She did so; but as the book contained certain things of which she did not approve, she inserted the following preface in the book by way of protest. It is quoted in full, because it illustrates a much-vexed question — the attitude which she adopted towards her husband’s writings. Her action in these matters has called down upon her the fiercest criticism; but this brief preface shows that her views were consistent throughout, and her husband was fully aware of them when he left her his sole literary executor.

Before the reader dives into the interior of Brazil with my husband as a medium, let me address two words to him.

I have returned home, on six months’ leave of absence, after three years in Brazil. One of the many commissions I am to execute for Captain Burton is to see the following pages through the press.

Lady Burton in 1869

It has been my privilege, during those three years, to have been his almost constant companion; and I consider that to travel, write, read, and study under such a master is no small boon to any one desirous of seeing and learning.

Although he frequently informs me, in a certain oriental way, that “the Moslem can permit no equality with women,” yet he has chosen me, his pupil, for this distinction, in preference to a more competent stranger.

As long as there is anything difficult to do, a risk to be incurred, or any chance of improving the mind and of educating oneself, I am a very faithful disciple; but I now begin to feel that, while he and his readers are old friends; I am humbly standing unknown in the shadow of his glory. It is therefore time for me respectfully but firmly to assert that although I proudly accept of the trust confided to me, and pledge myself not to avail myself of my discretionary powers to alter one word of the original text, I protest vehemently against his religious and moral sentiments, which belie a good and chivalrous life. I point the finger of indignation particularly at what misrepresents our Holy Roman Catholic Church, and at what upholds that unnatural and repulsive law, Polygamy, which the Author is careful not to practise himself, but from a high moral pedestal he preaches to the ignorant as a means of population in young countries.

I am compelled to differ with him on many other subjects; but, be it understood, not in the common spirit of domestic jar, but with a mutual agreement to differ and enjoy our differences, whence points of interest never flag.

Having now justified myself, and given a friendly warning to a fair or gentle reader — the rest must take care of themselves — I leave him or her to steer through these anthropological sandbanks and hidden rocks as best he or she may.

Isabel’s greatest achievement at this time was the obtaining for her husband the long-coveted Consulship of Damascus from Lord Stanley, who was an old friend and neighbour of her uncle, Lord Gerard. Lord Stanley (afterwards Lord Derby) was then Foreign Secretary in Disraeli’s brief first Administration. He was a friend of the Burtons, and had a high opinion of them both. To him Isabel repaired, and brought the whole of her eloquence and influence to bear: no light thing, as Burton’s enemies — and he had many — guessing what she was after, endeavoured to influence the Foreign Secretary by representing that his appointment would be unpopular, both with the Moslems and the Christian missionaries in Syria. In Lord Stanley’s opinion, however, Burton was the man for the post, and he appointed him Consul of Damascus, with a salary of £1,000 a year. Isabel telegraphed and wrote the glad news; but neither her letter nor her telegram reached her husband, who was then roving about South America. Burton heard the news of his appointment accidentally in a café at Lucca. He telegraphed at once accepting it, and started for England.

In the meantime there had been a change of Government, and Lord Clarendon succeeded Lord Stanley at the Foreign Office. Burton’s enemies renewed their opposition to his appointment, and besought Lord Clarendon to cancel it. Isabel, whose vigilance never slumbered for one moment, got wind of this, and immediately dispatched copies of the following letter to her husband at Rio, Buenos Ayres, and Valparaiso:

“London, January 7, 1869.

“My Darling,

“If you get this, come home at once by shortest way. Telegraph from Lisbon and Southampton, and I will meet you at latter and have all snug.

“Strictly private. The new Government have tried to upset some of the appointments made by the last. There is no little jealousy about yours. Others wanted it even at £700 a year, and were refused. Lord Stanley thinks, and so do I, that you may as well be on the ground as soon as possible.

“Your faithful and attached wife."

Burton did not receive this letter, as he had already started for home with all speed. His wife met him at Southampton. Burton went to the Foreign Office, and had a long interview with Lord Clarendon, who told him that the objections to his appointment at Damascus were “very serious.” Burton assured Lord Clarendon that the objections raised were unfounded. Lord Clarendon then let the appointment go forward, though he plainly warned Burton that, if the feeling stated to exist against him at Damascus should prevent the proper performance of his official duties, he would immediately recall him. It is necessary to call attention to this, as it has a direct bearing on the vexed question of Burton’s recall two years later.

No shadow of that untoward event, however, dimmed the brightness of Burton’s prospects just now. He gave an assurance that he would act with “unusual prudence” and it was hinted that if he succeeded at Damascus he might eventually get Morocco or Teheran or Constantinople. Isabel writes: “We were, in fact, at the zenith of our career.” She might well think so, for they were basking in the unaccustomed light of the official favour; they received a most enthusiastic welcome from their friends, and were dined and fêted everywhere. The new year (1869) opened most auspiciously for them.

They spent the spring in London and in paying a round of visits to many friends. Later they crossed over to Boulogne, and visited the old haunts where they met for the first time eighteen years before.

Burton’s leave was now running short, and the time was drawing near when he was due at Damascus. He decided to go to Vichy and take a month’s course of the waters, and then proceed viâ Brindisi to Damascus. His wife was to come out to Damascus later. At Boulogne therefore they parted; he went to Vichy, and she was to return to London and carry out the usual plan of “pay, pack, and follow.”

Isabel went round by way of Paris, and then she began to feel unhappy at being separated from her husband, and to want to join him at Vichy. “I did not see why I could not have the month there with him, and make up double-quick time after.” So instead of returning to London, she started off for Vichy, and spent the month there with her husband. Algernon Swinburne and Frederick Leighton (both great friends of the Burtons) were there also, and they made many excursions together. When Burton’s “cure” was at an end, his wife accompanied him as far as Turin. Here they parted, he going to catch the P. & O. at Brindisi, en route for Damascus, and she returning to London to arrange and settle everything for a long sojourn in the East.

She was in England for some weeks (the autumn of 1869), and up to her eyes in work. She had to see a great many publishers for one thing, and for another she was busy in every way preparing herself for Damascus. She went down to Essex to see the tube-wells worked, and mastered the detail of them, as Burton was anxious, if possible, to produce water in the desert. She also took lessons in taking off wheels and axles, oiling and putting them on again; and lessons in taking her own guns and pistols to pieces, cleaning and putting them together again. Then she had to buy a heap of useful and necessary things to stock the house at Damascus with. One of her purchases almost rivalled her famous “jungle suit.” She invested in a pony-carriage, a thing unheard of in Syria; and her uncle, Lord Gerard, also made her a present of an old family chariot. This tickled the late Lord Houghton immensely, and he made so many jokes about “Isabel driving through the desert in a chariot drawn by camels” that she left it. But she took out the pony-carriage; and as there was only one road in the country, she found it useless, though she was lucky enough to sell it to some one at Damascus, who bought it not for use, but as a curio.

Other work of a different nature also came to her hand, the work of vindicating her husband and defending his position. At a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, at which she was present, Sir Roderick Murchison, who was in the chair, spoke of “Central or Equatorial Africa, in which lie those great water-basins which, thanks to the labours of Speke, Grant, and Baker, are known to feed the Nile.” After the meeting was over she went up to Sir Roderick and asked him why Burton had not been mentioned with the others. He replied it was an oversight, and he would see that it was rectified in the reports to the press. It was not. So she wrote to The Times, protesting against the omission of her husband’s name, and to The Athenæum. These letters have been published in her Life of Sir Richard. But the following letter from Sir Roderick Murchison, called forth by her letter to The Times, and her reply thereto, have not been published:

“My Dear Mrs. Burton,

“I regret that you did not call on me as you proposed, instead of making your complaint in The Times.

“No change in the wording of the address could have been made when you appealed to me; for the printed article was in the hands of several reporters.

“Nor can I, in looking at the address (as now before me), see why you should be offended at my speaking of ‘the great Lake Tanganyika, first visited by Burton and Speke.’

“My little opening address was not a history of all African discoveries; and if you will only refer to the twenty-ninth volume of The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (1859), you will see how, in presenting the medal to your husband as the chief of the East African Expedition, I strove to do him all justice for his successful and bold explorations. But I was under the necessity of coupling Speke with Burton as joint discoverers of the Lake Tanganyika, inasmuch as they both worked together until prostrated by illness; and whilst your husband was blind or almost so, Speke made all the astronomical observations which fixed the real position of places near the lake.

“Thus your husband, in his reply to me after receiving the medal, says, ‘Whilst I undertook the history, ethnography, the languages and peculiarities of the people, to Captain Speke fell the arduous task of delineating the exact topography and of laying down our positions by astronomical observations, a labour to which at times even the undaunted Livingstone found himself unequal’ (Journal R. G. S., vol. xxix., p. 97).

“I beg you also to read your husband’s masterly and eloquent description of the lake regions of Central Equatorial Africa in the same volume. No memoir in our journal is more striking than this, and I think it will gratify you to have Captain Burton’s most effective writing brought once more to the notice of geographers. I will with great pleasure add a full footnote to the paragraph in which I first allude to the Tanganyika, and point out how admirably Captain Burton has illustrated that portion of Lake Tanganyika which he and his companion visited; though, as you know, he was then prostrated by illness and almost blind.

“With this explanation, which will appear in all the official and public copies of my little, imperfect, opening address, I hope you will be satisfied, and exonerate me from any thought of not doing full justice to your meritorious husband, who, if he had been in health, would doubtless have worked out the path which Livingstone is still engaged in discovering: the settlement of whether the waters of Tanganyika flow into the said discovered Albert Nyanza by Baker.

“Believe me to be ever, dear Mrs. Burton,
“Yours sincerely,
“Roderick Murchison.”

“Dear Sir Roderick,

“I have every intention of calling upon you, and I think you know I have always looked upon you as a very sincere and particular friend; nor had I the slightest idea of being offended with you; and if you have read my letter, you will have seen that I particularly laid a stress upon your kindness; but what you and I know on this subject, and perhaps many connected with the Royal Geographical Society, is now, considering the fast flow of events, almost ancient history, unless brought before the public. I did feel nettled the other night; but I might have kept quiet, had I not had many visits and letters of condolence on my husband having been passed over. I then felt myself obliged to remind the public what the Society the other night had forgotten. Had I visited you, and had we talked it over, and had the reports been run over and corrected, it would hardly have set the large number of people right who were at the meeting of last Monday, who heard Captain Burton mentioned only once; and the other four twenty times. Indeed, I was not offended at the only mention you did make of him, but at the mention of the other three, excluding him. I shall be truly grateful for your proposed notice of him. And do not think I grudge anything to any other traveller. I am glad you mentioned Speke with him. Speke was a brave man, and full of fine qualities. I grudge his memory no honour that can be paid; I never wish to detract from any of the great merits of the other four. I only ask to maintain my husband’s right place amongst them, which is only second to Livingstone. I hope I shall see you in a few days, and

“Believe me, most sincerely yours,
“Isabel Burton.”

A month later all her business was completed, and Isabel left London for Damascus, to enter upon the most eventful epoch of her eventful life.

24 The Highlands of Brazil, by Richard Burton.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:33