The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter VI

3rd April 1853 to 29th October 1854

Pilgrimage to Mecca

Bibliography:

11. The Kasidah (commenced).

12. El Islam (commenced).

22. The Man Wants to Wander.

Much of his time at Boulogne Burton devoted to fencing; and to his instructor, M. Constantin, he paid glowing tributes. He thoroughly mastered the art, defeated all antagonists, whether English or French, earned his “brevet de pointe for the excellence of his swordsmanship, and became a Maitre d’ Armes.” As horseman, swordsman, and marksman, no soldier of his day surpassed him, and very few equalled him. But of fencing, flirting and book-writing, he soon got heartily tired. Like his putative ancestors, the gipsies, he could never be happy long in one place. He says, “The thoroughbred wanderer’s idiosyncrasy, I presume to be a composition of what phrenologists call inhabitiveness and locality equally and largely developed. After a long and toilsome march, weary of the way, he drops into the nearest place of rest to become the most domestic of men. For a while he smokes the pipe of permanence with an infinite zest, he delights in various siestas during the day, relishing withal a long sleep at night; he enjoys dining at a fixed dinner hour, and wonders at the demoralisation of the mind which cannot find means of excitement in chit-chat or small talk, in a novel or a newspaper. But soon the passive fit has passed away; again a paroxysm on ennui coming on by slow degrees, viator loses appetite, he walks bout his room all night, he yawns at conversations, and a book acts upon his as a narcotic. The man wants to wander, and he must do so, or he shall die.”107

107 Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah, Memorial Ed., vol. i., p. 16.

23. Haji Wali, 1853.

As we have seen, Burton, even before he had left Sind, had burned to visit Mecca. Four years had since elapsed, and his eyes still turned towards “Allah’s holy house.” Having obtained another twelve months’ furlough, in order that he “might pursue his Arabic studies in lands where the language is best learned,” he formed the bold plan of crossing Arabia from Mecca to the Persian Gulf. Ultimately, however, he decided, in emulation of Burckhardt, the great traveler, to visit Medina and Mecca in the disguise of a pilgrim, a feat that only the most temerarious of men would have dared even to dream of. He made every conceivable preparation, learning among other usefulnesses how to forge horse shoes and to shoe a horse. To his parents and Lady Stisted and her daughters, who were then residing at Bath, he paid several visits, but when he last parted from them with his usual “Adieu, sans adieu,” it did not occur to them that he was about to leave for good; for he could not — he never could — muster up sufficient courage to say a final “Good-bye.” Shortly after his departure his mother found a letter addressed to her and in his handwriting. It contained, besides an outline of his dangerous plans, the instruction that, in case he should be killed, his “small stock of valuables” was to be divided between her and his sister.

Once more Burton had the keen pleasure of putting on disguise. Richard F. Burton ceased to be, and a muscular and powerful Mirza Abdullah, of Bushire, took his place. “I have always wished to see,” he explained to a friend, “what others have been content to hear of.” He wore long hair and Oriental costume, and his face and limbs were stained with henna. Accompanied by Captain Henry Grindlay of the Bengal Cavalry, he left London for Southampton, 3rd April 1853, and thence took steamer for Egypt, without ever a thought of Isabel Arundell’s blue eye or Rapunzel hair, and utterly unconscious of the sighs he had evoked. At Alexandria he was the guest of Mr. John Thurburn and his son-in-law, Mr. John Larking108, at their residence “The Sycamores,” but he slept in an outhouse in order the better to delude the servants. He read the Koran sedulously, howled his prayers with a local shaykh who imparted to him the niceties of the faith, purified himself, made an ostentatious display of piety, and gave out that he was a hakim or doctor preparing to be a dervish. As he had some knowledge of medicine, this role was an easy one, and his keen sense of humour made the experience enjoyable enough. On the steamer that carried him to Cairo, he fraternized with two of his fellow-passengers, a Hindu named Khudabakhsh and an Alexandrian merchant named Haji Wali. Haji Wali, whose connection with Burton lasted some thirty years109, was a middle-aged man with a large round head closely shaven, a bull neck, a thin red beard, handsome features which beamed with benevolence, and a reputation for wiliness and cupidity. Upon their arrival at Boulak, the port of Cairo. Khudabakhsh, who lived there, invited Burton to stay with him. Hindu-like, Khudabakhsh wanted his guest to sit, talk, smoke, and sip sherbet all day. But this Burton could not endure. Nothing, as he says, suits the English less than perpetual society, “an utter want of solitude, when one cannot retire into one self an instant without being asked some puerile questions by a companion, or look into a book without a servant peering over one’s shoulder.” At last, losing all patience, he left his host and went to a khan, where he once more met Haji Wali. They smoked together the forbidden weed hashish, and grew confidential. Following Haji Wali’s advice, Burton, having changed his dress, now posed as an Afghan doctor, and by giving his patients plenty for their money and by prescribing rough measures which acted beneficially upon their imaginations, he gained a coveted reputation. He always commenced his prescriptions piously with: “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful, and blessings and peace be upon our Lord the Apostle”; and Haji Wali vaunted him as “the very phoenix of physicians.” According to his wont, he never lost an opportunity of learning the ways and customs of the various people among whom he was thrown, or of foisting himself on any company in which he thought he could increase his knowledge. His whole life indeed was a preparation for “The Arabian Nights.” Thus at Cairo he had the good fortune to cure some Abyssinian slave-girls of various complaints, including the “price-lowering habit of snoring,” and in return he made the slave dealer take him about the town and unfold the mysteries of his craft. He also visited the resting-place of his hero, Burckhardt;110 indeed, in whatever town he sojourned, he sought out the places associated with the illustrious dead. It was now the Ramazan, and he observed it by fasting, reading the Koran, and saying countless prayers with his face turned devoutly to the Kiblah.111 He heartily rejoiced, however, with the multitude when the dreary month was over, and he describes112 amusingly the scenes on the first day following it: “Most people,” he says, “were in fresh suits of finery; and so strong is personal vanity in the breast of Orientals . . . that from Cairo to Calcutta it would be difficult to find a sad heart under a handsome coat. The men swaggered, the women minced their steps, rolled their eyes, and were eternally arranging, and coquetting with their head-veils.” In the house of a friend he saw an Armenian wedding. For servant he now took a cowardly and thievish lad named Nur, and, subsequently, he made the acquaintance of a Meccan youth, Mohammed, who was to become his companion throughout the pilgrimage. Mohammed was 18, chocolate brown, short, obese, hypocritical, cowardly, astute, selfish and affectionate. Burton not only purchased the ordinary pilgrim garb, but he also took the precaution to attach to his person “a star sapphire,” the sight of which inspired his companions with “an almost reverential awe,” and even led them to ascribe to him thaumaturgic power.113 His further preparations for the sacred pilgrimage reads rather like a page out of Charles Lever, for the rollicking Irishman was as much in evidence as the holy devotee. They culminated in a drinking bout with an Albanian captain, whom he left, so to speak, under the table; and this having got noised abroad, Burton, with his reputation for sanctity forfeited, found it expedient to set off at once for Mecca. He sent the boy Nur on to Suez with his baggage and followed him soon after on a camel through a “haggard land infested with wild beasts and wilder men.” At Suez he made the acquaintance of some Medina and Mecca folk, who were to be his fellow-travellers; including “Sa’ad the Demon,” a negro who had two boxes of handsome apparel for his three Medina wives and was resolved to “travel free;” and Shaykh Hamid, a “lank Arab foul with sweat,” who never said his prayers because of the trouble of taking clean clothes out of his box. “All these persons,” says Burton, “lost no time in opening the question of a loan. It was a lesson in Oriental metaphysics to see their condition. They had a twelve days’ voyage and a four days’ journey before them; boxes to carry, custom houses to face, and stomachs to fill; yet the whole party could scarcely, I believe, muster two dollars of ready money. Their boxes were full of valuables, arms, clothes, pipes, slippers, sweetmeats, and other ‘notions,’ but nothing short of starvation would have induced them to pledge the smallest article.”114 Foreseeing the advantage of their company, Burton sagaciously lent each of them a little money at high interest, not for the sake of profit, but with a view to becoming a Hatim Tai,115 by a “never mind” on settling day. This piece of policy made “the Father of Moustaches,” as they called him, a person of importance among them. During the delay before starting, he employed himself first in doctoring, and then in flirting with a party of Egyptian women the most seductive of whom was one Fattumah,116 a plump lady of thirty “fond of flattery and possessing, like all her people, a voluble tongue.” The refrain of every conversation was “Marry me, O Fattumah! O daughter! O female pilgrim.” To which the lady would reply coquettishly, “with a toss of the head and a flirting manipulation of her head veil,” “I am mated, O young man.” Sometimes he imitated her Egyptian accent and deprecated her country women, causing her to get angry and bid him begone. Then, instead of “marry me, O Fattumah,” he would say, “O old woman and decrepit, fit only to carry wood to market.” This would bring a torrent of angry words, but when they met again all was forgotten and the flirtations of the day before were repeated.

108 Burton dedicated to Mr. John Larking the 7th volume of The Arabian Nights.

109 Haji Wali in 1877 accompanied Burton to Midian. He died 3rd August 1883, aged 84. See Chapter xx.

110 He died at Cairo, 15th October 1817.

111 That is, in the direction of Mecca.

112 Pilgrimage, Memorial Ed., i., 116.

113 See Preface to The Kasidah, Edition published in 1894.

114 Pilgrimage, Memorial Ed., i., 165.

115 A chieftain celebrated for his generosity. There are several stories about him in The Arabian Nights.

116 An incrementative of Fatimah.

24. The Pilgrim Ship, 6th July 1853.

Burton and his party now embarked on the sambuk which was to take them to Yambu, the port of Medina. As ninety-seven pilgrims were crowded on a vessel constructed to carry only sixty, most extraordinary scenes occurred. Thanks to the exertions of Sa’ad the Demon, Burton and his friends secured places on the poop, the most eligible part of the vessel. They would not be very comfortable anywhere, Sa’ad explained, but “Allah makes all things easy.” Sa’ad himself, who was blessed with a doggedness that always succeeds, managed to get his passage free by declaring himself an able seaman. Disturbances soon commenced. The chief offenders were some Maghrabis, “fine looking animals from the deserts about Tripoli,” the leader of whom, one Maula Ali, “a burly savage,” struck Burton as ridiculously like his old Richmond schoolmaster, the Rev. Charles Delafosse. These gentry tried to force their way on to the poop, but Sa’ad distributed among his party a number of ash staves six feet long, and thick as a man’s wrist. “He shouted to us,” says Burton, “‘Defend yourself if you don’t wish to be the meat of the Maghrabis!’ and to the enemy ‘Dogs and sons of dogs! now shall you see what the children of the Arab are.’ ‘I am Omar of Daghistan!’ ‘I am Abdullah the son of Joseph!’ ‘I am Sa’ad the Demon!117’ we exclaimed.” And, Burton, with his turbulent blood well stirred, found himself in the seventh heaven. “To do our enemies justice,” he continues, “they showed no sign of flinching; they swarmed towards the poop like angry hornets, and encouraged each other with cries of ‘Allaho Akbar!’ But we had a vantage ground about four feet above them, and their short daggers could do nothing against our terrible quarter staves. Presently a thought struck me. A large earthen jar full of drinking water, in its heavy frame of wood stood upon the edge of the poop. Seeing an opportunity, I crept up to the jar and rolled it down upon the swarm of assailants. Its fall caused a shriller shriek to rise above the ordinary din, for heads, limbs and bodies were sorely bruised by the weight, scratched by the broken potsherds, and wetted by the sudden discharge.118 The Maghrabis then slunk off towards the end of the vessel, and presently solicited peace.”

The beauties of the sunrise baffled description. The vessel sailed over a violet sea, and under a sky dappled with agate-coloured clouds. At noon the heat was terrible and all colour melted away, “with the canescence from above.” The passengers were sympathetic with one another, notwithstanding their recent factiousness, and were especially kind to a poor little brown baby, which they handed round and nursed by turns, but the heat, the filth, and the stench of the ship defied description. At Mahar, one of the places where they landed, Burton injured his foot with a poisonous thorn, which made him lame for the rest of the pilgrimage. Presently the welcome profile of Radhwa came in view, the mountain of which the unfortunate Antar119 sang so plaintively:

“Did Radhwa strive to support my woes,

Radhwa itself would be crushed by the weight,”

and on July 17th, after twelve days of purgatory, Burton sprang on shore at Yambu.

117 Burton says of the Arabs, “Above all their qualities, personal conceit is remarkable; they show it in their strut, in their looks, and almost in every word. ‘I am such a one, the son of such a one,’ is a common expletive, especially in times of danger; and this spirit is not wholly to be condemned, as it certainly acts as an incentive to gallant actions.” — Pilgrimage, ii, 21., Memorial Ed.

118 Pilgrimage to Meccah, Memorial Ed., i., 193.

119 A creation of the poet Al-Asma’i. He is mentioned in The Arabian Nights.

25. Medina.

He now dressed himself as an Arab, that is to say, he covered his head with a red kerchief bordered with yellow, his body with a cotton shirt and a camel’s hair cloak, while a red sash, a spear and a dagger completed the outfit. Then, having hired some camels, he joined a caravan, consisting of several hundred men and beasts, which was bound for Medina; but his injured foot still incommoded him. Determined, however, to allow nobody to exceed him in piety, he thrice a day or oftener pounded the sand with his forehead like a true Mussulman.

While passing through one of the mountain gorges the pilgrims were attacked by a number of predatory Bedouin, led by a ferocious chief named Saad, who fired upon them from the rocks with deadly effect, but, at last, after a journey of 130 miles, they reached Medina, with the great sun-scorched Mount Ohod towering behind it — the holy city where, according to repute, the coffin of Mohammed swung between heaven and earth.120 Medina consisted of three parts, a walled town, a large suburb, with ruinous defences, and a fort. Minarets shot up above the numerous flat roofs, and above all flashed the pride of the city, the green dome that covered the tomb of Mohammed. Burton became the guest of the dilatory and dirty Shaykh Hamid. The children of the household, he says, ran about in a half nude state, but he never once set eyes upon the face of woman, “unless the African slave girls be allowed the title. Even these at first attempted to draw their ragged veils over their sable charms.” Having dressed themselves in white, Burton and Hamid sallied out for the Prophet’s Tomb, Burton riding on a donkey because of his lameness. He found the approach to the Mosque choked up by ignoble buildings, and declares that as a whole it had neither beauty nor dignity. Upon entering, he was also disillusioned, for its interior was both mean and tawdry. After various prayers they visited first the “Hujrah,” where they saw the tombs of Mohammed, Abu Bakr, Omar and Fatimah; and afterwards El Rauzah, the Garden situated between the Hujrah and the Prophet’s Pulpit, both very celebrated spots. Of the latter, Mohammed said: “Between my house and my pulpit is a garden of the gardens of paradise.”121 After more prayers they wandered round to the other sights, including the fine Gate of Salvation, the five minarets, and the three celebrated pillars, called respectively, Al-Mukhallak, the Pillar of Ayishah, and the Pillar of Repentance. They then made their way to the Mosque of Kuba, some two miles out of the town, and witnessed the entry into Medina of the great caravan from Damascus, numbering 7,000 souls — grandees in gorgeous litters of green and gold, huge white Syrian dromedaries, richly caparisoned horses and mules, devout Hajis, sherbet sellers, water carriers, and a multitude of camels, sheep and goats.122 Lastly Burton and his friends pilgrimaged to the holy Mount Ohod with its graves of “the martyrs;” and to the celebrated Al-Bakia, or Saints’ Cemetery, where lie ten thousand of the Prophet’s companions. On entering the latter they repeated the usual salutation: “Peace be upon ye, O People of Al-Bakia,” and then sought out the principal tombs — namely those of the Caliph Othman,123 “Our Lady Halimah,”124 the Infant Ibrahim,125 and about fourteen of Mohammed’s wives.126 The cemetery swarmed with clamorous beggars, who squatted with dirty cotton napkins spread on the ground before them for the reception of coins. Some of the women promised to recite Fatihahs for the donors, and the most audacious seized the visitors by their skirts. Burton laid out three dollars in this way, but though the recipients promised loudly to supplicate Allah in behalf of his lame foot, it did not perceptibly benefit. Burton’s companions hinted that he might do worse than settle in Medina. “Why not,” said one, “open a shop somewhere near the Prophet’s Mosque? There thou wilt eat bread by thy skill, and thy soul will have the blessing of being on holy ground.” Burton, however, wanted to be going forward.

120 How this tradition arose nobody seems to know. There are several theories.

121 It is decorated to resemble a garden. There are many references to it in the Arabian Nights. Thus the tale of Otbah and Rayya (Lib. Ed., v., 289) begins “One night as I sat in the garden between the tomb and the pulpit.”

122 Pilgrimage to Meccah (Mem. Ed., i., 418).

123 Mohammed’s son-in-law.

124 Mohammed’s wet nurse.

125 Son of Mohammed and the Coptic girl Mariyah, sent to Mohammed as a present by Jarih, the Governor of Alexandria.

126 Khadijah, the first wife, lies at Mecca.

26. Mecca.

On 31st August, after praying “a two-bow prayer,” he bade adieu to Shaykh Hamid, and with Nur and the boy Mohammed, joined the caravan bound for Mecca, the route taken being the celebrated road through the arid Nejd made by Zubaydah, wife of Harun al Rashid. The events of the journey were not remarkable, though Mohammed very nearly killed himself by feeding too liberally on clarified butter and dates mashed with flour. Sometimes Burton cheered the way and delighted his companions by singing the song of Maysunah, the Arab girl who longed to get back from the Caliph’s palace to the black tents of her tribe. Everybody got into good humour when he began:

“Oh take these purple robes away,

Give back my cloak of camel’s hair,”

and they laughed till they fell on their backs when he came to the line where the desert beauty calls her Royal husband a “fatted ass.” In truth, they needed something to cheer them, for the sky was burnished brass, and their goats died like flies. Simoon and sand-pillar threw down the camels, and loathsome vultures ready for either beast or man hovered above or squabbled around them. To crown their discomforts they were again attached by the Bedouin, whom they dispersed only after a stubborn fight and with the loss of several dromedaries. After passing the classic Wady Laymun, sung by the Arab poet Labid127 in lines suggestive of Goldsmith’s Deserted Village, they very piously shaved their heads and donned the conventional attire, namely two new cotton cloths with narrow red stripes and fringes; and when the Holy City came in view, the whole caravan raised the cry, “Mecca! Mecca! the Sanctuary! O the Sanctuary! Labbayk! Labbayk!”128 the voices being not infrequently broken by sobs.

On entering the gates, Burton and Nur crossed the famous hill Safa and took up their abode with the lad Mohammed. Early next morning they rose, bathed, and made their way with the crowd to the Prophet’s Mosque in order to worship at the huge bier-like erection called the Kaaba, and the adjacent semi-circular Hatim’s wall. The famous Kaaba, which is in the middle of the great court-yard, looked at a distance like an enormous cube, covered with a black curtain, but its plan is really trapeziform. “There at last it lay,” cries Burton, “the bourn of my long and weary pilgrimage, realising the plans and hopes of many and many a year,” — the Kaaba, the place of answered prayer, above which in the heaven of heavens Allah himself sits and draws his pen through people’s sins. “The mirage of fancy invested the huge catafalque and its gloomy pall with peculiar charms.” Of all the worshippers who clung weeping to the curtain,129 or who pressed their beating hearts to the sacred black stone built into the Kaaba, none, thought Burton, felt for the moment a deeper emotion than he. But he had to confess the humbling truth that while theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm, his was but the ecstasy of gratified pride. Bare-headed and footed and in company with Mohammed, he first proceeded to the holy well, Zem-Zem, said to be the same that was shown by God to Hagar.130 They found the water extremely unpleasant to the taste, and Burton noticed that nobody drank it without making a wry face. It was impossible at first to get near the Black Stone owing to the crush of pilgrims. However, they occupied the time in various prayers, blessed the Prophet, and kissed the finger tips of the right hand. They then made the seven Ashwat or circuits, and from time to time raised their hands to their ears, and exclaimed, “In the name of Allah and Allah is omnipotent!” The circuits finished, and it was deemed advisable to kiss the Black Stone. For some minutes Burton stood looking in despair at the swarming crowd of Bedouin and other pilgrims that besieged it. But Mohammed was equal to the occasion. Noticing that most of those near the Stone were Persians, against whom the Arabs have an antipathy, he interpolated his prayers with insults directed against them — one of the mildest being “O hog and brother of a hoggess.” This having small effect he collected half-a-dozen stalwart Meccans, “with whose assistance,” says Burton, “by sheer strength, we wedged our way into the thin and light-legged crowd. . . . After reaching the stone, despite popular indignation testified by impatient shouts, we monopolised the use of it for at least ten minutes. While kissing it and rubbing hands and forehead upon it, I narrowly observed it, and came away persuaded that it was an aerolite.” Burton and his friends next shouldered and fought their way to the part of the Kaaba called Al Multazem, at which they asked for themselves all that their souls most desired. Arrived again at the well Zem-Zem, Burton had to take another nauseous draught and was deluged with two skinfuls of the water dashed over his head. This causes sins to fall from the spirit like dust. He also said the customary prayers at the Makam Ibrahim or Praying Place of Abraham131 and other shrines. At last, thoroughly worn out, with scorched feet and a burning head, he worked his way out of the Mosque, but he was supremely happy for he had now seen:

“Safa, Zem-Zem, Hatim’s wall,

And holy Kaaba’s night-black pall.”132

The next day he journeyed to the sacred Mount of Arafat, familiar to readers of The Arabian Nights from the touching story of Abu Hasan and Abu Ja’afar the Leper and133 he estimated that he was but one of 50,000 pilgrims. The mountain was alive with people, and the huge camp at its foot had booths, huts and bazaars stocked with all manner of Eastern delicacies, and crowded with purchasers. Instead, however, of listening to the sermons, Burton got flirting with a Meccan girl with citrine skin and liquescent eyes.

On the third day, mounted on an ass, he made for Muna and took part in the ceremony called Stoning the Devil. He was, however, but one of a multitude, and, in order to get to the stoned pillar a good deal of shouldering and fighting was necessary. Both Burton and the boy Mohammed, however, gained their end, and like the rest of the people, vigorously pelted the devil, saying as they did so, “In the name of Allah — Allah is Almighty.” To get out of the crowd was as difficult as it had been to get in. Mohammed received a blow in the face which brought the blood from his nose, and Burton was knocked down; but by “the judicious use of the knife” he gradually worked his way into the open again, and piously went once more to have his head shaved and his nails cut, repeating prayers incessantly. Soon after his return to Mecca, Mohammed ran up to him in intense excitement. “Rise, Effendi,” he cried, “dress and follow me; the Kaaba is open.” The pair then made their way thither with alacrity, and, replies to the officials in charge being satisfactory, Mohammed was authoritatively ordered to conduct Burton round the building. They entered. It was a perilous moment; and when Burton looked at the windowless walls and at the officials at the door, and thought of the serried mass of excited fanatics outside, he felt like a trapped rat. However safe a Christian might have been at Mecca, nothing could have preserved him from the ready knives of the faithful if detected in the Kaaba. The very idea was pollution to a Moslem. “Nothing,” says Burton, “is more simple than the interior of this sacred building. The pavement is composed of slabs of fine and various coloured marbles. The upper part of the walls, together with the ceiling, are covered with handsome red damask, flowered over with gold. The flat roof is upheld by three cross beams, supported in the centre by three columns. Between the columns ran bars of metal supporting many lamps said to be of gold.” The total expense was eight dollars, and when they got away, the boy Mohammed said, “Wallah, Effendi! thou has escaped well! some men have left their skins behind.”

The fifty-five other wonders of the city having been visited, Burton sent on Nur with his heavy boxed to Jeddah, the port of Mecca, and he himself followed soon after with Mohammed. At Jeddah he saw its one sight, the tomb of Eve, and then bade adieu to Mohammed, who returned to Mecca. Having boarded the “Dwarka,” an English ship, he descended to his cabin and after a while emerged with all his colouring washed off and in the dress of an English gentleman. Mirza Abdullah of Bushire, “Father of Moustaches,” was once more Richard Francis Burton. This extraordinary exploit made Burton’s name a household word throughout the world, and turned it into a synonym for daring; while his book, the Pigrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, which appeared the following year, was read everywhere with wonder and delight. Had he been worldly-wise he would have proceeded straight to England, where, the lion of the hour, he might have obtained a reward more substantial than mere praise. But he did not show himself until the commotion caused by his exploit had been half-forgotten, and we shall find him making a similar mistake some years later, after his return from Tanganyika.134

It seems that Burton was known in the army as “Ruffian Dick” — not by way of disparagement, but because of this demonic ferocity as a fighter, and because he had “fought in single combat more enemies than perhaps any other man of his time.” One evening soon after his return from Mecca, a party of officers, including a friend of Burton’s named Hawkins, were lounging outside Shepherd’s Hotel at Cairo. As they sat talking and smoking, there passed repeatedly in front of them, an Arab, in his loose flowing robes, with head proudly erect, and the peculiar swinging stride of those sons of the desert. As he strode backwards and forwards he drew nearer and nearer to the little knot of officers, till at last, as he swept by, the flying folds of his burnous brushed against one of the officers. “D—— that nigger’s impudence!” said the officer; “if he does that again, I’ll kick him.” To his surprise the dignified Arab suddenly halted, wheeled round, and exclaimed, “Well, d —— it, Hawkins, that’s a fine way to welcome a fellow after two year’s absence.” “It’s Ruffian Dick!” cried the astonished officer.135

Perhaps to this period must be assigned the bastinado incident. Burton used to tell the tale136 as follows: “Once, in Egypt, another man and I were out duck shooting, and we got separated. When I next came in sight of the other man some Turkish soldiers had tied him up and were preparing to administer the bastinado. As I hurried to his assistance he said something to the Turks which I could not catch, and pointed to me. Instantly they untied him and pouncing upon me, tried to put me in his place, while my companion took to his heels. As they were six to one, they succeeded, and I had the very unpleasant experience of being bastinadoed. The first dozen or two strokes I didn’t mind much, but at about the ninetieth the pain was too excruciating for description. When they had finished with me I naturally enquired what it was all for. It seems that my companion when firing at a duck had accidentally shot an Egyptian woman, the wife of one of the soldiers. Upon my appearance he had called out in Turkish to the soldiers: ‘It was not I who fired the shot, it was that other fellow,’ pointing to me. The blackguard has taken good care to keep out of my way ever since.”

127 Known to us chiefly through Dr. Carlyle’s poor translation. See Pilgrimage, ii., 147.

128 Here am I.

129 Readers of The Arabian Nights will remember the incident in the Story of the Sweep and the Noble Lady. “A man laid hold of the covering of the Kaaba, and cried out from the bottom of his heart, saying, I beseech thee, O Allah, etc.”

130 See Genesis xxi., 15.

131 The stone upon which Abraham stood when he built the Kaaba. Formerly it adjoined the Kaaba. It is often alluded to in The Arabian Nights. The young man in The Mock Caliph says, “This is the Place and thou art Ibrahim.”

132 See also The Arabian Nights, The Loves of Al-Hayfa and Yusuf, Burton’s A.N. (Supplemental), vol. v.; Lib. Ed., vol. xi., p. 289.

133 Burton’s A.N., v., 294; Lib. Ed., iv., 242.

134 See Chapter ix.

135 Sporting Truth.

136 The reader may believe as much of this story as he likes.

27. Burton’s Delight in Shocking.

The story of Burton’s adventures having spread abroad, people now took the trouble to invent many incidents that were untrue. They circulated, for example, a grisly tale of a murder which he was understood to have committed on a man who had penetrated his disguise,137 and, the tale continuing to roll, the murder became eventually two murders. Unfortunately, Burton was cursed with a very foolish habit, and one that later did him considerable harm. Like Lord Byron, he delighted to shock. His sister had often reproved him for it after his return from India, but without effecting a change. Kindly listeners hardly knew how to take him, while the malicious made mischief. One day, in England, when, in the presence of his sister and a lady friend, he had thought fit to enlarge on a number of purely fictitious misdeeds, he was put to some shame. His sister having in vain tried by signs to stop him, the friend at last cut him short with: “Am I to admire you, Mr. Burton?” And he accepted the reproof. Still, he never broke himself of this dangerous habit; indeed, when the murder report spread abroad he seems to have been rather gratified than not; and he certainly took no trouble to refute the calumny.

On another occasion he boasted of his supposed descent from Louis XIV. “I should have thought,” exclaimed a listener, “that you who have such good Irish blood in your veins would be glad to forget your descent from a dishonourable union.”

“Oh, no,” replied Burton vehemently, “I would rather be the bastard of a king than the son of an honest man.”

Though this was at the time simply intended to shock, nevertheless it illustrated in a sense his real views. He used to insist that the offspring of illicit or unholy unions were in no way to be pitied if they inherited, as if often the case, the culture or splendid physique of the father and the comeliness of the mother; and instanced King Solomon, Falconbridge, in whose “large composition,” could be read tokens of King Richard,138 and the list of notables from Homer to “Pedro’s son,” as catalogued by Camoens139 who said:

“The meed of valour Bastards aye have claimed

By arts or arms, or haply both conjoined.”

The real persons to be pitied, he said, were the mentally or physically weak, whatever their parentage.

137 The man was said to have been killed in cold blood simply to silence a wagging tongue.

138 See Shakespeare’s King John, act i., scene i.

139 Burton’s translation of the Lusiads, vol. ii., p. 425.

28. El Islam.

Burton now commenced to write a work to be called El Islam, or the History of Mohammedanism; which, however, he never finished. It opens with an account of the rise of Christianity, his attitude to which resembled that of Renan.140 Of Christ he says: “He had given an impetus to the progress of mankind by systematizing a religion of the highest moral loveliness, showing what an imperfect race can and may become.” He then dilates on St. Paul, who with a daring hand “rent asunder the ties connecting Christianity with Judaism.” “He offered to the great family of man a Church with a Diety at its head and a religion peculiarly of principles. He left the moral code of Christianity untouched in its loveliness. After the death of St. Paul,” continues Burton, “Christianity sank into a species of idolatry. The acme of stupidity was attained by the Stylites, who conceived that mankind had no nobler end than to live and die upon the capital of a column. When things were at their worst Mohammed first appeared upon the stage of life.” The work was published in its unfinished state after Burton’s death.

With The Kasidah we shall deal in a later chapter, for though Burton wrote a few couplets at this time, the poem did not take its present shape till after the appearance of FitzGerald’s adaptation of The Rubaiyat Oman Khayyam.

Having spent a few weeks in Egypt, Burton returned to Bombay, travelling in his Arab dress. Among those on board was an English gentleman, Mr. James Grant Lumsden, senior member of the Council, Bombay, who being struck by Burton’s appearance, said to a friend, “What a clever, intellectual face that Arab has!” Burton, overhearing the remark, made some humorous comment in English, and thus commenced a pleasant friendship.

140 Although Burton began El Islam about 1853, he worked at it years after. Portions of it certainly remind one of Renan’s Life of Jesus, which appeared in 1863.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burton/richard/b97zw/chapter6.html

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