The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright

Chapter IX

December 1856-21st May 1859

The Unveiling of Isis


15. Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa.

16. Vol. 33 of the Royal Geographical Society.

36. To Fuga. January to March 1857.

The fame of a soldier having been denied him, Burton now turned his thoughts once more to exploration; and his eagerness for renown is revealed conspicuously in some verses written about this time. They commence:

“I wore thine image, Fame,

Within a heart well fit to be thy shrine!

Others a thousand boons may gain;

One wish was mine.”

He hoped to obtain one of its smiles and then die. A glorious hand seemed to beckon him to Africa. There he was to go and find his destiny. The last stanza runs:

“Mine ear will hear no other sound,

No other thought my heart will know.

Is this a sin? Oh, pardon, Lord!

Thou mad’st me so.”

He would obtain the fame of a great traveller; the earth should roll up for him as a carpet. Happy indeed was Isabel Arundell when he placed the verses in her hand, but melancholy to relate, he also presented copies to his “dear Louisa,” and several other dears.

He now read greedily all the great geographers, ancient and modern, and all the other important books bearing on African exploration. If he became an authority on Herodotus, Pliny, Ptolemy, Strabo, and Pomponious Mela, he became equally an authority on Bruce, Sonnini, Lacerda, the Pombeiros, Monteiro and Gamitto.

From Ptolemy downwards writers and travellers had prayed for the unveiling of Isis, that is to say, the discovery of the sources of the Nile; but for two thousand years every effort had proved fruitless. Burning to immortalize himself by wresting from the mysterious river its immemorial secret, Burton now planned an expedition for that purpose. Thanks to the good offices of Lord Clarendon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Royal Geographical Society promised him the necessary funds; while Cardinal Wiseman, ever his sincere friend, gave him a passport to all Catholic missionaries.165 To Burton, as we have seen, partings were always distressing, and in order to avoid bidding adieu to Miss Arundell he adopted his usual course, leaving a letter which mentioned love and that he was gone.

He quitted England for Bombay in October 1856, and crossed to Zanzibar in the Elphinstone sloop of war, Speke, who was to be his companion in the expedition, sailing with him. Burton was in the highest spirits. “One of the gladdest moments in human life,” he wrote, “is the departing upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one effort the fetters of habit, the leaden weight of routine, the slavery of civilisation,166 man feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of youth, excitement gives a new vigour to the muscles and a sense of sudden freedom adds an inch to the stature.” Among the crew was a midshipman, C. R. Low, who became a life-long friend of Burton. Says Mr. Low, “We used to have bouts of single-stick in the pleasant evening sin the poop, and many’s the time he has blacked my arms and legs with his weapons. . . . Though a dangerous enemy, he was a warm and constant friend.”167 On reaching Zanzibar, Burton, finding the season an unsuitable one for the commencement of his great expedition, resolved to make what he called “a preliminary canter.” So he and Speke set out on a cruise northward in a crazy old Arab “beden” with ragged sails and worm-eaten timbers. They carried with them, however, a galvanised iron life-boat, “The Louisa,” named after Burton’s old love, and so felt no fear.

They passed the Island of Pemba, and on the 22nd reached Mombasa, which Burton was glad to visit on account of its associations with Camoens, who wrote

So near that islet lay along the land,

Nought save a narrow channel stood atween;

And rose a city throned on the strand,

Which from the margent of the seas was seen;

Fair built with lordly buildings tall and grand

As from its offing showed all its sheen,

Here ruled a monarch for long years high famed,

Islet and city are Mombasa named.168

Indeed he never missed an opportunity of seeing spots associated with his beloved “Master.” Then they turned southward and on February 3rd reached Pangany, whence, in company with a facetious fellow named Sudy Bombay, they set out on a canoe and foot journey to Fuga, which they found to be “an unfenced heap of hay cock huts.” Though a forbidden city to strangers they managed to get admittance by announcing themselves as “European wizards and Waganga of peculiar power over the moon, the stars, the wind and the rain.” They found the sultan of the place, an old man named Kimwere, sick, emaciated and leprous. He required, he said, an elixir which would restore him to health, strength, and youth. This, however, despite his very respectable knowledge of medicine, Burton was not able to compound, so after staying two days he took his leave. “It made me sad,” says Burton, “to see the wistful, lingering look with which the poor old king accompanied the word Kuahery! (Farewell!)” On the return journey Speke shot a hippopotamus which he presented to the natives, who promptly ate it. By the time Pangany was again reached both travellers were in a high fever; but regarding it simply as a seasoning, they felt gratified rather than not. When the Zanzibar boat arrived Speke was well enough to walk to the shore, but Burton “had to be supported like a bedridden old woman.”

165 This is now in the public library at Camberwell.

166 In England men are slaves to a grinding despotism of conventionalities. Pilgrimage to Meccah, ii., 86.

167 Unpublished letter to Miss Stisted, 23rd May 1896.

168 We have given the stanza in the form Burton first wrote it — beginning each line with a capital. The appearance of Mombasa seems to have been really imposing in the time of Camoens. Its glory has long since departed.

37. Zanzibar to Tanganyika, 26th June 1857 to 26th May 1858.

Burton left Zanzibar on his great expedition at the end of June, carrying with him various letters of introduction from the Sultan of Zanzibar, a diploma signed by the Shaykh El Islam of Mecca, and the passport already mentioned of Cardinal Wiseman. To his star-sapphire he added some little canvas bags containing horse chestnuts which he carried about “against the Evil Eye, and as a charm to ward off sickness.”169 Beside Burton and Speke, the party consisted of two Goa boys, two negro gun-carriers, Sudy Bombay, and ten Zanzibar mercenaries. Dr. Steinhauser, who had hoped to join them, was restrained by illness. “My desire,” says Burton, “was to ascertain the limits of Tanganyika Lake, to learn the ethnography of its tribes, and to determine the export of the produce of the interior.” He held the streams that fed Tanganyika to be the ultimate sources of the Nile; and believed that the glory of their discovery would be his. Fortune, however, the most fickle of goddesses, thought fit to deprive him of this ardently coveted boon.

The explorers landed at Wale Point on June 26th, and on July 14th reached K’hutu. At Dug’humi Burton, despite his bags of chestnuts, fell with marsh fever, and in his fits he imagined himself to be “two persons who were inimical to each other,” an idea very suitable for a man nursing the “duality” theory. When he recovered, fresh misfortunes followed, and finally all the riding asses died. Burton, however, amid it all, managed to do one very humane action. He headed a little expedition against a slave raider, and had the satisfaction of restoring five poor creatures to their homes.

The tropical vegetation and the pleasant streams afforded delightful vistas both by daylight and moonlight, but every mile the travellers were saddened by the sight of clean-picked skeletons or swollen corpses. Sometimes they met companies of haggard, heavy-gaited men and women half blind with small-pox — the mothers carrying on their backs infants as loathsome as themselves. Near every kraal stood detached huts built for the diseased to die in. They passed from this God-forsaken land to a district of springs welling with sweet water, calabashes and tamarinds, and circlets of deep, dew-fed verdure. The air was spicy, and zebras and antelopes browsed in the distance. Then the scene again changed, and they were in a slimy, malarious swamp. They were bitten by pismires an inch long, and by the unmerciful tzetze fly. The mercenaries, who threatened to desert, rendered no assistance, and the leader, one Said bin Salim, actually refused to give Burton a piece of canvas to make a tent. Sudy Bombay then made a memorable speech, “O Said,” he said, “if you are not ashamed of your master, be at least ashamed of his servant,” a rebuke that had the effect of causing the man to surrender at once the whole awning. At other times the star-sapphire which Burton carried on his person proved a valuable auxiliary — and convinced where words failed. But the mercenaries, mistaking Burton’s forbearance for weakness, became daily bolder and more insolent, and they now only awaited a convenient opportunity to kill him. One day as he was marching along, gun over shoulder and dagger in hand, he became conscious that two of his men were unpleasantly near, and after a while one of them, unaware that Burton understood his language, urged the other to strike. Burton did not hesitate a moment. Without looking round, he thrust back his dagger, and stabbed the man dead on the spot.170 The other, who fell on his knees and prayed for mercy, was spared. This, however, did not cure his followers of their murderous instincts, and a little later he discovered another plot. The prospective assassins having piled a little wood where they intended to kindle a fire, went off to search for more. While they were gone Burton made a hole under the wood and buried a canister of gunpowder in it. On their return the assassins lighted the fire, seated themselves comfortably round, and presently there weren’t any assassins. We tell these tales just as Burton told them to his intimate friends. The first may have been true, the second, we believe, simply illustrates his inveterate habit of telling tales against himself with the desire to shock. In any circumstances, his life was in constant peril; but he and the majority of the party, after unexampled tortures from thirst, arrived footsore and jaded in a veritable land of Goshen — Kazeh or Unyanyembe, where they met some kindly Arab merchants.

“What a contrast,” exclaims Burton, “between the open-handed hospitality and the hearty good-will of this noble race — the Arabs — and the niggardliness of the savage and selfish African. It was heart of flesh after heart of stone.” Burton found the Arabs of Kazeh living comfortably and even sybaritically. They had large, substantial houses, fine gardens, luxuries from the coast and “troops of concubines and slaves.” Burton gallantly gives the ladies their due. “Among the fair of Yombo,” he says, “there were no fewer than three beauties — women who would be deemed beautiful in any part of the world. Their faces were purely Grecian; they had laughing eyes their figures were models for an artist with —

“Turgide, brune, e ritondette mamme.”

like the ‘bending statue’ that delights the world. The dress — a short kilt of calabash fibre — rather set off than concealed their charms, and though destitute of petticoat they were wholly unconscious of indecorum. These beautiful domestic animals graciously smiled when in my best Kenyamwezi I did my devoir to the sex; and the present of a little tobacco always secured for me a seat in the undress circle.”

Of the native races of West Africa Burton gave a graphic account when he came to write the history of this expedition.171 All, it seems, had certain customs in common. Every man drank heavily, ate to repletion and gambled. They would hazard first their property and then themselves. A negro would stake his aged mother against a cow. As for morality, neither the word nor the thing existed among them. Their idea of perfect bliss was total intoxication. When ill, they applied to a medicine man, who having received a fee used it for the purpose of getting drunk, but upon his return to sobriety, he always, unless, of course, the patient took upon himself to die, instead of waiting, attended conscientiously to his duties. No self-respecting chief was ever sober after mid-day. Women were fattened for marriage just as pigs are fattened for market — beauty and obesity being interchangeable terms. The wearisome proceedings in England necessary to a divorce, observes Burton, are there unknown. You turn your wife out of doors, and the thing is done.

The chief trouble at Kazeh, as elsewhere, arose from the green scorpion, but there were also lizards and gargantuan spiders. Vermin under an inch in length, such as fleas, ants, and mosquitoes, were deemed unworthy of notice. The march soon began again, but they had not proceeded many miles before Burton fell with partial paralysis brought on my malaria; and Speke, whom Burton always called “Jack,” became partially blind. Thoughts of the elmy fields and the bistre furrows of Elstree and the tasselled coppices of Tours crowded Burton’s brain; and he wrote:

“I hear the sound I used to hear,

The laugh of joy, the groan of pain,

The sounds of childhood sound again

Death must be near.”

At last, on the 13th February they saw before them a long streak of light. “Look, master, look,” cried Burton’s Arab guide, “behold the great water!” They advanced a few yards, and then an enormous expanse of blue burst into sight. There, in the lap of its steel-coloured mountains, basking in the gorgeous tropical sunshine, lay the great lake Tanganyika. The goal had been reached; by his daring, shrewdness and resolution he had overcome all difficulties. Like the soldiers in Tacitus, in victory he found all things — health, vigour, abundance.

No wonder Burton felt a marvellous exultation of spirits when he viewed this great expanse of waters. Here, he thought, are the sources of that ancient river — the Nile. Now are fulfilled the longing of two thousand years. I am the heir of the ages! Having hired “a solid built Arab craft,” the explorers made their way first to Ujiji and then to Uvira, the northernmost point of the lake, which they reached on April 26th. On their return voyage they were caught in a terrible storm, from which they did not expect to be saved, and while the wild tumbling waves threatened momentarily to engulf them a couplet from his fragmentary Kasidah kept running in Burton’s mind:

“This collied night, these horrid waves, these gusts that sweep

the whirling deep;

What reck they of our evil plight, who on the shore securely


However, they came out of this peril, just as they had come out of so many others. Burton also crossed the lake and landed in Kazembe’s country,173 in which he was intensely interested, and some years later he translated into English the narratives of Dr. Lacerda174 and other Portuguese travellers who had visited its capital, Lunda, near Lake Moero.

169 These little bags were found in his pocket after his death. See Chapter xxxviii.

170 This story nowhere appears in Burton’s books. I had it from Mr. W. F. Kirby, to whom Burton told it.

171 The Lake Regions of Central Africa, 1860.

172 Subsequently altered to “This gloomy night, these grisly waves, etc.” The stanza is really borrowed from Hafiz. See Payne’s Hafiz, vol. i., p.2.

“Dark the night and fears possess us, Of the waves and whirlpools


Of our case what know the lightly Laden on the shores that


173 The ruler, like the country, is called Kazembe.

174 Dr. Lacerda died at Lunda 18th October 1798. Burton’s translation, The Lands of the Cazembe, etc., appeared in 1873.

38. The Return Journey, 26th May 1858 to 13th February 1859.

The explorers left Tanganyika for the return journey to Zanzibar on May 26th. At Yombo, reached June 18th, Burton received a packet of letters, which arrived from the coast, and from one he learnt of the death of his father, which had occurred 8 months previous. Despite his researches, Colonel Burton was not missed in the scientific world, but his son sincerely mourned a kind-hearted and indulgent parent. At Kazeh, Fortune, which had hitherto been so favourable, now played Burton a paltry trick. Speke having expressed a wish to visit the lake now called Victoria Nyanza, a sheet of water which report declared to be larger than Tanganyika, Burton, for various reasons, thought it wiser not to accompany him. So Speke went alone and continued his march until he reached the lake, the dimensions of which surpassed his most sanguine expectations. On his return to Kazeh he at once declared that the Victoria Nyanza and its affluents were the head waters of the Nile, and that consequently he had discovered them. Isis (he assured Burton) was at last unveiled. As a matter of fact he had no firmer ground for making that statement than Burton had in giving the honour to Tanganyika, and each clung tenaciously to his own theory. Speke, indeed, had a very artistic eye. He not only, by guess, connected his lake with the Nile, but placed on his map a very fine range of mountains which had no existence — the Mountains of the Moon. However, the fact remains that as regards the Nile his theory turned out to be the correct one. The expedition went forward again, but his attitude towards Burton henceforth changed. Hitherto they had been the best of friends, and it was always “Dick” and “Jack,” but now Speke became querulous, and the mere mention of the Nile gave him offence. Struck down with the disease called “Little Irons,” he thought he was being torn limb from limb by devils, giants, and lion-headed demons, and he made both in his delirium and after his recovery all kinds of wild charges against Burton, and interlarded his speech with contumelious taunts — his chief grievance being Burton’s refusal to accept the Victoria Nyanza-Nile theory. But Burton made no retort. On the contrary, he bore Speke’s petulance with infinite patience. Perhaps he remembered the couplet in his favourite Beharistan:

“True friend is he who bears with all

His friend’s unkindness, spite and gall.”175

There is no need for us to side either with Speke or Burton. Both were splendid men, and their country is proud of them. Fevers, hardships, toils, disappointments, ambition, explain everything, and it is quite certain that each of the explorers inwardly recognised the merit of the other. They reached Zanzibar again 4th March 1859.

Had Burton been worldly wise he would have at once returned home, but he repeated the mistake made after the journey to Mecca and was again to suffer from it.

Speke, on the other hand, who ever had an eye to the main chance, sailed straight for England, where he arrived 9th May 1859. He at once took a very unfair advantage of Burton “by calling at the Royal Geographical Society and endeavouring to inaugurate a new exploration” without his old chief. He was convinced, he said, that the Victoria Nyanza was the source of the Nile, and he wished to set the matter at rest once and for every by visiting its northern shores. The Society joined with him Captain James A. Grant176 and it was settled that this new expedition should immediately be made. Speke also lectured vaingloriously at Burlington House. When Burton arrived in London on May 21st it was only to find all the ground cut from under him. While Speke, the subordinate, had been welcomed like a king, he, Burton, the chief of the expedition, had landed unnoticed. But the bitterest pill was the news that Speke had been appointed to lead the new expedition. And as if that was not enough, Captain Rigby, Consul at Zanzibar, gave ear to and published the complaints of some of Burton’s dastardly native followers. Although Fortune cheated Burton of having been the actual discoverer of the Source of the Nile, it must never be forgotten that all the credit of having inaugurated the expedition to Central Africa and of leading it are his. Tanganyika — in the words of a recent writer, “is in a very true sense the heart of Africa.” If some day a powerful state spring up on its shores, Burton will to all time be honoured as its indomitable Columbus. In his journal he wrote proudly, but not untruly: “I have built me a monument stronger than brass.” The territory is now German. Its future masters who shall name! but whoever they may be, no difference can be made to Burton’s glory. Kingdoms may come and kingdoms may go, but the fame of the truly great man speeds on for ever.

175 The Beharistan. 1st Garden.

176 J. A. Grant, born 1827, died 10th February, 1892.

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