The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter XVIII

The True Reasons of Burton’s Recall

No might nor greatness in mortality

Can censure ‘scape: back-wounding calumny

The whitest virtue strikes. What king so strong,

Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?

Shakspeare.

At this point of the narrative it is necessary to turn aside to deal with Miss Stisted’s impeachment of Lady Burton, in the matter of her husband’s recall from Damascus.

Miss Stisted asserts that the true cause of Burton’s recall was Isabel his wife, who had espoused with more zeal than discretion the cause of the Shazli converts to Christianity. She adds: “And while her husband, continually absent exploring or attending to the duties of his Consulate, knew nothing, or next to nothing, about her dangerous proceedings, she impressed upon the people that she acted with his full permission and approval.”29 It was (according to Miss Stisted) Isabel’s “imprudence and passion for proselytizing” which so enraged the Moslems and the Turkish authorities against Burton that they clamoured for his recall. Thus it is argued that “the true cause of the terrible crash in 1871” was Isabel, and Isabel alone.

This, in brief, is the sum and substance of Miss Stisted’s indictment of Lady Burton on this point. She makes her accusation without adducing a scrap or shred of evidence in support of it, and she makes it in the teeth of the most positive evidence on the other side. Let us examine her charges in the light of facts.

Fortunately, in searching for the true reasons of Burton’s recall from Damascus, I am not dependent, like Miss Stisted, on a mere opinion of my own, nor am I dependent on the testimony of Lady Burton, which, though correct in every detail, might be refused acceptance, on the plea that it was biassed. The true reasons are to be found in an official Blue Book,30 which contains a review of the whole case. This book publishes the complete correspondence, official and otherwise, for and against Burton, and comprises a review of his Consulship at Damascus from the time he was appointed, in November, 1868, to the day of his recall, in August, 1871.

It is impossible to read this correspondence dispassionately without wondering how it was that Burton was not removed from his post at Damascus before. In the brief space of two years he seems to have managed to set against himself almost every creed, nationality, and interest in Damascus. From the time he went there to the day he was recalled it was little but one long strife. Complaints to his Consul-General at Beyrout, to his Ambassador at Constantinople, to his Chief at the Foreign Office, were incessant; and as they came not from one part of the community of Damascus only, but from several, it is a marvel that the authorities at the Foreign Office, who love nothing better than that things should run, or seem to run, smoothly at the embassies and consulates, were so patient and long-suffering. That they were so forbearing was, I think, largely due to his wife — this same Isabel who, according to Miss Stisted, was responsible for her husband’s recall and the consequent ruin of his official career. It was Isabel who fought Burton’s battles on every charge against him, and she defended him against every attack. Her letters to Lord Granville, to Sir Henry Elliot, Ambassador at Constantinople, to the Consul-General at Beyrout, to Lord Derby and other influential friends in England, and to the permanent officials at the Foreign Office, explaining and defending her husband’s action in every particular, are marvels of special pleading. They are not published, because they would fill volumes; but they can be produced, if necessary.

My contention is, that Isabel had nothing to do with her husband’s recall from Damascus. On the contrary, had it not been for her, he would have been recalled long before. I also submit that she had very little to do in the matter of the Shazlis, and that little she did with her husband’s full consent and approval. Burton alone was responsible for his recall in that he managed to offend nearly every part of the community at Damascus, and so gave the Turkish authorities, who disliked him from the first, an excuse for demanding his recall. I do not say that he was wrong in every instance — far from it; he was often in the right; only it is possible to do the right thing in the wrong way, and this Burton generally did.

And now for the proofs. It is necessary to begin at the beginning. From the first Burton took up his work at Damascus with “pinioned arms,” to use his own phrase. In other words, he started with a prejudice against him. Lord Derby (then Lord Stanley), as we know, gave him the appointment; but before it was confirmed Lord Clarendon succeeded Lord Stanley at the Foreign Office, and in the interval Burton’s enemies, chiefly Protestant missionaries, who feared he was anti-missionary, took steps to work upon Lord Clarendon to prevent his appointment going forward. So strong and influential was this opposition that Lord Clarendon sent for Burton specially, and had a long conversation with him. He told him that “very serious objections” to his appointment at Damascus had reached the Foreign Office, and, although he allowed the appointment to go forward, on receiving from Burton assurances that the objections were unfounded, he warned him that, if the feeling stated to exist against him on the part of the authorities and people at Damascus should prevent the proper performance of his Consular duties, it would be the duty of the Government immediately to recall him.

In a subsequent letter Lord Clarendon directed his Secretary to repeat to Burton what he had already told him verbally.31

To this letter Burton replied: “I once more undertake to act with unusual prudence, and under all circumstances to hold myself, and myself only, answerable for the consequences.”32

Whether or not he acted with “unusual prudence” the following will show:

1. His difference with the English missionaries. — The first unpleasantness occurred in June and July, 1870, with the Superintendent of the British Syrian School at Beyrout. This gentleman, who was a Protestant missionary, came to Damascus to proselytize, and to distribute tracts among the Moslems, and doubtless acted with little discretion. Burton reprimanded him, and reported him to the Foreign Office. In this no doubt he was right; but his manner of doing it apparently inflamed many against him, especially the wife of the missionary aforesaid, who vigorously espoused her husband’s cause, and in this was supported officially by the Consul-General at Beyrout. The matter blew over for a time, but the attack was renewed again in 1871, and there was constant friction going on the whole time of Burton’s sojourn at Damascus between himself and the missionary and his wife and their friends, who were very influential persons in Syria.

2. His squabble with the Druzes. — This occurred in 1870. Here we find Burton protecting the missionaries against certain Druzes, who had plundered and maltreated two English missionaries travelling amongst them. Burton’s method of punishing the Druzes was summary. He wished to impose a fine upon them. This the Consul-General at Beyrout refused to impose, and again Burton came into conflict with his Consul-General. It was obvious that, whether the Druzes deserved to be fined or not, the man to impose the fine was not the British Consul, but the Turkish Governor-General, as they were Turkish subjects. In this matter therefore, although Burton acted with the best intentions, he exceeded his jurisdiction.

3. His dispute with the Jews. — This was one of the most serious affairs in which Burton was engaged; and here again, though there is no doubt that he was perfectly right in what he did, his manner of doing it gave dire offence. He curbed the rapacity of some Jewish money-lenders, under British protection, who wished to “sweat” the native peasantry for the payment of their unjust debts, and desired the British Consul to help them in their extortions. This Burton rightly refused to do. And a little later he arrested two Jewish boys, servants of British-protected Jews, for drawing crosses on the walls — the usual sign for an outbreak of Christian persecution at Damascus — and took away temporarily the British protection from their masters. This gave the usurers the opportunity they had been waiting for, and they wrote to the Foreign Office an untrue and unjust report, saying that the Consul was full of hatred against the Jews, and demanding his recall. Lord Granville sent a special letter, requesting to know the truth of these charges, which he described as “most serious.” Fortunately Burton was able to satisfy him, and the storm blew over. But the Jews neither forgot it nor forgave him.

4. The Greeks stone him at Nazareth. — Lady Burton has already given a long account of this incident, and there is no reason to doubt the correctness of her description. Here we find that the Greek Bishop and his people disliked Burton because he had exposed a fraudulent transaction of theirs with the Jews. But whatever was the cause, there was no doubt that they were opposed to him; and the riot, which arose from an apparently accidental cause, was really an outbreak of bitterly hostile feeling against the British Consul. The Greek Bishop of Nazareth at once drew up a grossly exaggerated report of the proceedings, which was endorsed by the Wali of Syria, and forwarded to the authorities at home. Will it be believed that Burton never sent home any report of the affair until some weeks afterwards, when he returned to Damascus, and found a telegram awaiting him from the British Ambassador at Constantinople, asking what it all meant? His silence in this matter, though not intentional, created the very worst impression among the authorities at home. Sir Henry Elliot wrote to Isabel subsequently:

“I received versions of the affair from different quarters, without having a word of explanation from Captain Burton, from whom I got letters of a date much subsequent to the occurrence.”33

Considering how very fond Burton was of referring all sorts of questions on the internal government of Syria, with which he had nothing to do, to his Ambassador at Constantinople, his silence on this occasion, in a matter with which he had all to do, was, to say the least, somewhat unfortunate.

5. His dispute with the Wali. — The Wali (the Turkish Governor-General of Syria) was, from the first, exceedingly jealous of Burton, because of his knowledge of Eastern affairs, and his habit of interfering with the internal government of the country, with which he had no concern. Corrupt though Turkish rule undoubtedly was, and is, it was no part of the British Consul’s duty to be perpetually meddling in disputes between the Wali and his subjects. Sir Henry Elliot wrote to Isabel, in reply to a letter of hers excusing her husband:

“I should not be frank if I allowed you to suppose that your letters had satisfied me that there were not grounds for the complaints which have been made of Captain Burton going beyond the proper attributions of a Consul, who ought to be very careful to avoid encroaching upon the domain of the legitimate authorities, who are responsible for the administration of their district, when he is not. He can be of great service as long as there is a proper understanding with the Government, but a very dangerous state of things is created if he makes himself a rival authority to whom the disaffected think that they can look for redress." 34

This (there is no doubt about it) Burton was always doing; and his knowledge of oriental affairs and methods made him all the more formidable to the Wali. Matters came to a head when Burton went to visit the Druzes in the Haurán, a month or two before his recall. By some means or other he spoiled the Wali’s game in that quarter; and this incensed the Governor so much against him that he tried first to have him assassinated in the desert, and that failing, demanded his recall. Of the incident Burton himself says:

“I was not aware that the Wali (Governor-General) had a political move in the Haurán which he did not wish me to see, or that, seeing, it was the signal for him to try and obtain my recall.”35

If this matter had stood alone, perhaps it would not have been sufficient ground for his recall; but coming as it did on the top of all the others, it was, I think, the most potent factor.

There was another little annoyance too about this time — that is, just before Burton’s recall. It had reference to the case of one Hasan, a Moslem converted to Christianity, whom the Wali wanted to punish, but whom Burton protected against him. Burton’s action in this matter was chivalrous and generous no doubt, but it did not tend to make him any better friends with the Wali at a time when the irritation between them was already at its height. With regard to what followed, I think that I had better give Burton’s own words, as they will show very distinctly what were the culminating causes of his recall:

“He (the Wali) actually succeeded in causing the Foreign Office to confine me to Damascus at a time when the climate was peculiarly hot and unwholesome — mid-July. I was suffering from fever, and the little English colony was all in summer quarters. He affected to look upon a trip to the Haurán as an event pregnant with evil to his administration, and actually composed a circular from me to the Druzes. I was compelled, in return, to make known Rashid Pasha’s maladministration of Syria, his prostitution of rank, his filling every post with his own sycophants, who are removed only when they have made money enough to pay for being restored; his fatuous elevation of a Kurdish party; his perjuries against the Druzes; his persistent persecution of Moslem converts to Christianity in the teeth of treaties and firmans; his own sympathy with the Greeks, and through them with Russia; and, finally, his preparations for an insurrection in Syria, should Egypt find an opportunity of declaring her independence. I meanwhile continued to push my demand for the six million piastres claimed by British subjects in Syria. My list shows a grand total of eleven, and of these five are important cases. On July 4, 1871, I wrote to the Foreign Office and to the Ambassador, urging that a Commission be directed to inquire into the subject and to settle the items found valid. I expressed a hope that I might be permitted personally to superintend the settlement of these debts, with whose every item the study of twenty-one months had made me familiar, and another six months would have seen Syria swept clean and set in order. On August 16, 1871, I was recalled suddenly, on the ground that the Moslems were fanatical enough to want my life. I have proved that to be like all the rest of Rashid Pasha’s reports — utterly false.”36

With regard to the reasons given by Lord Granville for Burton’s recall, I may say that, in a letter which he sent under Flying Seal, dated July 22, 1871, and which reached Burton on the day of his recall, he recapitulated the dispatch written to Burton by Lord Clarendon on his appointment to Damascus, reminding him of the conditions under which he was appointed to the post, and saying that the complaints which he had received from the Turkish Government in regard to his recent conduct and proceedings rendered it impossible that he should allow him to continue to perform any Consular functions in Syria, and requesting him to make his preparations for returning to England with as little delay as possible.37

I think that the foregoing statements will fully explain the true reasons which led to the recall of Burton from Damascus. It will be seen that in the above charges against Burton the question of the Shazlis does not enter; and in the face of all this evidence, how is it possible to maintain that Isabel was the true cause of her husband’s recall? The converted Shazlis, whose cause she is supposed to have espoused with fanatical zeal, hardly entered into the matter at all. Indeed, in the whole of the Blue Book from which I have quoted, there is only one reference to the Shazlis, and that is in a letter which Burton addressed to Sir Henry Elliot on the revival of Christianity among them. Miss Stisted says that Burton was as likely to assist in increasing the number of the Syrian Christians, “of whom he had the lowest opinion,” “as to join in a Shakers’ dance.” Yet in this letter to his official chief Burton dwells at length on the revival of Christianity in Syria, and calls attention to the persecution and increasing number of the converted Shazlis, and asks for instructions as to what he is to do. “The revival,” he says, “is progressing,” and “this persecution,” and he regards it in the "gravest light.”38 Also in a special letter to the Protestant missionaries Burton writes:

“Meanwhile I take the liberty of recommending to your prudent consideration the present critical state of affairs in Syria. A movement which cannot but be characterized as a revival of Christianity in the land of its birth seems to have resulted from the measure adopted by the authorities and from the spirit of inquiry which your missions have awakened in the breasts of the people. The new converts are now numbered by thousands: men of rank are enrolling themselves on the lists, and proselytizing has extended even to the Turkish soldiery.”39

All this bears out Isabel’s statement that her husband was interested in the Shazlis; but, all the same, it does not enter into the question of his recall. Even if it did, so far from acting without her husband’s consent in this matter (and she really did very little), she did nothing without his approval, for he actively sympathized in the case of the Shazlis. His letters to the missionaries and to Sir Henry Elliot form proof of this; and in face of this documentary evidence the “Shakers’ dance” theory does not hold good. Miss Stisted, however, makes her assertion without any evidence, and says that Lord Granville evaded the main question when sounded on the subject of Burton’s recall. How she became aware of the inner mind of Lord Granville is not apparent, and under the circumstances dispassionate readers will prefer the testimony of the Blue Book to her cool assumption of superior knowledge. Something more than mere assertion is needed to support a charge like this.

Equally baseless too is the insinuation against Isabel contained in the following passage:

“Significant enough it is to any unprejudiced reader that the next appointment [i.e. of Burton’s] was to a Roman Catholic country.40

The "unprejudiced reader" would probably see the significance in another light — the significance of refusing to appoint Burton again to a Mohammedan country, and of repeatedly refusing him the post he coveted at Morocco.

None of these accusations or innuendoes against Isabel can be entertained when confronted with sober facts; they are in short nothing but the outcome of a jealous imagination. Isabel the cause of her husband’s recall, the ruin of his career! She through whose interest Burton had obtained the coveted post at Damascus; she who fought his battles for him all round; she who shielded him from the official displeasure; she who obeyed his lightest wish, and whose only thought from morning to night was her husband’s welfare and advancement; she who would have died for him, — this same woman, according to Miss Stisted, deliberately behind her husband’s back ran counter to his wishes, fanned the flame of fanaticism, and brought about the crash which ruined his career! Was there ever a more improbable charge? But the accusation has overshot the mark, and, like the boomerang, it returns and injures no one but its author.

29 Miss Stisted's Life of Sir Richard Burton, p. 360. This book was published December, 1896, eight months after Lady Burton’s death.

30 The Case of Captain Burton, Late H. B. M. Consul at Damascus. Clayton & Co., Parliamentary Printing Works, 1872.

31 Vide Letter from Foreign Office to Captain Burton, June 19, 1869 (Blue Book, p. 2).

32 Letter of Captain Burton to Foreign Office, June 21, 1869 (Blue Book, p. 2).

33 Letter from Sir Henry Elliot to Lady Burton, July 12, 1871.

34 Letter from Sir Henry Elliot to Lady Burton, July 12, 1871.

35 Blue Book, p. 75.

36 Blue Book, pp. 140, 141.

37 Vide Letter from Lord Granville to Captain Burton, under Flying Seal, care of Consul-General Eldridge, July 22, 1871 (Blue Book, p. 109).

38 Vide Letter of Captain Burton to Sir Henry Elliot, July 14, 1871 (Blue Book, pp. 95, 96).

39 Letter from Captain Burton to the Rev. E. B. Frankel, Rev. J. Orr Scott, Miss James, Rev. W. Wright, and Rev. John Crawford, Bludán, July 19, 1871 (Blue Book, p. 92).

40 Miss Stisted's Life of Burton, p. 361.

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