The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XIII

September 1865-October 1869

Santos: Burton’s Second Consulate

Bibliography:

25. Speech before the Anthropological Society. 4th April 1865.

26. Wit and Wisdom from West Africa. 1865.

27. Pictorial Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.

28. Psychic Facts, by Francis Baker (Burton). 1865.

29. Notes . . . connected with the Dahoman. 1865.

30. On an Hermaphrodite. 1866.

31. Exploration of the Highland of the Brazil. 2 vols. 1869.

51. To Santos.

Owing mainly to Mrs. Burton’s solicitation, Burton was now transferred from Fernando Po to Santos, in Brazil, so it was no longer necessary for him and his wife to live apart. He wrote altogether upon his West African adventures, the enormous number of 9 volumes! namely: Wanderings in West Africa (2 vols.), Abeokuta and the Cameroons (2 vols.), A Mission to the King of Dahome (2 vols.), Wit and Wisdom from West Africa (1 vol.), Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo (2 vols.). Remorselessly condensed, these nine might, with artistry, have made a book worthy to live. But Burton’s prolixity is his reader’s despair. He was devoid of the faintest idea of proportion. Consequently at the present day his books are regarded as mere quarries. He dedicated his Abeokuta “To my best friend,” my wife, with a Latin verse which has been rendered:

“Oh, I could live with thee in the wild wood

Where human foot hath never worn a way;

With thee, my city, and my solitude,

Light of my night, sweet rest from cares by day.”

In her own copy Mrs. Burton wrote close to the lines, “Thank you, sweet love!”210

Burton and his wife now set out for Lisbon, where they saw a bull-fight, because Burton said people “ought to see everything once,” though this did not prevent them from going to several other bull-fights. Mrs. Burton was not at all afraid of the bulls, but when some cockroaches invaded her apartment she got on a chair and screamed, though even then they did not go away. More than that, numbers of other cockroaches came to see what was the matter; and they never left off coming. After “a delightful two months” at Lisbon, Burton set out for Brazil, while his wife returned to England “to pay and pack.” She rejoined him some weeks later at Rio Janeiro, and they reached Santos on 9th October 1865. They found it a plashy, swampy place, prolific in mangroves and true ferns, with here and there a cultivated patch. Settlers, however, became attached to it. Sandflies and mosquitoes abounded, and the former used to make Burton “come out all over lumps.” Of the other vermin, including multitudinous snakes, and hairy spiders the size of toy terriers they took no particular notice. The amenities of the place were wonderful orchids, brilliantly coloured parrots and gigantic butterflies with great prismy wings. The Burtons kept a number of slaves, whom, however, they paid “as if they were free men,” and Mrs. Burton erected a chapel for them — her oratory — where the Bishop “gave her leave to have mass and the sacraments.” Her chief convert, and he wanted converting very badly, was an inhuman, pusillanimous coal-black dwarf, 35 years of age, called Chico,211 who became her right-hand man. Just as she had made him to all appearance a good sound Catholic she caught him roasting alive her favourite cat before the kitchen fire. This was the result partly of innate diablery and partly of her having spoilt him, but wherever she went Mrs. Burton managed to get a servant companion whom her lack of judgment made an intolerable burden to her. Chico was only the first of a series. Mrs. Burton also looked well after the temporal needs of the neighbourhood, but if she was always the Lady Bountiful, she was rarely the Lady Judicious.

210 The copy is in the Public Library, High Street, Kensington, where most of Burton’s books are preserved.

211 Spanish for “little one.”

52. Aubertin. Death of Steinhauser, 27th July 1866.

The Burtons resided sometimes at Santos and sometimes at Sao Paulo, eight miles inland. These towns were just then being connected by railway; and one of the superintendents, Mr. John James Aubertin, who resided at Sao Paulo, became Burton’s principal friend there. Aubertin was generally known as the “Father of Cotton,” because during the days of the cotton famine, he had laboured indefatigably and with success to promote the cultivation of the shrub in those parts. Like Burton, Aubertin loved Camoens, and the two friends delighted to walk together in the butterfly-haunted forests and talk about the “beloved master,” while each communicated to the other his intention of translating The Lusiads into English. Thirteen years, however, were to elapse before the appearance of Aubertin’s translation212 and Burton’s did not see print till 1880. In 1866 Burton received a staggering blow in the loss of his old friend Dr. Steinhauser, who died suddenly of heart disease, during a holiday in Switzerland, 27th July 1866. It was Steinhauser, it will be remembered, with whom he had planned the translation of The Arabian Nights, a subject upon which they frequently corresponded.213

212 The Lusiads, 2 vols., 1878. Says Aubertin, “In this city (Sao Paulo) and in the same room in which I began to read The Lusiads in 1860, the last stanza of the last canto was finished on the night of 24th February 1877.”

213 Burton dedicated the 1st vol. of his Arabian Nights to Steinhauser.

53. The Facetious Cannibals.

Wherever Burton was stationed he invariably interested himself in the local archaeological and historical associations. Thus at Santos he explored the enormous kitchen middens of the aboriginal Indians; but the chief attraction was the site of a Portuguese fort, marked by a stone heap, where a gunner, one Hans Stade, was carried off by the cannibals and all but eaten. Burton used to visit the place by boat, and the narrative written by Hans Stade so fascinated him that he induced a Santos friend, Albert Tootal, to translate it into English. The translation was finished in 1869, and five years later Burton wrote for it an introduction and some valuable notes and sent it to press. Though Burton scarcely shines as an original writer, he had a keen eye for what was good in others, and he here showed for the first time that remarkable gift for annotating which stood him in such stead when he came to handle The Arabian Nights.

Hans Stade’s story is so amusing that if we did not know it to be fact we should imagine it the work of some Portuguese W. S. Gilbert. Never were more grisly scenes or more captivating and facetious cannibals. When they told Stade that he was to be eaten, they added, in order to cheer him, that he was to be washed down with a really pleasant drink called kawi. The king’s son then tied Stade’s legs together in three places. “I was made,” says the wretched man, “to hop with jointed feet through the huts; at this they laughed and said ‘Here comes our meat hopping along,’” Death seemed imminent. They did Stade, however, no injury beside shaving off his eyebrows, though the younger savages, when hungry, often looked wistfully at him and rubbed their midriffs. The other prisoners were, one by one, killed and eaten, but the cannibals took their meals in a way that showed indifferent breeding. Even the king had no table manners whatever, but walked about gnawing a meaty bone. He was good-natured, however, and offered a bit to Stade, who not only declined, but uttered some words of reproof. Though surprised, the king was not angry; he took another bite and observed critically, with his mouth full, “It tastes good!”

Life proceeds slowly, whether at Santos or Sao Paulo, almost the only excitement being the appearance of companies of friendly Indians. They used to walk in single file, and on passing Burton’s house would throw out their arms as if the whole file were pulled by a string. Burton did not confine himself to Santos, however. He wandered all over maritime Brazil, and at Rio he lectured before the king214 and was several times invited to be present at banquets and other splendid gatherings. On the occasion of one of these notable functions, which was to be followed by a dinner, one room of the palace was set apart for the ministers to wait in and another for the consuls. The Burtons were told not to go into the consular room, but into the ministers’ room. When, however, they got to the door the officials refused to let them pass.

“This is the ministers’ room,” they said, “You cannot come here.”

“Well, where am I to go?” enquired Burton.

Mrs. Burton stood fuming with indignation at the sight of the stream of nonentities who passed in without question, but Burton cried, “Wait a moment, my darling. I’ve come to see the Emperor, and see the Emperor I will.”

So he sent in his card and a message.

“What!” cried the Emperor, “a man like Burton excluded. Bring him to me at once.” So Burton and his wife were conducted to the Emperor and Empress, to whom Burton talked so interestingly, that they forgot all about the dinner. Meanwhile flunkeys kept moving in and out, anxiety on their faces — the princes, ambassadors and other folk were waiting, dinner was waiting; and the high functionaries and dinner were kept waiting for half an hour. “Well, I’ve had my revenge,” said Burton to his wife when the interview was over. “Only think of those starving brutes downstairs; but I’m sorry on your account I behaved as I did, for it will go against all your future ‘at homes.’” At dinner the Emperor and the Empress were most attentive to the Burtons and the Empress gave Mrs. Burton a beautiful diamond bracelet.215

Among Burton’s admirers was a Rio gentleman named Cox, who had a mansion near the city. One day Mr. Cox arranged a grand dinner party and invited all his friends to meet the famous traveller. Burton arrived early, but presently disappeared. By and by the other guests streamed in, and after amusing themselves for a little while about the grounds they began to enquire for Burton. But no Burton was to be seen. At last someone happened to look up the highest tree in the compound and there was the guest of the day high among the branches squatting like a monkey. He had got up there, he said, to have a little peace, and to keep on with the book he was writing about Brazil. He came down, however, when the lunch bell rang, for though he grumbled at all other noises, he maintained that, somehow that sound always had a peculiar sweetness.

Wit and humour, wherever found, never failed to please Burton, and a remark which he heard in a Brazilian police court and uttered by the presiding magistrate, who, was one of his friends, particularly tickled him:

“Who is this man?” demanded the magistrate, in reference to a dissipated-looking prisoner.

“Un Inglez bebado” (a drunken Englishman), replied the constable.

“A drunken Englishman,” followed the magistrate, “What a pleonasm!”

A little later Burton and his wife went down a mine which ran three quarters of a mile into the earth. “The negret Chico,” says Burton, “gave one glance at the deep, dark pit, wrung his hands and fled the Tophet, crying that nothing in the wide, wide world would make him enter such an Inferno. He had lately been taught that he is a responsible being, with an ‘immortal soul,’ and he was beginning to believe it in a rough, theoretical way: this certainly did not look like a place ‘where the good niggers go.’” However, if Chico turned coward Burton and his wife did not hesitate. But they had moments of fearful suspense as they sank slowly down into the black abysm. The snap of a single link in the long chain would have meant instantaneous death; and a link had snapped but a few days previous, with fatal results. Arrived at the bottom they found themselves in a vast cave lighted with a few lamps — the walls black as night or reflecting slender rays from the polished watery surface. Distinctly Dantesque was the gulf between the huge mountain sides which threatened every moment to fall. One heard the click and thud of hammers, the wild chants of the borers, the slush of water. Being like gnomes and kobolds glided hither and thither — half naked figures muffled up by the mist. Here dark bodies, gleaming with beaded heat drops, hung in what seemed frightful positions; “they swung like Leotard from place to place.” Others swarmed up loose ropes like Troglodytes. It was a situation in which “thoughts were many and where words were few.”

Burton and his wife were not sorry when they found themselves above ground again and in the sweet light of day.

214 Dom Pedro, deposed 15th November 1889.

215 This anecdote differs considerably from Mrs. Burton’s version, Life, i., 438. I give it, however, as told by Burton to his friends.

54. Down the Sao Francisco.

The next event was a canoe journey which Burton made alone down the river Sao Francisco from its source to the falls of Paulo Affonso — and then on to the sea, a distance of 1500 miles — an astounding feat even for him. During these adventures a stanza in his own unpublished version of Camoens constantly cheered him:

“Amid such scenes with danger fraught and pain

Serving the fiery spirit more to flame,

Who woos bright honour, he shall ever win

A true nobility, a deathless fame:

Not they who love to lean, unjustly vain,

Upon the ancestral trunk’s departed claim;

Nor they reclining on the gilded beds

Where Moscow’s zebeline downy softness spreads.”216

Indeed he still continued, at all times of doubt and despondency, to turn to this beloved poet; and always found something to encourage.

216 Lusiads, canto 6, stanza 95. Burton subsequently altered and spoilt it. The stanza as given will be found on the opening page of the Brazil book.

55. In Paraguay. August 15th to September 15th 1868. April 4th to April 18th 1869.

The year before his arrival in Santos a terrible war had broken out between Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina on the one side and Paraguay on the other; the Paraguayan dictator Lopez II. had been defeated in many battles and Paraguay so long, thanks to the Jesuits and Dr. Francia, a thriving country, was gradually being reduced to ruin. Tired of Santos, which was out of the world and led to nothing, Burton in July 1868 sent in his resignation. Mrs. Burton at once proceeded to England, but before following her, Burton at the request of the Foreign Office, travelled through various parts of South America in order to report the state of the war. He visited Paraguay twice, and after the second journey made his way across the continent to Arica in Peru, whence he took ship to London via the Straits of Magellan.217 During part of the voyage he had as fellow traveller Arthur Orton, the Tichborne claimant. As both had spent their early boyhood at Elstree they could had they so wished have compared notes, but we may be sure Mr. Orton preserved on that subject a discreet silence. The war terminated in March 1870, after the death of Lopez II. at the battle of Aquidaban. Four-fifths of the population of Paraguay had perished by sword or famine.

217 He describes his experiences in his work The Battlefields of Paraguay.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:36