The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XX

31st March 1877 to 27th December 1879

Midian

Bibliography:

55. Sind Revisited. 1877.

56. The Gold Mines of Midian. 1878.

57. A.E.I. (Arabia, Egypt, India) by Isabel Burton. 1879.

58. Ogham Runes. 1879.

59. The Land of Midian Revisited. 2 vols., 1879.

90. “The New Joseph.” 31st March 1877-21st April 1877. 19th October 1877-20th April 1878.

Burton now felt that the time was ripe to broach his views concerning the golden Chersonese to the Khedive (Ismail), and having easily obtained leave from the home authorities, he proceeded straight to Cairo. The Khedive, impressed with his representations and enthusiasm, promptly consented to supply funds, and “the New Joseph,” as Burton was now called, began preparations for the expedition that was to make both Egypt and himself rich beyond computation. Then followed a conversation with Haji Wali, whom age — he was 77 — “had only made a little fatter and a little greedier,” and the specious old trickster promised to accompany the expedition. As usual Burton began with a preliminary canter, visiting Moilah, Aynunah Bay, Makna and Jebel Hassani, where he sketched, made plans, and collected metalliferous specimens. He returned to Egypt with native stories of ruined towns evidencing a formerly dense population, turquoise mines and rocks veined with gold. The Khedive in idea saw himself a second Croesus. These were the quarries, he held, whence Solomon derived the gold for the walls of the house of his God, his drinking vessels and his lion throne, but Colonel Gordon, when afterwards told of his scheme, smiled incredulously. As the hot season necessitated a delay of six months, Burton returned to Trieste, where life seemed hum-drum enough after so many excitement, and spangled visions. He spent the time writing a book The Gold Mines of Midian and the Ruined Midianite Cities, and the sluggish months having at last crawled by, he again left Trieste for Cairo.

91. More Advice to “Lazybones.” 8th May 1877.

In a letter to Mrs. E. J. Burton, headed “At Sea, 8th May 1877,” he again touches on the old baronetcy. “Next Saturday I expect to be at Trieste, whence this letter will start. The Times has probably told you the story of my last adventure, and this will probably have explained to you why yours of March 8th has remained so long unanswered. That document informed me that ‘Lazybones’ was going to make himself useful. I hope he has done so. If not, he can learn all about his grandfather from papers published by the late Admiral Burton, and I do not think that Miss Eruli would object to letting him have copies. Of course, don’t speak about the baronetcy. That failing, all he has to do is to put the matter (after making an agreement) into the hands of a professional man, who will visit Shap (Westmoreland) and Galway, and who will find no difficulty in establishing direct descent. Please write to me again. I shall be heard of in Trieste for some time. Many thanks to the boys, and salute ‘Lazybones’ according to his merits.”

In due time Burton arrived at Cairo, and the curious expedition set forth for wild, mysterious Midian. He himself knew nothing of engineering, but he had the services of a practical engineer — one M. Marie; and some artists, and a number of Egyptian officers and Soudanese soldiers accompanied the expedition. The party included neither metallurgist nor practical prospector306 but Burton carried a divining rod, and seems really to have believed that it would be a help. The expenses, it was ascertained, would amount to one thousand nine hundred and seventy-one pounds twelve shillings and sixpence — no very extravagant sum for purchasing all the wealth of Ophir.

306 Preface to Midian Revisited, xxxiv.

92. Haji Wali Again.

At Zagazig they were joined by the venerable wag and trickster, Haji Wali, and having reached Suez they embarked on the gunboat, the “Mukhbir,” for Moilah, which they reached on December 19th. Burton landed with studied ceremony, his invariable plan when in the midst of savage or semi-civilised people. The gunboat saluted, the fort answered with a rattle and patter of musketry. All the notables drew up in line on the shore. To the left stood the civilians in tulip-coloured garb, next were the garrison, a dozen Bashi-Bazouks armed with matchlocks, then came Burton’s quarry men; and lastly the escort — twenty-five men — held the place of honour on the right; and as Burton passed he was received with loud hurrahs. His first business was to hire three shaykhs and 106 camels and dromedaries with their drivers. The party was inclined to be disorderly, but Burton, with his usual skill in managing men, soon proved who was master.

Nothing if not authoritative, he always spoke in the commanding voice of a man who brooks no denial, and, as he showed plainly that acts would follow words, there was thenceforward but trifling trouble. He himself was in ecstasies. The Power of the Hills was upon him.

93. Graffiti.

The exploration was divided into three journeys, and between each and the next, the expedition rested at Moilah. The first or northward had scarcely begun, indeed, they had not no further than Sharma, before Haji Wali found it convenient to be troubled with indigestion in so violent a form as to oblige him to return home, which he straightway did with great alacrity. His object in accompanying the expedition even thus far is not clear, but he evidently got some payment, and that the expedition was a hopeless one he must have known from the first. The old rogue lived till 3rd August 1883, but Burton never again met him.

Even in Midian, Burton was dogged by Ovid, for when he looked round at the haggard, treeless expanse he could but exclaim, quoting the Ex Ponto,

“Rara neque haec felix in apertis eminet arvis

Arbor, et in terra est altera forma maris.”

[“Dry land! nay call it, destitute of tree,

Rather the blank, illimitable sea.”]307

The expedition then made for Maghair Shu’ayb, the Madiama of Ptolemy and the old capital of the land. Here they spent a “silly fortnight, searching for gold,” which refused to answer even to the diving rod. They saw catacombs — the Tombs of the Kings — some of which were scrawled with graffiti, laboured perhaps by some idle Nabathaean boy in the time of Christ. They found remains of furnaces, picked up some coins, and saw undoubted evidences of ancient opulence. That was all. Thence they made for Makna, passing on their way a catacombed hill called “the Praying Place of Jethro,” and a shallow basin of clay known as Moses’ Well. From Makna, where they found their gunboat waiting for them, they then cruised to El Akabah, the ancient Eziongeber, in whose waters had ridden the ships of Solomon laden with the merchandise of India and Sheba. They reached Moilah again on February 13th. The second journey, which took them due East as far as the arid Hisma, lasted from February 17th to March 8th. Burton considered the third journey the most important, but as they found nothing of any consequence it is difficult to understand why. First they steamed to El Wijh, in the “Sinnar,” which had taken the place of the Mukhbir, and then marched inland to the ancient mines of Abul Maru. But Burton now saw the futility of attempting to proceed further. On April 10th they were back again at El Wijh, on the 18th at Moilah and on the 20th at Suez.

In the meantime, Mrs. Burton had left Trieste, in order to join her husband. She stayed a week at Cairo, where she met General Gordon, who listened smilingly to her anticipations respecting the result of the expedition, and then she went on to Suez. Writing to her nieces, the Misses Stisted, 23rd March 1878, she said: “I have taken a room looking across the Red Sea and desert towards Midian, and hope at last to finish my own book [A.E.I., Arabia, Egypt and India]. What on earth Paul is doing with Richard’s Midian308 God only knows. I have written and telegraphed till I am black in the face, and telegrams cost 2s. 6d. a word.” At last on 20th April, while Mrs. Burton was in church, a slip of paper was put into her hand: “The ‘Sinnar’ is in sight.”

Determined that the Khedive should have something for his money, Burton and his company had, to use Mrs. Burton’s expression, “returned triumphantly,” with twenty-five tons of minerals and numerous objects of archaeological interest. The yield of the argentiferous and cupriferous ores, proved, alas! to be but poor. They went in search of gold, and found graffiti! But was Burton really disappointed? Hardly. In reading about every one of his expeditions in anticipation of mineral wealth, the thought forces itself upon us that it was adventure rather than gold, sulphur, diamonds and silver that he really wanted. And of the lack of that he never had reason to complain.

An exhibition of the specimens, both mineralogical and archaeological, was held at the Hippodrome, and all Cairo flocked to see “La Collection,” as the announcement expressed it, “rapportee par le Capitaine Burton.”309 The Khedive opened the exhibition in person, and walked round to look at the graffiti, the maps, the sketches of ruins and the twenty-five tons of rock, as nobody had more right; and Burton and M. Marie the engineer accompanied him.

“Are you sure,” enquired the Khedive, pointing to some of the rocks, “that this and this contain gold?”

“Midian,” replied M. Marie, blandly, “is a fine mining country.”

And that information was all the return his Highness got for his little outlay of one thousand nine hundred and seventy one pounds twelve shillings and sixpence.

307 Ex Ponto III., i., 19.

308 The Gold Mines of Midian and the Ruined Midianite Cities (C. Kegan Paul and Co.) It appeared in 1878.

309 The Land of Midian Revisited, ii., 254.

94. Letter to Sir Henry Gordon, 4th July 1878.

Returned to Trieste, Burton once more settled down to his old dull life. The most interesting letter of this period that has come to our hands is one written to Sir Henry Gordon,310 brother of Colonel, afterwards General Gordon.

It runs: “Dear Sir, I am truly grateful to you for your kind note of June 30th and for the obliging expressions which it contains. Your highly distinguished brother, who met my wife at Suez, has also written me a long and interesting account of Harar. As you may imagine, the subject concerns me very nearly, and the more so as I have yet hopes of revisiting that part of Africa. It is not a little curious that although I have been in communication with Colonel Gordon for years, we have never yet managed to meet. Last spring the event seemed inevitable, and yet when I reached Suez, he had steamed south. However, he writes to me regularly, scolding me a little at times, but that is no matter. I hope to be luckier next winter. I expect to leave Trieste in a few days311 and to make Liverpool via long sea. Both Mrs. Burton and I want a medicine of rest and roast beef as opposed to rosbif. Nothing would please me more than to meet you and talk over your brother’s plans. My direction is Athenaeum Club, and Woolwich is not so difficult to explore as Harar was. Are we likely to meet at the British Association?”

310 Kindly copied for me by Miss Gordon, his daughter.

311 They left on July 6th (1878) and touched at Venice, Brindisi, Palermo and Gibraltar.

95. Death of Maria Stisted, 12th November 1878.

Burton and his wife reached London on July 27th (1878). Presently we hear of them in Ireland, where they are the guests of Lord Talbot of Malahide, and later he lectured at various places on “Midian” and “Ogham Runes.” Again Gordon tried to draw him to Africa, this time with the offer of £5,000 a year, but the answer was the same as before. Then came a great blow to Burton — the death of his beloved niece — “Minnie” — Maria Stisted. Mrs. Burton, who was staying at Brighton, wrote to Miss Georgiana Stisted a most kind, sympathetic and beautiful letter — a letter, however, which reveals her indiscreetness more clearly, perhaps, than any other that we have seen. Though writing a letter of condolence — the sincerity of which is beyond doubt — she must needs insert remarks which a moment’s consideration would have told her were bound to give offence — remarks of the kind that had already, indeed, made a gulf between her and Burton’s relations.

She says: “My poor darling Georgy, I do not know how to write or what to say to you in such poignant grief. I think this is the most terrible blow that could have happened to Maria (Lady Stisted) and you. I do not grieve for Minnie, because, as I told Dick in my letter, her pure soul has known nothing but religion and music, and is certainly in its own proper place among the angels, but I do grieve for you with all my heart. . . . It is no use to talk to you about ‘Time healing the wound,’ or ‘resigning oneself to what is inevitable,’ but I have so long studied the ways of God, that I know He has taken the angel of your house as He always does, that this is a crisis in your lives, there is some change about to take place, and some work or new thing you have to do in which Minnie was not to be. I can only pray for you with all my heart, as I did at communion this morning.” So far, so good, but then comes: “and have masses said to create another gem upon Minnie’s crown.”

Yet Mrs. Burton knew that she was writing to staunch Protestants whom such a remark would make positively to writhe. Still, in spite of her indiscretions, no human being with a heart can help loving her. She then goes on: “Please know and feel that though the world looks dark, you have always a staunch friend in me. Dick feels Minnie’s death fearfully. He telegraphed to me and writes every day about it. I don’t think he is in a state of health to bear many shocks just now, he is so frightfully nervous. He so little expected it, he always thought it was only one of the little ailments of girls, and Maria (Lady Stisted) was over anxious; so it has come like a sledge-hammer upon him. I feel what a poor letter this is, but my heart is full, and I do not know how to express myself. Your attached and sympathising Aunt Zoo.”

Burton was just then engaged upon his work The Land of Midian Revisited, and he dedicated it to the memory of his “much loved niece.”

96. Burton’s “Six Senses.”

On 2nd December 1878, Burton lectured at 38, Great Russell Street before the British National Association of Spiritualists — taking as his subject, “Spiritualism in Foreign Lands.” His ideas on Spiritualism had been roughly outlined some time previous in a letter to The Times.312 He said that the experience of twenty years had convinced him: (1) that perception is possible without the ordinary channels of the senses, and (2) that he had been in the presence of some force or power which he could not understand. Yet he did not believe that any spirits were subject to our calls and caprices, or that the dead could be communicated with at all. He concluded, “I must be contented to be at best a spiritualist without the spirits.” The letter excited interest. The press commented on it, and street boys shouted to one another, “Take care what you’re doing! You haven’t got Captain Burton’s six senses.” At Great Russell Street, Burton commenced by defending materialism. He could not see with Guizot that the pursuit of psychology is as elevating as that of materialism is degrading. What right, he asked, had the theologian to limit the power of the Creator. “Is not the highest honour His who from the worst can draw the best?”313 He then quoted his letter to The Times, and declared that he still held the same opinions. The fact that thunder is in the air, and the presence of a cat may be known even though one cannot see, hear, taste, smell or feel thunder or the cat. He called this force — this sixth sense — zoo-electricity. He then gave an account of spiritualism, thaumaturgy, and wizardry, as practised in the East, concluding with a reference to his Vikram and the Vampire. “There,” said he, “I have related under a facetious form of narrative many of the so-called supernaturalisms and preternaturalisms familiar to the Hindus.”314 These studies will show the terrible ‘training,’ the ascetic tortures, whereby men either lose their senses, or attain the highest powers of magic, that is, of commanding nature by mastering the force, whatever it may be, here called zoo-electric, which conquers and controls every modification of matter.315 His lecture concluded with an account of a Moorish necromancer, which reminds us of the Maghrabi incident in “the Story of Judar.” When Burton sat down, Mrs. Burton asked to be allowed to speak. Indeed, she never hesitated to speak upon any subject under the sun, whether she did not understand it, as was almost invariably the case, or whether she did; and she always spoke agreeably.316 She pointed out to the spiritualists that they had no grounds to suppose that her husband was one of their number, and stated her belief that the theory of zoo-electricity would suit both spiritualists and non-spiritualists. Then, as a matter of course, she deftly introduced the “one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” to which it was her “glory to belong,” and which this theory of Burton’s “did not exactly offend.” As regards the yogis and the necromancers she insisted that her husband had expressed no belief, but simply recounted what is practised in the East, and she concluded with the remark, “Captain Burton is certainly not a spiritualist.” Some good-humoured comments by various speakers terminated the proceedings. It is quite certain, however, that Burton was more of a spiritualist than Mrs. Burton would allow, and of Mrs. Burton herself in this connection, we shall later have a curious story to tell.317

During the rest of her holiday Mrs. Burton’s thoughts ran chiefly on philanthropic work, and she arranged gatherings at country houses in support of the society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. These were well attended and some enthusiasm was shown, except when there happened to be a meet of the fox hounds in the district, or when rabbit coursing was going on.

312 November 1876.

313 From the then unpublished Kasidah.

314 The famous Yogis. Their blood is dried up by the scorching sun of India, they pass their time in mediation, prayer and religious abstinence, until their body is wasted, and they fancy themselves favoured with divine revelations.

315 The Spiritualist. 13th December 1878.

316 In short, she had considerable natural gifts, which were never properly cultivated.

317 See Chapter xxxviii.

97. Still thinking of Midian. April-December 1879.

The Burtons remained in London until after the publication of Mrs. Burton’s book “A.E.I.,” 318 and then Burton set out alone on a tour through Germany. Mrs. Burton, who was to meet him at Trieste, left London 27th April; and then followed a chapter of accidents. First she fell with influenza, and next, at Paris, when descending the stairs, which had been waxed, she “took one header from the top to the bottom,” and so damaged herself that she had to be removed in a coupe lit.319 She reached Trieste after “an agonizing sixty hours” and was seriously ill for several weeks. All the while, Burton, whose purse, like that of one of his favourite poets, Catullus, was “full of cobwebs,” had been turning his thoughts to Midian again. He still asseverated that it was a land of gold, and he believed that if he could get to Egypt the rest would be easy. Says Mrs. Burton, writing to Miss Stisted, 12th December 1879: “Darling Dick started on Friday 5th, a week ago, in high spirits. My position is singular, no child, no relative, and all new servants.” She then speaks of her Christmas book, which had just gone to the publishers. She says, “It is for boys from 12 to 16, culled from ten volumes: Dick’s three books on Sind, his Goa, Falconry, Vikram, Bayonet and Sword Exercise, and my A.E.I.” and she was in hopes it would revive her husband’s earliest works, which by that time were forgotten. The fate of this work was a melancholy one, for the publisher to whom the manuscript was entrusted went bankrupt, and no more was every heard of it.320 Burton’s hope that he would be able to lead another expedition to Midian was not realised. Ismail was no longer Khedive, and Tewfik, his successor, who regarded the idea as chimerical, declined to be bound by any promise of his father’s. His Excellency Yacoub Artin Pasha321 and others of Burton’s Egyptian friends expressed sympathy and tried to expedite matters, but nothing could be done. To make matters worse, Burton when passing through Alexandria was attacked by thieves, who hit him on the head from behind. He defended himself stoutly, and got away, covered however, with bruises and blood.

318 Arabia, Egypt, India.

319 Letter to Miss Stisted.

320 She says, I left my Indian Christmas Book with Mr. Bogue on 7th July 1882, and never saw it after.

321 Burton dedicated to Yacoub Pasha Vol. x. of his Arabian Nights. They had then been friends for 12 years.

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