Relocating Burton:
Public and Private Writings on Africa

By Greg Garrett

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 2, March 1997 (pp. 70-79).

Copyright © 1997 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

In recent critical and popular works, the explorer Richard Burton has primarily been described either as an advocate (whether consciously or unconsciously) of British imperialism or, conversely, as a sensitive observer of African culture worthy of contemporary canonization. The actual truth about this remarkably complex Victorian lies somewhere apart from both these extremes. In Burton's popular narratives of his explorations in Africa, among them First Footsteps in East Africa, The Lake Regions of Central Africa, and Wanderings in West Africa, Burton often reflects the attitudes and beliefs of his reading audience. But in comparison with the African travel narratives of many of his contemporaries, particularly his traveling companion and one-time friend John Hanning Speke, Burton also reveals a sympathy for the cultures he encounters and a willingness to record the details of their existence even when they have little or no bearing on the goals of his expeditions.

In Speke's public writing, African natives are simply an obstacle in the way of his aims; in Burton's, they seem to represent both a potential challenge and a source of potential knowledge. The latter sets him apart from most of his contemporaries and explains Burton's problematic status as a Victorian explorer and writer. But perhaps most important, Burton's personal ambition and his position as an outsider in British culture ensure that he displays a wide range of attitudes toward Africa, depending on the circumstances of composition and whether his anticipated audience was popular or private.

As most people familiar with Burton are aware, conjectures on his private life, thoughts, and feelings are ultimately subjective and can be nothing else. Isabel Burton burned all of her husband's private journals upon his death and then spun a biography (the two-volume Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton) and a character for him little short of hagiography. This was, as Fawn Brodie puts it, "her image not of the man she could wholly have loved but of the man she felt he should have been--a good Catholic, a husband faithful in thought as well as act, and a refined and modest man." Also, although his letters and travel journals may reveal his thoughts, we must consider that Burton's awareness of an audience may have altered what he wrote.

The most prominent critical view of Burton these days seems to be that of Burton as imperialist and racist, whether those inclinations are considered to be ardent, reluctant, or unknowing. Patrick Brantlinger, in his ground-breaking 1985 article "Victorians and Africans: the Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent" (later included in his influential book Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914) extrapolated from Burton's African writings--written across decades and under a number of different circumstances--Brantlinger's belief that Burton's conception of Africa was one of those central to the Western myth of the African as a savage and bestial being who must be "civilized" to have worth. Brantlinger quotes from The Lake Regions to support his point that Burton "believed that the African was 'unimprovable,'" and from Wanderings a section to demonstrate that, according to Burton, "primitive peoples need civilized masters." Furthermore, Brantlinger characterizes Burton's participation in the London Anthropological Society as participation in the racist science of the day, since James Hunt, founder of the Society, believed that "the Negro race formed a distinct species," not that the races had a common origin. Brantlinger's ultimate view is that Burton was a racist who "offers a paradigm of nineteenth-century careers in the service of the Empire" and whose expeditions were motivated ultimately by "increasing his country's world domination."

Brantlinger is not the only recent writer who would have us believe that Burton was an ardent imperialist who wanted to extend British dominion. Edward Rice's popular biography of Burton, which advertises its bias in the subtitle The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra, and Brought the Arabian Nights to the West, concludes that Burton played an important if ambiguous role in British colonization and suggests that it is no coincidence that virtually everywhere Burton traveled became a section of the world that came under British sway.

Finally, Burton scholar James Casada, in his unpublished dissertation "The Imperialism of Exploration: British Explorers and East Africa, 1856-1890," does not argue for Burton's active role in the exploitation of Africa as Brantlinger and Rice seem to, but he does outline the state interests and government funding that underwrote Burton's exploration. While Casada believes that Burton was, of the British explorers, the least interested in trade exploitation of Africa, he also notes the interest of both the government and the Royal Geographical Society in knowing the economic and geopolitical status of the African territories through which Burton traveled, making Burton at the very least a semi-official representative of the British government.

Other scholars charging Burton with imperialism are less interested in the political Burton than the rhetorical. Following the theoretical line proposed by Edward Said, many students of colonial literature analyze the depiction of Africa and Africans in Burton's writings and align him with other European imperialists because of his feelings of superiority toward the people he encounters and his appropriation of the natural landscape through his description of it. Both Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation and David Spurr's The Rhetoric of Empire use Burton to illustrate the "master-of-all-I-survey" school of travel-writing, which, according to Pratt--who analyzes Burton's description of his first sighting of Lake Tanganyika at considerable length--allows the writer to represent the value of the discovery for the "home culture, at the same time as its esthetic deficiencies suggest a need for social and material intervention by the home culture." These writers suggest that Burton was a prisoner of his culture whose responses to what he encountered on his journeys must all be studied through the screen of that culture.

These scholars point out that Burton is dependent upon his experience--the cultural baggage he carries with him, reluctantly or enthusiastically--to describe what he sees. It is also true, however, that if Burton wishes to communicate with his readers, he is limited to descriptions which they may visualize and comparisons they can understand, again problematizing our thinking about him.

The imperial Burton is not the only contemporary Burton to be found, even though he may be the most interesting to those who participate in politically charged criticism of Victorian writing. In the popular mind, Burton has undergone a transformation in the opposite direction: where the imperial Burtonists would emphasize those characteristics that make Burton a man of his age, the twentieth-century Burtonists would emphasize those qualities that remove him from it and align him more closely with ours, a view which is equally distorted. This view comes primarily from the 1990 motion picture Mountains of the Moon and its source material, William Harrison's 1982 historical novel Burton and Speke. In the novel, Burton is presented as foil to the always imperialistic Speke. Burton is a character who says such things as "The goal of every journey ... is to explore oneself in new surroundings" and "I'm just not as sure of our superiority as you," while Speke mumbles such things as "We could do for Africa what we've done for India.... We brought in a productive civilization--and therefore a superior one." Burton defends the rights of natives, befriends them, dances with them. To stack the deck even further, this twentieth-century Burton is made a lusty lover of all life, not to mention women of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds, while Speke is depicted as a sadistic hunter, pederast, and homosexual.

These contrasts between the two men are brought out most dramatically in the climactic scene of Mountains of the Moon, which cuts between Burton delivering a speech before the Geographical Society and Speke hunting on the afternoon during which he fatally shoots himself. The juxtaposition of the speech (which is supported subliminally with stirring music and shots of fascinated listeners in the audience) and Speke's death (which is presented in both the novel and film as a suicide) summarizes both characters: Speke the hunter and killer who ultimately reveals his weakness, and Burton the empathic and enlightened advocate of other cultures.

Burton's speech during this scene is lengthy and fictitious, but it is worth reproducing in its entirety to summarize the film's depiction of Burton as non-racist, anti-imperialist, and generally superior to his culture in ways we, at the end of the twentieth century, would admire:

I heard an Englishman say this: "The black man is indolent. Lazy by nature. He drinks his beer at sunrise and sleeps all day." Well, perhaps. It can be one hundred and twenty degrees at the Equator. That man is consumed with the same daily tasks: gathering food, gathering wood. He does it with primitive tools and he does it at sundown. And then he dances. He tells stories.
"What does he accomplish?" asks the Englishman. Well, what does the Englishman accomplish if he mines coal all day, sips his beer at night, and then succumbs to fatigue, failing to make love and then forgets how? If my travels, if my books, have meaning, if geography itself has significance, it is that we are made to lift our eyes from our own small provincial selves to the whole complex and magnificent world.

The film's Richard Francis Burton is characterized as tolerant, far-seeing, and benevolent, willing to learn from all other cultures and not simply to impose his own. Again, this version of Burton is just as far from truth as that of Burton-as-imperialist; each side appropriates Burton for its own purposes, but the essential complexity of the man and any conflicting ideas are ignored.

While Burton may indeed demonstrate many of the attitudes of his reading public in regard to such things as race and empire, his underlying approach to the people and places he encounters is one of curiosity and close observation of their differences; and while it may also be true that he often denigrates the cultures and peoples he encounters, he often does so under the most trying of conditions. Even under the best of circumstances Burton was hard on any culture, including his own.

Perhaps the best way to see Burton's attitude of curiosity displayed is to place him in comparison to Speke, who accompanied Burton on his most famous expedition, during which Lake Tanganyika was located by the expedition and Lake Victoria by Speke. Since for the most part they covered the same territory and had similar experiences, their different approaches to writing about them are instructive. Burton's imagery in regard to Africa and Africans is more varied and less demeaning than Speke's. In referring to Africans, even in a positive fashion, Speke often uses animal imagery. This pervasive pattern in the popular works might be expected to occur because Speke had difficulty thinking of Africans as being distinctly human. In a letter to Norton Shaw, Speke described how "Nothing could surpass these tracts, jungles, plains for dull sameness, the people are the same everywhere in fact the country is one vast senseless map of sameness." On another occasion, Speke wrote about an altercation between his caravan and another caravan where he could not "distinguish friend from foe ... both parties, being black, were so much alike." (It should be noted that, in his private letters, Speke consistently referred to his bearers as "men," even if for popular consumption he romanticized them as "savages" or beasts.)

Though Burton was certainly wont to refer derisively to men and women of any race, he generally did so out of pique, not as an unconscious measure of their humanity or lack of the same. Yet we find Speke writing of his Abban, or guide, in Somalia that "He seemed to me only as an animal in satanical disguise." The porters of his and Burton's expedition "looked as wild animals just driven from a jungle." Though his full description included that worthy's many good qualities, Speke also wrote of his interpreter and guide, Sidi Bombay, that his head was lit by "a humorous pair of pig-like eyes" and that "His muzzle projects dog-monkey fashion, and is adorned with a regular set of sharp-pointed alligator teeth." The inhabitants of Kivira Island would come to Speke's tent and "peer under like so many monkeys," while other Africans "lie about their huts like swine" or stand "cowering and trembling like a dog which has just emerged from a cold pond."

Perhaps it is unsurprising to discover Speke describing the--to him--indistinguishable Africans in terms of animals, since on the whole Burton is more interested in the people they encounter and their ways of life, Speke in what wildlife he can see and get a shot at. As Brodie has noted, Speke rarely used metaphoric language in connection with his explorations, but when he did, it was almost invariably violent, with "imagery of killing and dissection": "I have asked Petherick to come here for a few days ... that we may make arrangements for ripping open Africa together." In What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, Speke will often go on for pages about the methods of killing various forms of game, which is apparently of more inte rest to him than any other details of a culture's life. Chapter III, for example, includes the subheadings "Antelope-shooting," "Elephant-hunting," and "Ostrich-hunting," and on a page headed "An interesting rat," Speke says,

Here I shot and stuffed a very interesting rat, with a bushy tail, very much resembling the little gilleri squirrel of the Indian plains, but plumper in face and body, like a recently born rabbit. I had seen many of them in rocks around the hill's side, but until now I had not secured a good specimen.

Speke is obviously neither stupid nor unobservant. He simply has certain interests, and the people he encounters, for the most part, are not among them. Speke claims to have conducted interviews with the local people, but throughout his African explorations he was at the mercy of interpreters, since he spoke no native African languages. Compare, for example, his discussion of the Somali on pages seven to eighteen of What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, much of it drawn from "some very interesting pages in vol. xix of the 'Transactions of the Royal Geographical Society,'" with Burton's detailed study of "the remarkable Somal races" in First Footsteps in East Africa. Burton considers genealogy, philology, physical and mental traits, religion, culture, and, of course, women and love. Somali women are said to have "a soft, low, and plaintive voice.... Always an excellent thing in women," although, to Burton's disappointment, "Throughout the Somali country, kissing is entirely unknown." On the strength of this and other such encyclopedic entries, Burton deserves his position as one of the early practitioners of the field we now call anthropology, while Speke is more truly a hunter and explorer.

Speke himself seems to have recognized the difference between their two fields of interest and endeavor. Upon returning from Africa in 1859, he wrote Shaw at the Royal Geographical Society to say that he would be happy to discuss for the Society the landscape they had encountered, but

At the same time, I think it would be unfair to Captain Burton, Commandant of the Expedition, if I touched upon anything not entirely relating to that branch. Especially as I know that Burton has been very industrious in observing and obtaining great masses of matter appertaining to the manners, customs, and productive resources of all the country traversed by the expedition.

This emphasis on people as opposed to fauna (and possible economic opportunities for Britain, another of Speke's interests) characterizes Burton's work, as a glance at the table of contents of any of his books will demonstrate. That of The Lake Regions, for example, reveals the following strategy: a chapter or chapters devoted to the progress of the expedition is generally followed by a chapter describing the "geography and ethnography" of the region traversed, although even in sections describing the journey Burton includes significant details about the people and countryside. Burton sums up his approach in Lake Regions as follows:

No apology is offered for the lengthiness of the ethnographical descriptions contained in the following pages. The ethnology of Africa is indeed its most interesting, if not its only interesting feature.
Everything connected with the habits and customs, the moral and religious, the social and commercial state of these new races, is worthy of diligent observation, careful description, and minute illustration.

Burton's field book of the expedition, archived at the Royal Geographical Society, shows him learning native words and phrases for place names as the expedition proceeds deeper into the interior, and contains his observations on their crops and their cultures. These cultures are described even-handedly. While he often describes their "pretty villages," Burton also makes entries dripping with irony:

Unyamyembe is inhabited by the Waklayanza tribe of the Wanyamwezi, the most civilized and disciplined of the race. The number of skulls planted on poles at the gates of the village proves the rigours of justice--even theft is punished by instant decapitation.

To Burton's credit, whatever his level of annoyance or illness, however angry he may have been with native bearers, extortionate kings, insects, or the weather, he managed to record these details, and often kept his sense of humor in situations that Speke, the representative Victorian, would have found ridiculous, bewildering, or simply beneath his dignity to notice, let alone participate in. Not only does Burton happily record a scurrilous song his bearers sang about him, in which they called him "Muzungu mbaya" ("wicked white man"), he also records an incident in which all the women of a village came out to "stare, laugh, and wonder at the white men": "'What would you think of these whites as husbands?' asked Muninya Wazira of the crowd. 'With such things [trousers] on their legs?--Sivyo!--Not by any means' was the unanimous reply, accompanied with peals of merriment." Perhaps most importantly, in such situations Burton could move past what his culture might see as absurd or demeaning to gain a taste of what was distinctive about the Africans' culture, as in the following, which Burton said "may serve as a specimen of the present state of conversation in East Africa":

"The state, Mdula?" (i.e. Abdullah, a word unpronounceable to Negroid organs.)
"The state is very! (well) and thy state?"
"The state is very! (well) and the state of Spikka? (my companion)."
"The state of Spikka is very! (well)."
"We have escaped the Wagogo (resumes Twanigana), white man O!"
"We have escaped, O my brother!"
"The Wagogo are bad."
"They are bad."
"The Wagogo are very bad."
"They are very bad."
"The Wagogo are not good."
"They are not good."
"The Wagogo are not at all good."
"They are not at all good."
"I greatly feared the Wagogo, who kill the Wanyamwezi."
"Exactly so!"
"But now I don't fear them. I call them ----s and ----s, and I would fight the whole tribe, white man O!"
"Truly so, O my brother!"
And thus for two mortal hours, till my ennui turned into marvel.

After having spent two months in East Africa, one of the things I eventually understood was that the African conception of time and the Western conception of time bear no resemblance to each other. While Westerners are anxious to get to the point and then to get to the next appointment, time has no such urgency in a world where days follow each other in familiar similarity. Speke never seems to have learned this as Burton did, and his writing as a result is full of bluster and impatience at African interruptions and interference with his business on their continent.

If it sounds as though I am buying into the twentieth-century Burton of popular film, permit me to restate my intentions: I wish to reclaim the Burton of great contradictions, the Burton who, as Glenn Burne puts it, "reserves the right to change his mind." If Burton often displayed inclinations more tolerant than those of other Victorians, he also made statements in his writings about the "inferiority" of Africans (which he attributed, incidentally, to climate, tropical disease, and the slave trade, unlike Speke, who believed that Africans were the Biblically accursed sons of Ham, condemned forever to be slaves), about the respective roles of white and black (as Brantlinger has noted), about the development of African resources (of which he wrote early in Lake Regions that it "would benefit all concerned in their exploitation").

But Burton was not an imperialist, for the simple reason that he doesn't seem to have believed in the superiority of his own culture. His notion of "civilization," reflected in his account of the skulls of Unyamyembe, seems misanthropic, and his contact with other Englishmen during his long travels was sporadic, indicating his solitary nature and his lack of desire to consort with others "like" himself. In late 1853, for example, following his Arabian adventures (during which he visited Mecca disguised as an Islamic pilgrim), Burton wrote Norton Shaw at the Royal Geographic Society: "I hope the Society won't think badly of my not having written before. Couldn't. I was quite a nigger at Cairo and saw no English" (Burton's emphasis). And a month later, still in Cairo, he wrote Shaw to say he was "still dressed in nigger fashion." During this extended period, Burton dressed as an Arab and had little to do with Westerners.

Perhaps the most startling evidence of Burton's estrangement from British society may be deduced from a letter written in 1872 in response to a request that he return to East Africa to find David Livingstone, at the time perhaps the most revered man in England. His succinct reasons were that it went against his grain to rescue a missionary, that the Foreign Office had not asked him personally, and that he had turned his attention to West Africa, saying "East Africa is waxing trite and stale." He could have again been a hero, as Henry Morton Stanley became when he found Livingstone, but this was not a matter of importance to him. Still, any account of Burton that does not consider his vanity does not do his complicated nature justice. Burton seems to have initially turned his explorer's sights from Arabia (where he was arguably one of the great authorities following his successful mission to Mecca) to Africa because of his quest for glory. In the second Cairo letter to Shaw, Burton argued for going to Zanzibar for these reasons: it was one of the headquarters of African slaving, true, but Burton emphasized "practical results," saying that if he continued to explore Arabia, "nothing except more discovery of desert valleys and tribes would come of it; no horses, no spices, and scant credit." He later turned his attention away from East Africa when Speke was given charge over the return expedition and he received his meagre consulate at Fernando Po.

When we consider Burton's career of exploration and writing, we must weigh the various facets that make up his complex personality: the sensitive and even jovial observer, the sour misanthrope, and the forgotten explorer. Although we may never fully understand Burton's public and private writings, the fact remains that it was Burton who put on paper much of our first reliable knowledge about many sections and peoples of Africa, Burton who insisted on using native names for landmarks (contrast, for example, his naming of Lake Tanganyika and Speke's of Lake Victoria) and, whenever possible, learning native languages so that he could communicate with the people he met in their own tongues. Many of his acerbic statements about Africa and Africans may be attributed to the harsh and often life-threatening conditions under which he made many of his observations. His much more cynical writings from West Africa must also be approached through Burton's haze of alcoholism and despair over the meanness of his diplomatic posting. This does not excuse the man for those observations and analyses which today we would rightly label racist; it only gives an appropriate context within which to interpret some of these responses. Ultimately we must remember that Burton, as Brodie has noted, "was never kind about any people. He was instead uncompassionate, curious, and clinical. Like almost everyone else in his time he believed the Negro to be inferior to the white, but unlike most he sought for a scientific explanation." And while he wrote disparagingly of African culture, he did likewise with his beloved Arabs and his own English. Finally, no matter what his reaction to what he saw, he recorded minutely what his companion Speke seems not even to have seen existed. We should celebrate his close observation of even those cultures he deemed "inferior," even as we reject that notion of inferiority.

Selected Bibliography

Brantlinger, Patrick. "Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent." Critical Inquiry. 12.1 (1985): 166-203.

Brodie, Fawn M. The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton. New York: Norton, 1967.

Burne, Glenn S. Richard F. Burton. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Burton, Isabel. Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton. London, 1893.

Burton, Richard F. First Footsteps in East Africa or, An Exploration of Harar. 1856. New York: Dover, 1987.

--The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration. 1860. 2 vols. New York: Horizon, 1961.

--Wanderings in West Africa, from Liverpool to Fernando Po. 1863. New York: Dover, 1991.

Cameron, Ian. To the Farthest Ends of the Earth: 150 Years of World Exploration by the Royal Geographic Society. New York: Dutton, 1980.

Casada, James A. "The Imperialism of Exploration: British Explorers and East Africa, 1856-1890." Dissertation. Vanderbilt University, 1972.

--Sir Richard F. Burton: A Bibliographical Study. London: Mansell, 1990.
Harrison, William. Burton and Speke. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.

Rice, Edward. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. New York: Scribners, 1990.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. 1993. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Speke, John Hanning. What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile. London, 1864.

Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

The author notes his indebtedness to the Royal Geographical Society of London, which made available to him unpublished letters, records, maps, and other materials relating to Burton, Speke, and other African explorers, and to the Baylor University Research Committee, which funded his work in London.


Greg Garrett, an award-winning author and teacher at Baylor University, is currently at work on a novel about African exploration in the Victorian age.

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