Richard Francis Burton

One thing I forgot to mention before was something I have been reading: “First Footsteps in East Africa” by the Victorian explorer, Richard Francis Burton, whose exploits in making the hajj to Mecca and exploring Muslim East Africa in disguise both fascinated and scandalised Victorian England.  The book is an account of his overland voyage to Harar in 1854-55, and makes fascinating reading.  Burton was famous for his knowledge of many languages and his deep knowledge of Muslim and Hindu culture, and he took great personal risks to make his voyages.  He is a fantastic travel writer, observant and descriptive, and on some level seems to have been quite sympathetic with the cultures he was travelling in; at any rate, he accords them more respect than some later writers.  Yet lurking behind the scholarly interest is a deep arrogance, a conviction that everyone he meets is a barbarian and a member of a degraded race; Burton is sometimes quite funny in his descriptions, until you realise what you are laughing at; an almost sneering, contemptuous tone, dripping through passages like this, where he describes setting out from Aden to start his exploration in what is now Somaliland:

“Suddenly every trace of civilisation fell from my companions as if it had been a garment. At Aden, shaven and beturbaned, Arab fashion, now they threw off all dress save the loin cloth, and appeared in their dark morocco. Mohammed filled his mouth with a mixture of coarse Surat tobacco and ashes,–the latter article intended, like the Anglo-Indian soldier’s chili in his arrack, to “make it bite.” Guled uncovered his head, a member which in Africa is certainly made to go bare, and buttered himself with an unguent redolent of sheep’s tail; and Ismail, the rais or captain of our “foyst,” the Sahalah, applied himself to puffing his nicotiana out of a goat’s shank-bone. Our crew, consisting of seventy-one men and boys, prepared, as evening fell, a mess of Jowari grain and grease, the recipe of which I spare you, and it was despatched in a style that would have done credit to Kafirs as regards gobbling, bolting, smearing lips, licking fingers, and using ankles as napkins. Then with a light easterly breeze and the ominous cliffs of Little Aden still in sight, we spread our mats on deck and prepared to sleep under the moon.”
Yet to be fair to Burton he is very much of his time, and in fact is more respectful than many of his contemporaries.  In other aspects of his life he showed a willingness to go against convention.

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