The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter VII

29th October 1854 — 9th February 1855

To Harar


13. Pilgrimage to Al-Madimah and Meccah. 3 vols. 1855-1856.

29. At Aden. The Arabian Nights. Oct. 1854.

It was while staying at Bombay as Mr. Lumsden’s guest that Burton, already cloyed with civilization, conceived the idea of journeying, via Zeila in Somaliland, to the forbidden and therefore almost unknown city of Harar, and thence to Zanzibar. His application to the Bombay Government for permission and assistance having been received favourably, he at once set out for Aden, where he stayed with his “old and dear friend,” Dr. John Steinhauser, who had been appointed civil surgeon there. Steinhauser, a stolid man, whose face might have been carved out of wood, was, like Burton, an enthusiastic student of The Arabian Nights, and their conversation naturally drifted into this subject. Both came to the conclusion that while the name of this wondrous repertory of Moslem folk-lore was familiar to almost every English child, no general reader could form any idea of its treasures. Moreover, that the door would not open to any but Arabists. But even at the present day, and notwithstanding the editions of Payne and Burton, there are still persons who imagine that The Arabian Nights is simply a book for the nursery. Familiar only with some inferior rendering, they are absolutely ignorant of the wealth of wisdom, humour, pathos and poetry to be found in its pages.141 Writing in 1856, Burton says: “The most familiar book in England, next to the Bible, it is one of the least known, the reason being that about one-fifth is utterly unfit for translation, and the most sanguine Orientalist would not dare to render more than three-quarters of the remainder,142 consequently the reader loses the contrast — the very essence of the book — between its brilliancy and dulness, its moral putrefaction and such pearls as:

‘Cast the seed of good works on the least fit soil;

Good is never wasted, however it may be laid out.’

And in a page or two after such divine sentiment, the ladies of Baghdad sit in the porter’s lay, and indulge in a facetiousness which would have killed Pietro Aretino before his time.”143 When the work entitled A Thousand Nights and a Night was commenced, no man knows. There were Eastern collections with that title four centuries ago, laboured by the bronzed fingers of Arab scribes; but the framework and some of the tales must have existed prior even to the Moslem conquest. It has been noticed that there are resemblances between the story of Shahryar and that of Ahasuerus as recorded in Esther. In both narratives the King is offended with his Queen and chooses a new wife daily. Shahryar has recourse to the scimitar, Ahasuerus consigns wife after wife to the seclusion of his harem. Shahryar finds a model consort in Shahrazad, Ahasuerus in Esther. Each queen saves a multitude from death, each king lies awake half the night listening to stories.144 While many of the stories in The Arabian Nights are ancient, some, as internal evidence proves, are comparatively recent. Thus those of Kamar-al-Zaman II. and Ma’aruf the Cobbler belong to the 16th century; and no manuscript appears to be older than 1548. The most important editions are the Calcutta, the Boulac145 and the Breslau, all of which differ both in text and the order of the stories. The Nights were first introduced into Europe by Antoine Galland, whose French translation appeared between 1704 and 1717. Of the Nights proper, Galland presented the public with about a quarter, and he added ten tales146 from other Eastern manuscripts. An anonymous English edition appeared within a few years. The edition published in 1811 by Jonathan Scott is Galland with omissions and additions, the new tales being from the Wortley Montague MS. now in the Bodleian. In 1838, Henry Torrens began a translation direct from the Arabic, of which, however, he completed only one volume, and in 1838-40 appeared the translation direct from the Arabic, of which, however, he completed only one volume, and in 1838-40 appeared the translation of Edward William Lane,147 made direct from the Boulac edition. This work, which contains about one third of the entire Arabian Nights, was a great step forward, but unfortunately, Lane, who afterwards became an excellent Arabic scholar, was but a poor writer, and having no gift of verse, he rendered the poetical portions, that is to say, some ten thousand lines “in the baldest and most prosaic of English.”148

So Burton and Steinhauser said to themselves, As the public have never had more than one-third of the Nights, and that translated indifferently, we will see what we can do. “We agreed,” says Burton, “to collaborate and produce a full, complete, unvarnished, uncastrated, copy of the great original, my friend taking the prose and I the metrical part; and we corresponded upon the subject for years.”149 They told each other that, having completed their task, they would look out for a retreat as a preparation for senility, some country cottage, perhaps, in the South of France, where, remote from books, papers, pens, ink and telegrams, they could spend their nights in bed and their days in hammocks. Beyond planning the translation, however, nothing was done. Steinhauser died fourteen years later (1866), and whatever notes he made were dispersed, while Burton, even as late as 1883, had done nothing beyond making a syllabus of the Boulac edition.150 Still, the scheme was never for very long absent from his thoughts, and during his wanderings in Somaliland, the Tanganyika country and elsewhere, he often delighted the natives by reciting or reading some of the tales. The history of Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights is, as we shall subsequently show, curiously analogous to that of The Kasidah.

141 To some of the beauties of The Arabian Nights we shall draw attention in Chapter 27.

142 Of course both Payne and Burton subsequently translated the whole.

143 First Footsteps in East Africa. (The Harar Book.) Memorial Ed., p. 26.

144 Esther, vi., 1.

145 Boulac is the port of Cairo. See Chapter xi..

146 Zeyn al Asnam, Codadad, Aladdin, Baba Abdalla, Sidi Nouman, Cogia Hassan Alhabbal, Ali-Baba, Ali Cogia, Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri-Banou, The two Sisters who were jealous of their Cadette.

147 Edward William Lane (1801-1876). He is also remembered on account of his Arabic Lexicon. Five volumes appeared in 1863-74, the remainder by his grand-nephew Stanley Lane-Poole, in 1876-1890.

148 Every student, however, must be grateful to Lane for his voluminous and valuable notes.

149 Lady Burton states incorrectly that the compact was made in the “winter of 1852,” but Burton was then in Europe.

150 My authorities are Mr. John Payne, Mr. Watts-Dunton and Burton’s letters. See Chapter 22, 104, and Chapter 23, 107.

30. From Zeila to Harar, 27th November 1854 to 2nd January 1855.

Burton now found that, as regards the projected expedition, his plans would have to be modified, and he finally decided to confine his explorations to “the great parched horn” of Somaliland. His plan was now to visit Harar via Zeila, and then make for Berbera, in order to join Lieutenant Speke, Herne and Stroyan, who had been authorised to assist him and had arranged to await him there. The presence at Berbera of Speke and his companions, would, it was supposed, “produce a friendly feeling on the part of Somali,” and facilitate Burton’s egress from Harar, should he ever, as was by no means certain, enter alive that dangerous and avoided city. Sir James Outram, then Political Resident at Aden, called the expedition a tempting of Providence, and tried hard to stop it, but in vain. Burton left Aden for Zeila on October 29th, taking with him a managing man called “The Hammal,” a long, lean Aden policeman, nicknamed “Long Gulad” and a suave but rascally Moslem priest dubbed “The End of Time.”151 They landed on October 31st, and found Zeila a town of white-washed houses and minaretted mosques, surrounded by a low brown wall with round towers. Burton, who called himself a Moslem merchant, spent three weeks buying camels and mules and interviewing guides, while he kept up his reputation for piety with the customary devotions. According to his wont, he carefully studied the customs of the people. “One of the peculiar charms,” he says, of the Somali girls, is “a soft, low and plaintive voice,” and he notices that “in muscular strength and endurance the women of the Somal are far superior to their lords.” The country teems with poets, who praise the persons of the belles very much in the style of Canticles, declaring prettily, for example, that their legs are as straight as the “Libi Tree,” and that their hips swell out “like boiled rice.” The marriage ceremonies, he tells us, are conducted with feasting, music and flogging. On first entering the nuptial hut the bridegroom draws forth his horsewhip and inflicts chastisement upon his bride, with the view of taming any lurking propensity to shrewishness. As it is no uncommon event to take four wives at once, this horsewhipping is naturally rather exhausting for the husband. Burton considered polygamy to be indispensable in countries like Somaliland, “where children are the principal wealth;” but he saw less necessity for it “among highly civilised races where the sexes are nearly equal, and where reproduction becomes a minor duty.” However, he would have been glad to see polygamy allowed even in England, “if only to get rid of all the old maids,” a class that he regarded with unbounded pity. He longed “to see these poor, cankered, angular ladies transformed into cheerful, amiable wives with something really to live for.” “Man,” it was a favourite saying with him, “is by nature polygamic, whereas woman, as a rule, is monogamic, and polyandrous only when tired of her lover. The man loves the woman, but the love of the woman is for the love of the man.” He also agreed with the 18th century Rev. Martin Madan, author of Thelyphthora, a treatise on female ruin, who insisted that polygamy would go far to remove one of the great reproaches of the streets of London and other large cities. “Except in books,” says Burton, “seduction in Mohammedan countries is almost unknown, adultery difficult.” That polygamy, however, is no panacea, the following remarks will show. “Both sexes,” he says, speaking of the Somali, “are temperate from necessity.” Drunkenness is unknown. Still, the place is not Arcady. “After much wandering,” he continues, “we are almost tempted to believe that morality is a matter of geography;152 that nations and races have, like individuals, a pet vice; and that by restraining one, you only exasperate another. As a general rule Somali women prefer flirtations with strangers, following the well-known Arabian proverb, ‘The new comer filleth the eye.’” Burton was thoroughly at home in Zeila “with the melodious chant of the muezzin” and the loudly intoned “Amin” and “Allaho Akbar” daily ringing in his ear. He often went into the Mosque, and with a sword and a rosary before him, read the “cow chapter”153 in a loud twanging voice. Indeed, he had played the role of devout Mohammedan so long, that he had almost become one. The people of Zeila tried to persuade him to abandon his project. “If,” said they, “you escape the desert hordes it will only be to fall by the hands of the truculent Amir of Harar.” Nothing, however, could dash Burton’s confidence in his star, and like Dante, he applied to Fear no epithets but “vile” and “base.”

One Raghi, a petty Eesa chief, having been procured as protector of the party, and other arrangements having been made, Burton on November 27th (1854) set out for his destination by a circuitous route. Raghi rode in front. Next, leading camels, walked two enormously fat Somali women; while by the side of the camels rode Burton’s three attendants, the Hammal, Long Gulad, and “The End of Time,” “their frizzled wigs radiant with grease,” and their robes splendidly white with borders dazzlingly red. Burton brought up the rear on a fine white mule with a gold fringed Arab pad and wrapper-cloth, a double-barrelled gun across his lap, and in this manner the little caravan pursued its sinuous course over the desert. At halting places he told his company tales from The Arabian Nights; they laughed immoderately at the adventures of the little Hunchback; tears filled their eyes as they listened to the sad fate of Azizah;154 and the two fat Somali women were promptly dubbed Shahrazad and Dunyazad. Dunyazad had been as far as Aden and was coquettish. Her little black eyes never met Burton’s, and frequently with affected confusion she turned her sable cheek the clean contrary way. Attendant on the women was a Zeila lad, who, being one-eyed, was pitilessly called “The Kalandar.” At their first halting place, Burton astonished the natives by shooting a vulture on the wing. “Lo!” cried the women, “he bringeth down the birds from heaven.” On their way through an ochreish Goban, or maritime plain, they passed huge hills made by white ants, Gallas graves planted with aloe,155 and saw in the distance troops of gazelles. They were now in the Isa country, “Traitorous as an Isa” being a Zeila proverb. Though the people were robbers and murderers, Burton, by tact, got on excellently with them, and they good-naturedly offered him wives. At every settlement the whole population flocked to see him, the female portion loudly expressing their admiration for him. “Come girls, “they cried one to another, “come and look at this white stranger.” According to Raghi, the fair face of a French lady who had recently landed at Berbera, “made every man hate his wife, and every wife hate herself.” Once they were attacked by Bedouin, who, however, on hearing the report of Burton’s revolver, declared that they were only in fun. Others who tried to stop them were shown the star sapphire, and threatened with “sorcery, death, wild beasts,” and other unpleasantnesses. At a place called Aububah, Raghi relinquished the charge of the caravan to some men of the Gudabirsi tribe, who led the way to the village of Wilensi, where they were the guests of the household of a powerful chief called Jirad Adan. Here Burton left Shahrazad, Dunyazad and the Kalandar, and proceeded to Sagharrah, where he met and formed a friendship with Jirad Adan. For several days he was prostrated by fever, and some Harar men who looked in tried to obtain him as a prisoner. The Jirad acted honourably, but he declined to escort Burton to Harar. “No one,” he said, “is safe in the Amir’s clutches, and I would as soon walk into a crocodile’s mouth as set foot in the city.” “Nothing then remained,” says Burton, “but payer d’audace,156 and, throwing all forethought to the dogs, to rely upon what has made many a small man great, the good star. I addressed my companions in a set speech, advising a mount without delay.”157 The End of Time, having shown the white feather, was left behind, but the rest courageously consented to accompany their leader. “At 10 a.m. on the 2nd January,” says Burton, “all the villagers assembled, and recited the Fatihah, consoling us with the information that we were dead men.” The little company, carrying their lives in their hands, then set forward, and presently came in sight of Harar, “a dark speck upon a tawny sheet of stubble.” Arrived at the gate of the town, they accosted the warder, sent their salaams to the Amir, and requested the honour of audience.

151 It was prophesied that at the end of time the Moslem priesthood would be terribly corrupt.

152 Later he was thoroughly convinced of the soundness of this theory. See Chapters xxii. to xxx.

153 In the Koran.

154 Burton’s A.N., ii. 323; Lib. Ed., ii., p. 215.

155 When the aloe sprouts the spirits of the deceased are supposed to be admitted to the gardens of Wak (Paradise). Arabian Nights, Lib. Ed., i. 127.

156 To face it out.

157 First Footsteps in East Africa, i., 196.

31. At Harar.

They were conducted to the palace, a long, single-storied, windowless barn of rough stone and reddish clay. Says Burton: “I walked into a vast hall between two long rows of Galla spearmen, between whose lines I had to pass. They were large, half-naked savages, standing like statues with fierce, movable eyes, each one holding, with its butt end on the ground, a huge spear, with a head the size of a shovel. I purposely sauntered down them coolly with a swagger, with my eyes fixed upon their dangerous-looking faces. I had a six-shooter concealed in my waist-belt, and determined, at the first show of excitement, to run up to the Amir, and put it to his head, if it were necessary, to save my own life.” The Amir was an etiolated young man of twenty-four or twenty-five, plain and thin-bearded, with a yellow complexion, wrinkled brows and protruding eyes. He wore a flowing robe of crimson cloth, edged with snowy fur, and a narrow white turban tightly twisted round a tall, conical cap of red velvet. On being asked his errand, Burton replied politely in Arabic that he had come from Aden in order to bear the compliments of the governor, and to see the light of his highness’s countenance. On the whole, the Amir was gracious, but for some days Burton and his party were in jeopardy, and when he reflected that he was under the roof of a bigoted and sanguinary prince, whose filthy dungeons resounded with the moans of heavily ironed, half-starved prisoners; among a people who detested foreigners; he, the only European who had ever passed over their inhospitable threshold, naturally felt uncomfortable. The Amir, it seems, had four principal wives, and an army of 200 men armed chiefly with daggers. Burton describes the streets of Harar as dirty narrow lanes heaped with garbage, and the houses as situated at the bottom of courtyards, closed by gates of holcus stalks. The town was proud of its learning and sanctity, and venerated the memory of several very holy and verminous saints. Neither sex possessed personal attractions, and the head-dresses of the women seen from behind resembled a pawnbroker’s sign, except that they were blue instead of gilt. The people lived chiefly on holcus, and a narcotic called “jat,” made by pounding the tender twigs of a tree of the same name. “It produced in them,” says Burton, “a manner of dreamy enjoyment, which exaggerated by time and distance, may have given rise to that splendid myth the Lotos and the Lotophagi.158 Their chief commodity was coffee, their favourite drink an aphrodisiac made of honey dissolved in hot water, and strained and fermented with the bark of a tree called kudidah.” Although unmolested, Burton had no wish to remain long at Harar, and when on 13th January he and his party took their departure it was with a distinct feeling of relief.

158 First Footsteps in East Africa, ii., 31.

32. From Harar to Berbera. 13th Jan. 1855-5th Feb. 1855.

At Sagharrah they found again the pusillanimous “End of Time,” and at Wilensi they were rejoined by Shahrazad, Dunyazad and the one-eyed Kalandar. Persons who met Burton and his friends enquired Irish-like if they were the party who had been put to death by the Amir of Harar. Everyone, indeed, was amazed to see them not only alive, but uninjured, and the Frank’s temerity became the talk of the desert. Burton now put the two women, the Kalandar, the camels, and the baggage, under the care of a guide, and sent them to Zeila, while he himself and the men made straight for Berbera. The journey, which led them past Moga’s tooth159 and Gogaysa, was a terrible one, for the party suffered tortures from thirst, and at one time it seemed as though all must perish. By good fortune, however, they ultimately came upon some pools. Any fear that might have haunted them, lest the water should be poisonous, was soon dispelled, for it contained a vast number of tadpoles and insects, and was therefore considered quite harmless and suitable for drinking. For many hours they again plodded on beneath a brazen sky. Again thirst assailed them; and, like Ishmael in the desert of Zin, they were ready to cast themselves down and die. This time they were saved by a bird, a katta or sand grouse, which they saw making for some hills; and having followed it, they found, as they had anticipated, a spring of water, at which they frenziedly slaked their thirst. Many other difficulties and troubles confronted them in their subsequent march, but at last they heard (delightful sound!) the murmur of the distant sea. Every man was worn out, with the exception of the Hammal, who, to Burton’s delight, not only talked, but sang and shouted. Finally they reached Berbera, where they found Speke, Herne and Stroyan, and on 5th February, Burton in company with the Hammal, Long Gulad, and The End of Time, set sail for Aden, calling on their way at Siyaro and Anterad, east of Berbera.

The first news Burton had on arriving there was of the death of his mother, which had occurred 18th December 1854, at the time he lay ill at Sagharrah. Always immersed in him, she used to say, when he left her, “It seems as if the sun itself has disappeared.” He, on his part, often bore witness to the unselfishness and blamelessness of her life, generally adding, “It is very pleasant to be able to feel proud of one’s parents.”

159 The legend of Moga is similar to that of Birnam Wood’s March, used by Shakespeare in Macbeth.

33. The Fight at Berbera, 22nd April, 1855.

Unable to let well alone, Burton now wanted to make a new expedition, this time to the Nile, via Berbera and Harar, and on a larger and more imposing scale. On 7th April he was back again at Berbera, taking with him Speke, Stroyan, Herne and 42 assistants, and his first care was to establish an agency on the coast, so as to have the protection of the English gunboat, the “Mahi,” which had brought them. Unfortunately, the Government drew off the gunboat, and this had scarcely been done before Burton and his party were attacked by 300 natives, who swarmed round them during the night, and tried to entrap and entangle them by throwing down the tents. A desperate hand-to-hand fight then ensued. Javelins hissed, war-clubs crashed. The forty-two coloured auxiliaries promptly took to their heels, leaving the four Englishmen to do as they could. Stroyan fell early in the fight. Burton, who had nothing but a sabre, fought like a demon; Speke, on his left near the entrance of the tent, did deadly execution with a pair of revolvers; Herne on his right emptied into the enemy a sixshooter, and then hammered it with the butt end. Burton, while sabreing his way towards the sea, was struck by a javelin, which pierced both cheeks, and struck out four of his teeth. Speke received eleven wounds, from which, however, he took no harm — a touching proof, comments Burton, of how difficult it is to kill a man in sound health. Eventually the survivors, stained with blood, and fearfully exhausted, but carrying, nevertheless, the corpse of poor Stroyan, managed to reach a friendly native craft, which straightway took them back to Aden.160

160 The story of these adventures is recorded in First Footsteps in East Africa, dedicated to Lumsden, who, in its pages, is often apostrophised as “My dear L.”

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