The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter XI

August 1861-November 1863

Fernando Po


18. Wanderings in West Africa. 2 vols. 1863.

19. Prairie Traveller, by R. B. Marcy. Edited by Burton 1863.

20. Abeokuta and the Cameroons. 2 vols. 1863.

21. A Day among the Fans. 17th February 1863.

22. The Nile Basin, 1864.

43. African Gold.

As the result of his exceptional services to the public Burton had hoped that he would obtain some substantial reward; and his wife persistently used all the influence at her disposal to this end. Everyone admitted his immense brain power, but those mysterious rumours due to his enquiries concerning secret Eastern habits and customs dogged him like some terrible demon. People refused to recognise that he had pursued his studies in the interest of learning and science. They said, absurdly enough, “A man who studies vice must be vicious.” His insubordination at various times, his ungovernable temper, and his habit of saying out bluntly precisely what he thought, also told against him. Then did Mrs. Burton commence that great campaign which is her chief title to fame — the defence of her husband. Though, as we have already shown, a person of but superficial education; though, life through, she never got more than a smattering of any one branch of knowledge; nevertheless by dint of unremitting effort she eventually prevailed upon the public to regard Burton with her own eyes. She wrote letters to friends, to enemies, to the press. She wheedled, she bullied, she threatened, she took a hundred other courses — all with one purpose. She was very often woefully indiscreet, but nobody can withhold admiration for her. Burton was scarcely a model husband — he was too peremptory and inattentive for that — but this self-sacrifice and hero worship naturally told on him, and he became every year more deeply grateful to her. He laughed at her foibles — he twitted her on her religion and her faulty English, but he came to value the beauty of her disposition, and the goodness of her heart even more highly than the graces of her person. All, however, that his applications, her exertions, and the exertions of her friends could obtain from the Foreign Secretary (Lord Russell)186 was the Consulship of that white man’s grave, Fernando Po, with a salary of £700 a year. In other words he was civilly shelved to a place where all his energies would be required for keeping himself alive. “They want me to die,” said Burton, bitterly, “but I intend to live, just to spite the devils.” It is the old tale, England breeds great men, but grudges them opportunities for the manifestation of their greatness.

The days that remained before his departure, Burton spent at various Society gatherings, but the pleasures participated in by him and his wife were neutralised by a great disaster, namely the loss of all his Persian and Arabic manuscripts in a fire at Grindley’s where they had been stored. He certainly took his loss philosophically; but he could never think of the event without a sigh.

Owing to the unwholesomeness of the climate of Fernando Po, Mrs. Burton was, of course, unable to accompany him. They separated at Liverpool, 24th August 1861. An embrace, “a heart wrench;” and then a wave of the handkerchief, while “the Blackbird” African steam ship fussed its way out of the Mersey, having on board the British scape-goat sent away — “by the hand of a fit man” — one “Captain English” — into the wilderness of Fernando Po. “Unhappily,” commented Burton, “I am not one of those independents who can say ce n’est que le premier pas qui coute.” The stoic, however, after a fair fight, eventually vanquished the husband. Still he did not forget his wife; and in his Wanderings in West Africa, a record of this voyage, there is a very pretty compliment to her which, however, only the initiated would recognise. After speaking of the black-haired, black-eyed women of the South of Europe, and giving them their due, he says, “but after a course of such charms, one falls back with pleasure upon brown, yellow or what is better than all, red-auburn locks and eyes of soft, limpid blue.” How the blue eyes of Mrs. Burton must have glistened when she read those words; and we can imagine her taking one more look in the glass to see if her hair really was red-auburn, as, of course, it was.

Burton dedicated this work to the “True Friends” of the Dark Continent, “not to the ‘Philanthropist’ or to Exeter Hall.”187 One of its objects was to give a trustworthy account of the negro character and to point out the many mistakes that well-intentioned Englishmen had made in dealing with it. To put it briefly, he says that the negro188 is an inferior race, and that neither education nor anything else can raise it to the level of the white. After witnessing, at the Grand Bonny River, a horrid exhibition called a Juju or sacrifice house, he wrote, “There is apparently in this people [the negroes] a physical delight in cruelty to beast as well as to man. The sight of suffering seems to bring them an enjoyment without which the world is tame; probably the wholesale murderers and torturers of history, from Phalaris and Nero downwards, took an animal and sensual pleasure in the look of blood, and in the inspection of mortal agonies. I can see no other explanation of the phenomena which meet my eye in Africa. In almost all the towns on the Oil Rivers, you see dead or dying animals in some agonizing position.”189

Cowper had written:

“Skins may differ, but affection

Dwells in white and black the same;”

“which I deny,” comments Burton, “affection, like love, is the fruit of animalism refined by sentiment.” He further declares that the Black is in point of affection inferior to the brutes. “No humane Englishman would sell his dog to a negro.”190 The phrase “God’s image in ebony” lashed him to a fury.

Of his landing at Sierra Leone he gives the following anecdote:191 “The next day was Sunday, and in the morning I had a valise carried up to the house to which I had been invited. When I offered the man sixpence, the ordinary fee, he demanded an extra sixpence, ‘for breaking the Sabbath.’ I gave it readily, and was pleased to find that the labours of our missionaries had not been in vain.” At Cape Coast Castle, he recalled the sad fate of “L.E.L.”192 and watched the women “panning the sand of the shore for gold.” He found that, in the hill region to the north, gold digging was carried on to a considerable extent. “The pits,” he says, “varying from two to three feet in diameter, and from twelve to fifty feet deep, are often so near the roads that loss of life has been the result. Shoring up being little known, the miners are not infrequently buried alive. . . . This Ophir, this California, where every river is a Tmolus and a Pactolus, every hillock a gold-field — does not contain a cradle, a puddling-machine, a quartz crusher, a pound of mercury.” That a land apparently so wealthy should be entirely neglected by British capitalists caused Burton infinite surprise, but he felt certain that it had a wonderful future. His thoughts often reverted thither, and we shall find him later in life taking part in an expedition sent out to report upon certain of its gold fields.193

By September 26th the “Blackbird” lay in Clarence Cove, Fernando Po; and the first night he spent on shore, Burton, whose spirits fell, wondered whether he was to find a grave there like that other great African traveller, the Cornish Richard Lander.194

186 Lord Russell was Foreign Secretary from 1859-1865.

187 Wanderings in West Africa, 2 vols., 1863.

188 The genuine black, not the mulatto, as he is careful to point out. Elsewhere he says the negro is always eight years old — his mind never develops. Mission to Gelele, i, 216.

189 Wanderings in West Africa, vol. ii., p. 283.

190 See Mission to Gelele, ii., 126.

191 Although the anecdote appears in his Abeokuta it seems to belong to this visit.

192 Mrs. Maclean, “L.E.L.,” went out with her husband, who was Governor of Cape Coast Castle. She was found poisoned 15th October 1838, two days after her arrival. Her last letters are given in The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1839.

193 See Chapter xxii.

194 Lander died at Fernando Po, 16th February 1834.

44. Anecdotes.

Fernando Po,195 he tells us, is an island in which man finds it hard to live and very easy to die. It has two aspects. About Christmas time it is “in a state deeper than rest”:

“A kind of sleepy Venus seemed Dudu.”

But from May to November it is the rainy season. The rain comes down “a sheet of solid water, and often there is lightning accompanied by deafening peals of thunder.” The capital, Sta. Isabel, nee Clarence, did not prepossess him. Pallid men — chiefly Spaniards — sat or lolled languidly in their verandahs, or crawled about the baking-hot streets. Strangers fled the place like a pestilence. Fortunately the Spanish colony were just establishing a Sanitarium — Sta. Cecilia — 400 metres above sea level; consequently health was within reach of those who would take the trouble to seek it; and Burton was not slow to make a sanitarium of his own even higher up. To the genuine natives or Bubes he was distinctly attracted. They lived in sheds without walls, and wore nothing except a hat, which prevented the tree snakes from falling on them. The impudence of the negroes, however, who would persist in treating the white man not even as an equal, but as an inferior, he found to be intolerable. Shortly after his arrival “a nigger dandy” swaggered into the consulate, slapped him on the back in a familiar manner, and said with a loud guffaw, “Shake hands, consul. How d’ye do?” Burton looked steadily at the man for a few moments, and then calling to his canoe-men said, “Hi, Kroo-boys, just throw this nigger out of window, will you?” The boys, delighted with the task, seized the black gentleman by his head and feet, and out of the window he flew. As the scene was enacted on the ground floor the fall was no great one, but it was remarked that henceforward the niggers of Fernando Po were less condescending to the Consul. When night fell and the fire-flies began to glitter in the orange trees, Burton used to place on the table before him a bottle of brandy, a box of cigars, and a bowl containing water and a handkerchief and then write till he was weary;196 rising now and again to wet his forehead with the handkerchief or to gaze outside at the palm plumes, transmuted by the sheen of the moon into lucent silver — upon a scene that would have baffled the pen even of an Isaiah or a Virgil.

The captains of ships calling at Sta. Isabel were, it seems, in the habit of discharging their cargoes swiftly and steaming off again without losing a moment. As this caused both inconvenience and loss to the merchants from its allowing insufficient time to read and answer correspondence, they applied to Burton for remedy. After the next ship had discharged, its captain walked into the Consulate and exclaimed off-handedly, “Now, Consul, quick with my papers; I want to be off.” Burton looked up and replied unconcernedly: “I haven’t finished my letters.” “Oh d ——— your letters,” cried the captain, “I can’t wait for them.” “Stop a bit,” cried Burton, “let’s refer to your contract,” and he unfolded the paper. “According to this, you have to stay here eighteen hours’ daylight, in order to give the merchants an opportunity of attending to their correspondence.” “Yes,” followed the captain,” but that rule has never been enforced.” “Are you going to stay?” enquired Burton. “No,” replied the captain, with an oath. “Very good,” followed Burton. “Now I am going straight to the governor’s and I shall fire two guns. If you go one minute before the prescribed time expires I shall send the first shot right across your bows, and the second slap into you. Good-day.”197 The captain did not venture to test the threat; and the merchants had henceforth no further trouble under his head.

195 For notes on Fernando Po see Laird and Oldfield’s Narrative of an Expedition into the Interior of Africa, etc. (1837), Winwood Reade’s Savage Africa, and Rev. Henry Roe’s West African Scenes (1874).

196 Told me by the Rev. Henry Roe.

197 Life, and various other works.

45. Fans and Gorillas.

During his Consulship, Burton visited a number of interesting spots on the adjoining African coasts, including Abeokuta198 and Benin, but no place attracted him more than the Cameroon country; and his work Two Trips to Gorilla Land199 is one of the brightest and raciest of all his books. The Fan cannibals seem to have specially fascinated him. “The Fan,” he says “like all inner African tribes, with whom fighting is our fox-hunting, live in a chronic state of ten days’ war. Battles are not bloody; after two or three warriors have fallen their corpses are dragged away to be devoured, their friends save themselves by flight, and the weaker side secures peace by paying sheep and goats.” Burton, who was present at a solemn dance led by the king’s eldest daughter, Gondebiza, noticed that the men were tall and upright, the women short and stout. On being addressed “Mbolane,” he politely replied “An,” which in cannibal-land is considered good form. He could not, however, bring himself to admire Gondebiza, though the Monsieur Worth of Fanland had done his utmost for her. Still, she must have looked really engaging in a thin pattern of tattoo, a gauze work of oil and camwood, a dwarf pigeon tail of fan palm for an apron, and copper bracelets and anklets. The much talked of gorilla Burton found to be a less formidable creature than previous travellers had reported. “The gorilla,” he, says, in his matter-of-fact way, “is a poor devil ape, not a hellish dream creature, half man, half beast.” Burton not only did not die at Fernando Po, he was not even ill. Whenever langour and fever threatened he promptly winged his way to his eyrie on the Pico de Sta. Isabel, where he made himself comfortable and listened with complaisance to Lord Russell and friends three thousand miles away fuming and gnashing their teeth.

198 See Abeokuta and the Cameroons, 2 vols., 1863.

199 Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, 2 vols., 1876.

46. The Anthropological Society, 6th Jan. 1863.

After an absence of a year and a half, Burton, as the result of his wife’s solicitation at the Foreign Office, obtained four months’ leave. He reached England in December 1862 and spent Christmas with her at Wardour Castle, the seat of her kinsman, Lord Arundell. His mind ran continually on the Gold Coast and its treasures. “If you will make me Governor of the Gold Coast,” he wrote to Lord Russell, “I will send home a million a year,” but in reply, Russell, with eyes unbewitched200 observed caustically that gold was getting too common. Burton’s comment was an explosion that terrorised everyone near him. He then amused himself by compiling a pamphlet on West African proverbs, one of which, picked up in the Yorubas country, ran, oddly enough: “Anger draweth arrows from the quiver: good words draw kolas from the bag.”

The principal event of this holiday was the foundation, with the assistance of Dr. James Hunt, of the Anthropological Society of London (6th January 1863). The number who met was eleven. Says Burton, “Each had his own doubts and hopes and fears touching the vitality of the new-born. Still, we knew that our case was good. . . . We all felt the weight of a great want. As a traveller and a writer of travels I have found it impossible to publish those questions of social economy and those physiological observations, always interesting to our common humanity, and at times so valuable.” The Memoirs of the Anthropological Society,201 met this difficulty. Burton was the first president, and in two years the Society, which met at No. 4, St. Martin’s Place, had 500 members. “These rooms,” Burton afterwards commented, “now offer a refuge to destitute truth. There any man, monogenist, polygenist, eugenestic or dysgenestic, may state the truth as far as is in him.” The history of the Society may be summed up in a few words. In 1871 it united with the Enthnological Society and formed the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain. In 1873 certain members of the old society, including Burton, founded the London Anthropological Society, and issued a periodical called Anthropologia, of which Burton wrote in 1885, “My motive was to supply travellers with an organ which would rescue their observations from the outer darkness of manuscript and print their curious information on social and sexual matters out of place in the popular book intended for the Nipptisch, and indeed better kept from public view. But hardly had we begun when ‘Respectability,’ that whited sepulchre full of all uncleanness, rose up against us. ‘Propriety’ cried us down with her brazen, blatant voice, and the weak-kneed brethren fell away.202 Yet the organ was much wanted and is wanted still.”203 Soon after the founding of the Society Burton, accompanied by his wife, took a trip to Madeira and then proceeded to Teneriffe, where they parted, he going on to Fernando Po and she returning to England; but during the next few years she made several journeys to Teneriffe, where, by arrangement, they periodically met.

200 “Who first bewitched our eyes with Guinea gold.” Dryden, Annus Mirabilis, 67.

201 Incorporated subsequently with a Quarterly Journal, The Anthropological Review.

202 See Chapter xxix., 140.

203 Foreword to The Arabian Nights, vol. 1. The Arabian Nights, of course, was made to answer the purpose of this organ.

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