Gone for a Burton

During the research for my forthcoming book We are Pilgrims one of the most intense weeks was spent amongst the letters, lectures and published works of the explorer, linguist, ethnographer and spy, Sir Richard Francis Burton. Of particular interest was what led him to travel to Mecca disguised as a pilgrim. 

His covert participation in the Hajj convoy to the Hijaz breached the rules which preclude non-believers from entering the Holy Cities of Mecca or Medina and even through the rear-view mirror of history, which excuses so much of the past, we know that what Burton did was wrong. And so did he. Aside from his religious subterfuge, Burton had also lied to his employers about where he was going and why. 

At the time of his journey to the Arabian Peninsula in 1853, Richard Burton was employed by the British East India Company, a commercial enterprise which also served as a surrogate for the British Crown in India. He had requested, and been refused permission by his employers, to take extended leave to explore Arabia. So he put in a second request; to travel to Egypt to master his command of the Arabic language as spoken by Egyptians. To this they agreed, giving Burton the opportunity to pursue his original intention. He set about  his preparations to visit the Hijaz, albeit within a more constrained time frame: he had 11 months to complete the trip and return to his job as an officer of the East India Company or risk being fired.

One of the rituals of transformation for pilgrims through the ages has been the casting off of normal attire in favour of simple clothing which symbolises their different status and intent. Burton went much further and before he set off had himself circumcised as a precaution; recognising that discovery as an infidel would probably result in death. He started as he meant to go on and embarked on the first leg of his voyage from Southampton to Alexandria in character as Shaykh Abdullah bin Yusef el Farangi (Abdullah, son of Joseph the foreigner), a Persian scholar and medic who spoke little English. Burton spent the two-week journey by ship to Alexandria growing his beard and conversing in broken English with fellow passengers, something made possible by the fact that he already spoke several Eastern languages, learnt while working as an engineer in the 18th Sepoy Regiment in the Indian province of Sindh.

Burton could not and did not claim to be the first non-Muslim to enter Mecca, but only the first to do so in disguise. This, along with his command of languages gave him special access to the conversations of his fellow travellers, many of whom were living under British rule in India. As a consequence, Burton was able to report to the British authorities that there were severe rumblings of discontent amongst Indian Muslims, and to such a degree, that this threatened to turn break into open revolt. The East India Company did not welcome Burton’s observations and he was roundly chastised. But his prediction proved correct and in 1857 there was a Rebellion, an Uprising, a Mutiny against the British and while many decades more would pass until Indian Independence was secured, the first steps had been taken on road the road to freedom. Direct historical accounts of the events of 1857 can be hard to stomach – many thousands died amongst the fighting which included extreme acts of violence on both sides – but JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur offers a way in. In his unique style, which marries fiction with facts drawn from contemporaneous accounts, JG Farrell leads us to consider who and what is right or wrong amongst the squalor of inhuman acts, perpetrated by those involved in the name of power and identity.

JG Farrell died young: aged only 44 he was swept into the sea while fishing off rocks in Bantry Bay in Ireland: ‘Gone for a Burton’ one might say, in the English vernacular. Sir Richard Burton died of a heart attack aged 69 in Trieste, Italy and was later buried in an elaborate tomb, fashioned in the shape of a Bedouin tent, which rather stands out amongst the modest gravestones of St Mary’s Church in Mortlake, south west of London. He was neither a Bedouin nor a Catholic. For his part, Farrell was neither Indian nor truly English or Irish. Each man in his own way had spent his life within fictions of his own telling.

Tomb of Richard Burton – a strange combination of Bedouin and Catholic imagery

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