The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter III

April 1842-20th February 1847


8. To Bombay, 18th June 1842.

On his arrival in London, Burton, in order to have an hour or two of peace, coolly told his people that he had been given an extra vacation, “as a reward for winning a double first.” Then occurred a quite un-looked-for sequel. His father insisted on giving a dinner in honour of the success, and Burton, unwillingly enough, became the hero of the moment. At table, however, a remark from one of the guests revealed the precise truth — with the result of an unpleasant scene; but eventually it was deemed advisable to let Burton have his own way and exchange the surplice for the sword. The Indian Service having been selected, a commission was purchased for £500, and Burton presently found himself Ensign to the 18th Regiment, Bombay Native Infantry. Delirious with joy, he applied himself vigorously to Hindustani under a dirty, smoky Scotch linguist, named Duncan Forbes. While thus employed he made the acquaintance of two persons who just them enjoyed a remarkable reputation, namely John Varley 54, the water colour painter and occultist, and the Rev. Robert Montgomery. 55 An artist of undoubted genius, Varley usually got fair prices for his pictures, but the expenses of a numerous family kept him miserably poor. Then he took to “judicial astrology,” and eventually made it a kind of second profession. Curious to say, some of his predictions came true, and thanks to this freak of fate he obtained more fame from his horoscopes than from his canvasses. He “prognosticated,” says Burton, “that I was to become a great astrologer.” Straightway Burton buried himself in astrological and cabalistic books 56, studied the uncanny arts, and became learned in “dark spells and devilish enginery,” but his own prophecies generally proved to be of the Moseilima type; that is to say, the opposite invariably happened — a fatality that pursued him to the end of life. The Rev. Robert Montgomery, with whom also he became acquainted, was the fashionable preacher and author whom Macaulay cudgelled so pitilessly in the Edinburgh Review. Burton’s aunts, Sarah and Georgiana, 57 who went with the crowd to his chapel, ranked the author of “Satan, a Poem,” rather above Shakespeare, and probably few men have received higher encomiums or a greater number of wool-work slippers.

Having been sworn in at the East India House, Burton went down to Greenwich, whence on 18th June, 1842, after being “duly wept over,” he, in company with his beautifully built bull-terrier of renowned pedigree, set sail for Bombay. He divided his time during the voyage, which lasted four months, between studying Hindustani and taking part in the quarrels of the crew. This was the year of the murder of Sir William Macnaughten by the Afghans and the disastrous retreat of the British from Cabul; consequently the first request of the voyagers on reaching Bombay (28th October 1842) was for news about Afghanistan. They learnt that the prestige of the British arms had been restored by Pollack, and that the campaign was ended.

To Burton, who had counted on being sent to the front, this was a burning disappointment. He found Bombay marvellously picturesque, with its crowds of people from all parts of the world, but before many days had passed he fell ill and had to be transferred to the Sanitarium, where he made the acquaintance of an old Parsee priest who assisted him in his Hindustani. Even in these early days we find him collecting material of the kind that was to be utilised in his Arabian Nights. He was struck, for example, with the fine hedges of henna whose powerful and distinctive odour loaded the atmosphere; and with the immense numbers of ravenous kites and grey-headed crows that swooped down on dead and even dying animals.

54 He died 17th November 1842, aged 65.

55 Robert Montgomery 1807-1855.

56 “My reading also ran into bad courses — Erpenius, Zadkiel, Falconry, Cornelius Agrippa” — Burton’s Autobiographical Fragment.

57 Sarah Baker (Mrs. Francis Burton), Georgiana Baker (Mrs. Bagshaw).

9. Baroda. The Bubu.

After six weeks’ rest, having received orders to join his regiment, which was then stationed at Baroda, he engaged some Goanese servants and made the voyage thither in a small vessel called a pattymar. It took them four days to march from the Tankaria-Bunder mudbank, where they landed, to Baroda; and Burton thus graphically describes the scenery through which they passed. “The ground, rich black earth . . . was covered with vivid, leek-like, verdigris green. The little villages, with their leafy huts, were surrounded and protected by hedge milk bush, the colour of emeralds. A light veil, as of Damascene silver, hung over each settlement, and the magnificent trees were tipped by peacocks screaming their good-night to the son.” The sharp bark of the monkey mingled with the bray of the conch. Arrived at Baroda, he lodged himself in a bungalow, and spent his time alternately there with his books and on the drill ground. He threw himself into his studies with an ardour scarcely credible — devoting twelve hours a day to Hindustani, and outwearying two munshis.

At that time it was quite the custom for the officers, married as well as single, to form irregular unions with the Hindu women. Every individual had his Bubu; consequently half-caste children were not uncommon; but Burton was of opinion that this manner of life had advantages as well as disadvantages. It connected, he says, “the white stranger with the country and its people, gave him an interest in their manners and customs, and taught him thoroughly well their language.” Like the rest, Burton had his Bubu. Still, he was no voluptuary. Towering ambition, enthusiasm, and passion for hard work trampled down all meaner instincts. Languages, not amours, were his aspiration, and his mind ran on grammar books rather than ghazels; though he confesses to having given whole days and nights to the tender pages of Euclid. Indeed, he was of a cold nature, and Plutarch’s remark about Alexander applies equally to him: “For though otherwise he was very hot and hasty, yet was he hardly moved with lust or pleasure of the body.” When the officers were not on the drill ground or philandering with their dusky loves, they amused themselves shooting the black buck, tigers, and the countless birds with which the neighbourhood abounded. The dances of the aphish-looking Nautch girls, dressed though they were in magnificent brocades, gave Burton disgust rather than pleasure. The Gaikwar, whose state processions were gorgeous to a wonder, occasionally inaugurated spectacles like those of the old Roman arena, and we hear of fights between various wild animals. “Cocking” was universal, and Burton, who as a lad had patronised this cruel sport, himself kept a fighter — “Bhujang” — of which he speaks affectionately, as one might of an only child. The account of the great fight between Bhujang and the fancy of a certain Mr. Ahmed Khan, which took place one evening “after prayers,” may be read by those who have a taste for such matters in Burton’s book Sind Revisited. 58 When Bhujang died, Burton gave it almost Christian burial near his bungalow, and the facetious enquired whether the little mound was not “a baby’s grave.”

His hero was the eagle-faced little veteran and despot, Sir Charles Napier, generally known from his Jewish look as “Fagin,” and from his irascibility as “The Devil’s Brother,” and after the war with Sind, the chief event of which was the battle of Meeanee (February 21st), where Sir Charles and Major Outram defeated the Ameer, his admiration grew almost to worship; though he did not actually see his hero till some months later. According to Punch the news of the battle was transmitted to headquarters in one word: “Peccavi.” A quarrel then broke out between the great English leaders, and Western India was divided into the two opposing camps of Outramists and Napierists, Burton, of course, siding with the latter. In April, Burton returned to Bombay to present himself for examination in Hindustani, and having passed with honour 59 he returned to Baroda, where he experienced all the inconveniences attendant on the south-west monsoon. The rain fell in cataracts. Night and day he lay or sat in a wet skin; the air was alive with ants and other winged horrors, which settled on both food and drink, while the dust storms were so dense that candles had to be burned in mid-day. However he applied himself vigorously to Gujarati 60, the language of the country, and also took lessons in Sanskrit.

“I soon,” he says, “became as well acquainted as a stranger can with the practice of Hinduism. I carefully read up Ward, Moor, and the publications of the Asiatic Society . . . and eventually my Hindu teacher officially allowed me to wear the Brahminical thread.” He learnt some of the Hindu text books by heart, including the Tota-kahani 61, which gave him a taste for “parrot books,” 62 on which he became an authority; while the study of the Baital-Pachisi led to his writing Vikram and the Vampire. 63 All this application caused his fellow officers to call him “The White Nigger.”

Although, in after years, Burton often made bitter attacks on Christianity, and wrote most scathingly against the Roman Catholic priesthood, and the cenobitic life of the monks, yet at times he had certain sympathies with Roman Catholicism. Thus at Baroda, instead of attending the services of the garrison chaplain, he sat under the pleasant Goanese priest who preached to the camp servants; but he did not call himself a Catholic. In August he visited Bombay to be examined in Gujarati; and having passed with distinction, he once more returned to Baroda — just in time to join in the farewell revels of his regiment, which was ordered to Sind.

58 Sind Revisited. Vol. ii. pp. 78-83.

59 5th May 1843. He was first of twelve.

60 “How,” asked Mr. J. F. Collingwood of him many years after, “do you manage to learn a language so rapidly and thoroughly?” To which he replied: “I stew the grammar down to a page which I carry in my pocket. Then when opportunity offers, or is made, I get hold of a native — preferably an old woman, and get her to talk to me. I follow her speech by ear and eye with the keenest attention, and repeat after her every word as nearly as possible, until I acquire the exact accent of the speaker and the true meaning of the words employed by her. I do not leave her before the lesson is learnt, and so on with others until my own speech is indistinguishable from that of the native.” — Letter from Mr. Collingwood to me, 22nd June 1905.

61 The Tota-kahani is an abridgment of the Tuti-namah (Parrot-book) of Nakhshabi. Portions of the latter were translated into English verse by J. Hoppner, 1805. See also Anti-Jacobin Review for 1805, p. 148.

62 Unpublished letter to Mr. W. F. Kirby, 8th April 1885. See also Lib. Ed. of The Arabian Nights, viii., p. 73, and note to Night V.

63 This book owes whatever charm it possesses chiefly to the apophthegms embedded in it. Thus, “Even the gods cannot resist a thoroughly obstinate man.” “The fortune of a man who sits, sits also.” “Reticence is but a habit. Practise if for a year, and you will find it harder to betray than to conceal your thoughts.”

10. Karachi. Love of Disguise.

On board the Semiramis, in which the voyage was performed, he made the acquaintance of Captain Scott, nephew of the novelist — a handsome man “with yellow hair and beard,” and friendship followed. Both were fond of ancient history and romance, and Burton, who could speak Italian fluently and had knowledge of the canalization of the Po Valley, was able to render Scott, whose business was the surveyal of Sind, the precise assistance he just then required. Burton also formed a friendship with Dr. John Steinhauser, afterwards surgeon at Aden. Then, too, it was at Karachi that he first saw his hero, Sir Charles Napier. Though his ferocious temper repelled some, and his Rabelaisisms and kindred witticisms others, Sir Charles won the admiration and esteem of almost all who knew him. It was from him, to some extent, that Burton acquired the taste, afterwards so extraordinarily developed for erotic, esoteric and other curious knowledge. Napier intensely hated the East India Company, as the champions of his detested rival, Major Outram, and customarily spoke of them contemptuously as the “Twenty-four kings of Leadenhall Street,” while Burton on his part felt little respect for the effete and maundering body whose uniform he wore and whose pay he drew.

Karachi 64, then not much better than a big village, was surrounded by walls which were perforated with “nostril holes,” for pouring boiling water through in times of siege. There were narrow lanes, but no streets — the only open place being a miserable bazaar; while owing to the absence of sewers the stench was at times unendurable. Near the town was a great shallow artificial pond which abounded in huge sleepy crocodiles, sacred animals which were tended by a holy fakir, and one of Burton’s amusements was to worry these creatures with his bull terrier. Tired of that pastime, he would muzzle a crocodile by means of a fowl fastened to a hook at the end of a rope, and then jump on to its back and take a zig-zag ride. 65 The feat of his friend, Lieutenant Beresford, of the 86th, however, was more daring even than that. Here and there in the pond were islets of rank grass, and one day noticing that the crocodiles and islets made a line across the pond, he took a run and hopped from one crocodile’s back on to another or an islet until he reached the opposite side, though many a pair of huge jaws snapped angrily as he passed.

Burton presently found himself gazetted as Captain Scott’s assistant; and having learnt the use of the theodolite and the spirit level, he went on December 10th (1844) with a surveying party to Hyderbad 66 and the Guni River. The work was trying, but he varied it with hawking; and collected material for a work which he published eight years later with the title of Falconry in the Valley of the Indus. He then made the acquaintance of three natives, all of whom assisted him in his linguistic studies, Mirza Ali Akhbar 67, Mirza Daud, and Mirza Mohammed Musayn. Helped by the last he opened covertly at Karachi several shops with the object, however, not of making profit, but of obtaining intimate knowledge of the people and their secret customs. Then he put on long hair and a venerable beard, stained his limbs with henna, and called himself Abdullah of Bushire, a half-Arab. In this disguise, with spear in hand and pistols in holsters, he travelled the country with a little pack of nick-knacks. In order to display his stock he boldly entered private houses, for he found that if the master wanted to eject him, the mistress would be sure to oppose such a measure.

All his life he loved to disguise himself. We shall see him later as a Greek doctor, a Pathan Hakim, and an Arab shaykh. His shops had plenty of customers, for he was in the habit of giving the ladies, especially if they were pretty, “the heaviest possible weight for their money,” though sometimes he would charge too much in order to induce them to chaffer with him. He learnt most, however, from the garrulity of a decayed beauty named Khanum Jan, who in her springtide had married a handsome tailor. Her husband having lost the graces of his person, she generally alluded to him affectionately as “that old hyena.” This couple proved a Golconda for information. Burton had not long studied these and other persons before coming to the conclusion that the Eastern mind is always in extremes, that it ignores what is meant by the “golden mean,” and that it delights to range in flights limited only by the ne plus ultra of Nature herself. He picked up miscellaneous information about magic, white and black, Yoga 68, local manners and customs such as circumcision, both female and male, and other subjects, all of which he utilised when he came to write his Notes and Terminal Essay to The Arabian Nights, particularly the articles on Al Islam and woman. Then, too, when at Bombay and other large towns he used to ransack the bazaars for rare books and manuscripts, whether ancient or contemporaneous. Still, the most valuable portion of his knowledge was acquired orally.

64 Now it is a town of 80,000 inhabitants.

65 Sind Revisited, i. 100.

66 “The first City of Hind.” See Arabian Nights, where it is called Al Mansurah, “Tale of Salim.” Burton’s A. N., Sup. i., 341. Lib Ed. ix., 230.

67 Mirza=Master. Burton met Ali Akhbar again in 1876. See chapter xviii., 84.

68 Yoga. One of the six systems of Brahmanical philosophy, the essence of which is meditation. Its devotees believe that by certain ascetic practices they can acquire command over elementary matter. The Yogi go about India as fortune-tellers.

11. A Dangerous Mission, 1845.

About this time it was reported to Sir Charles Napier that Karachi, though a town of only 2,000 souls, supported no fewer than three houses which were devoted to a particular and unspeakable vice 69 which is said to be common in the East. Sir Charles, whose custom it was to worm out the truth respecting anything and everything, at once looked round for someone willing to make enquiries and to report upon the subject. Burton being then the only British officer who could speak Sindi, the choice naturally fell upon him, and he undertook the task, only, however, on the express condition that his report should not be forwarded to the Bombay Government, from whom supporters of Napier’s policy “could expect scant favour, mercy, or justice.” Accompanied by his Munshi, Mirza Mohammed Hosayn Shiraz, and disguised as a merchant, Burton passed many evenings in the town, made the required visits, and obtained the fullest details, which were duly dispatched to Government House. But in 1847, when Napier quitted Sind “he left in his office Burton’s unfortunate official.” “This,” says Burton, “found its way with sundry other reports to Bombay, and produced the expected result. A friend in the secretariat informed me that my summary dismissal had been formally proposed by one of Sir Charles Napier’s successors, but this excess of outraged modesty was not allowed.” 70 A little later, however, Burton had to suffer very severely for this unfortunate occurrence. Of course he heard regularly from home. His father was still immersed in blow-pipes and retorts, his mother still mildly protesting. His sister, who had won to herself for her loveliness the name of “the Moss Rose,” was married to General Sir Henry Stisted 71, his brother Edward was practising as an army doctor; his Grandmother Baker was dead. 72

69 Burton used to say that this vice is prevalent in a zone extending from the South of Spain through Persia to China and then opening out like a trumpet and embracing all aboriginal America. Within this zone he declared it to be endemic, outside it sporadic.

70 Burton’s Arabian Nights, Terminal Essay, vol. x. pp. 205, 206, and The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton, by W. H. Wilkins, ii., 730.

71 Married in 1845.

72 She died 6th March 1846, aged 74.

12. The Persian Beauty.

During one of his rambles he formed the acquaintance of a beautiful olive, oval-faced Persian girl of high descent. We are told that her “eyes were narcissi, her cheeks sweet basil,” her personal charms together with her siren voice and sweet disposition caused him to fall in love with her; but he had scarcely learnt that his passion was reciprocated before she died. We are told also that for many years he could never think of her without pain; and that when, some time after, he narrated the story to his sister he revealed considerable emotion. Miss Stisted thought she could see references to this episode in Burton’s poem The Kasidah, portions of which were written some three years later: “Mine eyes, my brain, my heart are sad — sad is the very core of me.” This may be so, but the birth of a litter of pups, presented to him by his beloved bull terrier, seems to have taken the edge off his grief; and his tribute to one of these pups, which received the name of Bachhun, is really affecting.

The “Acting Commissioner” of the time was General Jacob of the Sind Horse, who wore a helmet of silver and a sabre-tache studded with diamonds. This, however, was not from pride or love of display, but because he held it policy in those who have to deal with Hindus not to neglect show and splendour. “In the eyes of Orientals,” he used to remark, and Burton endorsed the saying, “no man is great unless he is also superbly dressed.” As Jacob stuttered, one of his correspondents thought his name was J. J. J. J. J. Jacob, and terribly offended the testy General by writing it so. A brave and self-confident, but rancorous old man, Jacob by his senseless regulations brought the Indian army to the verge of ruin. This peccadillo was passed over, but a more serious offence, his inability to play whist, was remembered against him by his brother officers right to the day of his death. 73

73 He died 5th October 1858. See Sind Revisited, ii. 261.

13. A Simian Dictionary.

When the Sikh war broke out Burton resigned his post under Scott in order to take part in the campaign in the Punjab, but peace being proclaimed a few weeks later, after the battle of Sobraon, Burton had no opportunities of distinguishing himself. So he returned to his studies, and now became ambitious to understand not only the people but also the monkeys of India. Consequently he collected some forty of them, made them live and eat after the manner of humans; and studies them as they mowed and gibbered. He would then talk to them and pronounce the sounds they made, until at last they could conduct quite a conversation together. Burton never divulged this talk, which, of course, may have been of a confidential nature, but he compiled a Simian Dictionary, and thus to some extent anticipated the work of Mr. R. L. Garner. Unfortunately the dictionary was some years later destroyed by fire.

14. Duality.

We shall often notice in Burton’s life what Burton himself called his dual nature. In the tale of Janshah in The Arabian Nights we read of a race of split men who separated longitudinally, each half hopping about contentedly on its own account, and reuniting with its fellow at pleasure. If Burton in a pre-existent state — and he half believed in the Pre-existence of Souls — belonged to this race, and one of his halves became accidentally united to one of the halves of somebody else, the condition of affairs would be explicable. In any circumstances, he was always insisting on his duality. For example — a kind-hearted man, who detested cruelty to animals, nevertheless he delighted, as we have seen, in the sport of cocking; an ambitious man, who wore himself out with his studies yet he neutralised all his efforts to rise by giving way to an ungovernable temper. He would say just what he thought, and no man could have exhibited less tact. Thus he managed to give offence, and quite unnecessarily, to his superior officer, Colonel Henry Corsellis, and they were henceforth at handgrips.

Among his favourite books was Jami’s Beharistan. The only pity is that he did not take the advice proffered in the Third Garden:

“If Alexander’s realm you want, to work adroitly go,

Make friends more friendly still, and make a friend of every foe.”

Other instances of opposing qualities will be noticed as this work proceeds. Late in life, when he took to glasses, Burton used to say “My duality is proved by my eyes alone. My right eye requires a No. 50 convex lens, my left a No. 14.” His assiduous application to his studies now brought about an illness, and, having returned to Bombay, he obtained two years’ leave of absence to the salubrious Neilgherries.

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