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Coast sometime In the eighties. His reputation was
already world-wide — the greatest of African explor-
ers, the only European who had mastered Arabic
and Eastern customs so completely that he had
passed muster as a Mohammedan pilgrim and had
preached in Mecca as a Mollah. He knew a dozen
Indian languages, too, It was said, and as many
more European, besides the chief African dialects;


was, in fine, an extraordinary scholar and a master
of English to boot, a great writer.

I was exceedingly curious, and very glad indeed
to meet this legendary hero. Burton was in con-
ventional evening dress, and yet, as he swung round
to the Introduction, there was an untamed air about
him. He was tall, about six feet In height, with
broad, square shoulders; he carried himself like a
young man. In spite of his sixty years, and was abrupt
in movement. His face was bronzed and scarred,
and when he wore a heavy moustache and no beard
he looked like a prize-fighter; the naked, dark eyes —
imperious, aggressive eyes, by no means friendly;
the heavy jaws and prominent hard chin gave him
a desperate air; but the long beard which he wore
in later life, concealing the chin and pursed-out lips,
lent his face a fine, patriarchal expression, subduing
the fierce provocation of it to a sort of regal pride
and courage. "Untamed" — that is the word which
always recurs when I think of Burton.

I was so curious about so many things in regard
to him that I hesitated and fumbled, and made a bad
impression on him; we soon drifted apart — I vexed
with myself, he loftily indifferent.

It was Captain Lovett-Cameron who brought us
closer together; a typical sailor and good fellow, he
had been Burton's companion in Africa and had
sucked an idolatrous admiration out of the intimacy.
Burton was his hero; wiser than anyone else,


stronger, braver, more masterful, more adroit; he
could learn a new language In a week, and so forth
and so on — hero-worship lyrical.

"A Bayard and an Admirable Crichton In one,"
I remarked scoffingly. "Human, too," he replied
seriously, "human and brave as Henry of Navarre."

"Proofs, proofs," I cried.

"Proofs of courage !" Cameron exclaimed, "every
African explorer lives by courage : every day war-
parties of hostile tribes have to be charmed or awed
to friendliness; rebellious servants brought to obe-
dience; wild animals killed, food provided — all vicis-
situdes Burton handled as a master, and the more
difficult and dangerous the situation the more certain
he was to carry It off triumphantly. A great man,
I tell you, with all sorts of qualities and powers, and,
if you followed his lead, the best of 'pals.'

"No one would believe how kind he Is; he nursed
me for six weeks through African fever — took care
of me like a brother. You must know Dick really
well: you'll love him."

Thanks to Cameron, Burton and I met again and
dined together, and afterwards had a long palaver.
Burton unbuttoned, and talked as only Burton could
talk of Damascus and that Immemorial East; of
India and Its super-subtle peoples; of Africa and
human life In the raw today as it was twenty thou-
sand years ago; of Brazil, too, and the dirty smear


of Portuguese civilization polluting her silvered wa-
terways and defiling even the immaculate wild.

I can still see his piercing eyes, and thrill to his
vivid, pictured speech; he was irresistible; as Cam-
eron had said, "utterly unconventional." Being very
young, I thought him too "bitter," almost as con-
temptuous of his fellows as Carlyle; I did not then
realize how tragic-cruel life is to extraordinary men.

Burton was of encyclopaedic reading; knew Eng-
lish poetry and prose astonishingly; had a curious
liking for "sabre-cuts of Saxon speech" — all such
words as come hot from life's mint. Describing
something, I used the phrase, "Frighted out of fear."
"Fine that," he cried; "is it yours? Where did
you get it?"

His ethnological appetite for curious customs and
crimes, for everything singular and savage in human-
ity was insatiable. A Western American lynching
yarn held him spell-bound; a crime passionel in Paris
intoxicated him, started him talking, transfigured him
into a magnificent story-teller, with intermingled ap-
peals of pathos and rollicking fun, camp-fire effects,
jets of flame against the night.

His intellectual curiosity was astonishingly broad
and deep rather than high. He would tell stories of
Indian philosophy or of perverse negro habits of lust
and cannibalism, or would listen to descriptions of
Chinese cruelty and Russian self-mutilation till the
stars paled out. Catholic in his admiration and


liking for all greatness, it was the abnormalities and
not the divinities of men that fascinated him.

Deep down in him lay the despairing gloom of
utter disbelief. "Unaffected pessimism and constitu-
tional melancholy," he notices, "strike deepest root
under the brightest skies," and this pessimistic melan-
choly was as native to Burton as to any Arab of
them all. He was thinking of himself when he wrote
of the Moslem, "he cannot but sigh when contem-
plating the sin and sorrow, and pathos and bathos
of the world; and feel the pity of it, with its shifts
and changes ending in nothingness, its scanty happi-
ness, its copious misery." Burton's laughter, even,
deep-chested as it was, had in it something of sad-

At heart he was regally generous; there was a
large humanity in him, an unbounded charity for the
poor and helpless; a natural magnanimity, too; "an
unconditional forgiveness of the direst injuries" he
calls "the note of the noble."

His love of freedom was insular and curiously
extravagant, showing itself in every smallest detail.
"My wife makes we wear these wretched dress-
clothes," he cried one evening. "I hate 'em — a liv-
ery of shame, shame of being yourself. Broad
arrows would improve 'em," and the revolt of dis-
gust flamed in his eyes.

Like most able, yet fanatical, lovers of liberty,
he preferred the tyranny of one to the anarchical


misrule of the many. "Eastern despotisms," he
asserts, "have arrived nearer the ideal of equality
and fraternity than any republic yet invented."

"A master of life and books," I said of him after-
wards to Cameron, "but at bottom as tameless and
despotic as an Arab sheikh."

Two extracts from his wonderful Arabian Nights
are needed to give color to my sketch. I make no
excuse for quoting them, for they are superexcellent
English, and in themselves worthy of memory.
Here is a picture of the desert which will rank with
Fromentin's best:

Again I stood under the diaphanous skies, in air glori-
ous as ether, whose every breath raises men's spirits like
sparkling wine. Once more I saw the evening star hang-
ing like a solitaire from the pure front of the western
firmament; and the after-glow transfiguring and transform-
ing, as by magic, the homely and rugged features of the
scene into a fairyland lit with a light which never shines
on other soils or seas. Then would appear the woollen
tents, low and black, of the true Badawin, mere dots in
the boundless waste of lion-tawny clays and gazelle-brown
gravels, and the camp-fire dotting like a glow-worm the vil-
lage centre. Presently, sweetened by distance, would be
heard the wild, weird song of lads and lasses, driving, or
rather pelting, through the gloaming their sheep and goats ;
and the measured chant of the spearsmen gravely stalking
behind their charge, the camels; mingled with the bleating
of the flocks and the bellowing of the humpy herds; while
the reremouse flittered overhead with his tiny shriek, and


the rave of the jackal resounded through deepening glooms,
and — most musical of music — the palm trees answered the
whispers of the night breeze with the softest tones of fall-
ing water.

And here a Rembrandt etching of Burton story-
telling to Arabs in the desert:

The sheikhs and "white-beards" of the tribe gravely
take their places, sitting with outspread skirts like hillocks
on the i^lain, as the Arabs say, around the camp-fire, whilst
I reward their hospitality and secure its continuance by
reading or reciting a few pages of their favourite tales.
The women and children stand motionless as silhouettes out-
side the ring; and all are breathless with attention; they
seem to drink in the words with eyes and mouth as well
as with ears. The most fantastic flights of fancy, the
wildest improbabilities, the most impossible of impossibili-
ties appear to them utterly natural, mere matters of every-
day occurrence. They enter thoroughly into each phase
of feeling touched upon by the author ; they take a personal
pride in the chivalrous nature and knightly prowess of
Tajal-Muluk; they are touched with tenderness by the self-
sacrificing love of Azizah; their mouths water as they
hear of heaps of untold gold given away in largesse like
clay; they chuckle with delight every time a Kazi or a
Fakir — a judge or a reverend — is scurvily entreated by
some Pantagruelist of the wilderness; and, despite their
normal solemnity and imi3assibility, all roar with laughter,
sometimes rolling upon the ground till the reader's gravity
is sorely tried, at the tales of the garrulous Barber and
of Ali and the Kurdish sharper. To this magnetizing mood


the sole exception is when a Badawi of superior accom-
plishments, who sometimes says his prayers, ejaculates a
startling "Astaghfaru'llah" — I pray Allah's pardon — for
listening to light mention of the sex whose name is never
heard amongst the nobility of the desert.

Even when I only knew Burton as a great per-
sonality I touched the tragedy of his life unwittingly
more than once. I had heard that he had come
to grief as Consul In Damascus — Jews there claim-
ing to be British subjects in order to escape Moham-
medan justice, and when thwarted stirring up their
powerful compatriots in London to petition for his
recall; his superior at Beyrout always dead against
him — eventually he was recalled, some said dis-
missed. I felt sure he had been in the right. "Won't
you tell me about it?" I asked him one evening.

"The story's too long, too intricate," he cried.
"Besides, the Foreign Office admitted I was right."

When I pressed for details he replied:

"Do you remember the cage at Loches, in which
an ordinary man could not stand upright or lie at
ease, and so was done to death slowly by constraint.
Places under our Government today are cages like
that to all men above the average size."

The English could not use Burton; they could
maim him.

Englishmen are so strangely Inclined to overpraise
the men of past times and underrate their contem-


porarles that many have been astonished at my com-
paring Burton with Raleigh. But, in truth, both in
speech and action Burton was the greater man. He
was a more daring and a more successful ex-
plorer; an infinitely better scholar, with intimate
knowledge of a dozen worlds which Raleigh knew
nothing about, a greater writer, too, and a more
dominant, irresistible personality. Young Lord Pem-
broke once slapped Raleigh's face; no sane man
would have thought of striking Burton. Aristocratic
Elizabethan England, however, could honor Ra-
leigh and put him to noble use, whereas Victorian
England could find no place for Richard Burton and
could win no service from him. Think of it ! Bur-
ton knew the Near East better than any Westerner
has ever known it ; he was a master of literary Arabic
and of the dialects spoken in Egypt and the Soudan.
Moreover, as he himself puts it modestly, "the acci-
dents of my life, my long dealings with Arabs and
other Mohammedans and my familiarity not only
with their idiom, but with their turn of thought and
with that racial individuality which bafiles descrip-
tion" made Burton an ideal ruler for a Mohamme-
dan people. He was already employed under the
Foreign Oflice.

Notwithstanding all this when we took Egypt we
sent Lord Dufferin to govern it, and tossed a small
consular post to Richard Burton as a bone to a dog.
Dufferin knew no Arabic, and nothing about Egypt.


Burton knew more than anyone else on earth about
both, and was besides a thousand times abler than
the chattering, charming Irish peer. Yet Dufferin
Was preferred before him. Deliberately I say that
all England's mistakes in Egypt — and they are as
numerous and as abominable as years of needless war
have ever produced — came from this one blunder.
This sin England is committing every day, the sin
of neglecting the able and true man and preferring
to him the unfit and second-rate, and therefore negli-
gible, man; It is the worst of crimes in a ruling caste,
the sin against the Holy Spirit, the sin once labelled
unforgivable. "No Immorality," said Napoleon to
his weak brother, "like the immorality of taking a
post you're not fitted for." No wonder Burton
wrote that the "crass ignorance" (of England)
"concerning the Oriental peoples which should most
interest her, exposes her to the contempt of Europe
as well as of the Eastern World." No wonder he
condemned "the regrettable raids of '83-'84," and
"the miserable attacks of Tokar, Teb, and Tamasi"
upon the "gallant negroids who were battling for the
holy cause of liberty and religion and for escape
from Turkish task-masters and Egyptian tax-gath-
erers." With heartfelt contempt he records the fact
that there was "not an English official in camp . . .
capable of speaking Arabic."

Gladstone appointed Dufferin; Gladstone sent
Gordon to the Soudan at the dictation of a journahst


as ignorant as himself! Gladstone, too, appointed
Cromer, and after Tokar and Teb we had the atro-
cious, shameful revenge on the Mahdi's remains and
the barbarous murders of Denshawi ; and a thou-
sand thousand unknown tragedies besides, all be-
cause England's rulers are incapable of using her
wisest sons and are determined to pin their faith
to mediocrities — like choosing like, with penguin

"England," says Burton, "has forgotten, appar-
ently, that she is at present the greatest Mohamme-
dan empire in the world, and in her Civil Service
examinations she insists on a smattering of Greek
and Latin rather than a knowledge of Arabic."
Here is what Burton thought about the English Civil
Service; every word of it true still, and every word

In our day, when we live under a despotism of the lower
"middle-class" who can pardon anything but superiority,
the prizes of competitive service are monopolized by certain
"pets" of the Mediocratie, and prime favourites of that
jealous and potent majority — the Mediocrities who know
"no nonsense about merit." It is hard for an outsider to
realize how perfect is the monopoly of commonplace, and
to comprehend how fatal a stumbling-stone that man sets
in the way of his own advancement who dares to think for
himself, or who thinks more or who does more than the mob
of gentlemen-employees who know very little and do even
less. "He knows too much" is the direst obstacle to oflScial


advancement in England — it would be no objection in
France; and in Germany^ Russia, and Italy, the three rising
Powers of Europe, it would be a valid claim for promo-
tion. But, unfortunately for England, the rule and gov-
ernment of the country have long been, and still are, in
the hands of a corporation, a clique, which may be described
as salaried, permanent and irresponsible clerks, the power
which administers behind the Minister. They rule and
misrule; nor is there one man in a million who, like the
late Mr. Fawcett, when taking Ministerial charge, dares to
think and act for himself and to emancipate himself from
the ignoble tyranny of "the office."

With all its faults the English Civil Service is
better than our Parliamentary masters. Like fish,
a State first goes bad at the head. Burton used to
tell how he came home and offered all East Africa
to Lord Salisbury. He had concluded treaties with
all the chiefs; no other Power was interested or
would have objected. But Lord Salisbury refused
the gift. "Is Zanzibar an island?" he exclaimed in
wonder, and "Is East Africa worth anything?" So
the Germans were allowed twenty years later to come
in and cut "the wasp's waist" and bar England's way
from the Cape to Cairo.

England wasted Burton, left his singular talents
unused, and has already paid millions of money,
to say nothing of far more precious things (some
of them beyond price), for her stupidity, and Eng-
land's account with Egypt is still all on the wrong


side — stands, indeed, worse than ever, I imagine;
for Egypt is now bitterly contemptuous of English
rule. Egypt is a source of weakness to England
therefore, and not a source and fount of strength,
as she would have been from the beginning if the
old Parliamentary rhetor had had eyes as well as
tongue, and had set Burton to do the work of teach-
ing, organizing, and guiding which your Dufferins,
Cromers, Kitcheners and the rest are incapable even
of imagining.

The worst of it is that Burton has left no succes-
sor. Had he been appointed he would have seen to
this, one may be sure ; would have established a great
school of Arabic learning in Cairo, and trained a
staff of Civil Servants who would have gladly ac-
quired at least the elements of their work — men who
would not only have known Arabic, but the ablest
natives, too, and so have availed themselves of a
little better knowledge than their own. But, alas!
the chance has been lost, and unless something is
done soon, Egypt will be England's worst failure,
worse even than India or Ireland.

But I must return to Burton. I should like to
tell of an evening I spent once with him when Lord
Lytton was present. Lytton had been Viceroy of
India, the first and only Viceroy who ever under-
stood his own infinite unfitness for the post.

"I only stayed in India," he used to say, "to pre-
vent them sending out an even worse man."


I asked him afterwards why he didn't recommend
Burton for the post; for he knew something of
Burton's transcendant quality.

"They'd never send him," he cried, with uncon-
scious snobbery. "He's not got the title or the posi-
tion; besides, he'd be too independent. My God,
how he'd kick over the traces and upset the cart!"

The eternal dread and dislike of genius ! And yet
that very evening Burton had shown qualities of pru-
dence and wisdom far beyond Lytton's comprehen-

But I must hasten. I found myself in Venice once
with time on my hands, when I suddenly remembered
that across the sea at Trieste was a man who would
always make a meeting memorable. I took the next
steamer and called on Burton. I found the desert
lion dying of the cage; dying of disappointment and
neglect; dying because there was no field for the
exercise of his superlative abilities; dying because the
soul in him could find nothing to live on in Trieste;
for in spite of his talent for literature, in spite of
his extraordinary gift of speech, Burton was at bot-
tom a man of action, a great leader, a still greater
governor of men.

While out walking one afternoon we stopped at
a little cafe, and I had an object-lesson in Burton's
mastery of life. His German was quite good, but
nothing like his Italian. He seemed to know the
people of the inn and every one about by intuition,


and in a few minutes had won their confidence and
admiration. For half an hour he talked to a de-
lighted audience in Dante's speech, jewelled with
phrases from the great Florentine himself. As we
walked back to his house he suddenly cried to me:

"Make some excuse and take me out tonight; if
I don't get out I shall go mad. . . ."

We had a great night — Burton giving pictures of
his own life; telling of his youth in the Indian Army
when he wandered about among the natives dis-
guised as a native (I have always thought of him
as the original of Kipling's "Strickland"). His fel-
low-officers, of course, hated his superiority: called
him in derision "the white nigger"; Burton laughed
at it all, fully compensated, he said, for their hatred
by the love and admiration of Sir Charles Napier
{Peccavi, "I have Scinde," Napier), hero recogniz-
ing hero. It was to Napier, and at Napier's request,
that he sent the famous "report" which, falling into
secretarial hands, put an end to any chance of Bur-
ton's advancement in India — the tragedy again and
again repeated of a great life maimed and marred
by envious, eyeless mediocrities. What might have
been, what would have been had he been given power
— a new earth if not a new heaven — the theme of his
Inspired Report.

I got him to talk, too, about The Scented Garden,
which he had been working at for some time. Lady


Burton afterwards burnt this book, it will be remem-
bered, together with his priceless diaries, out of sheer
prudery. He told me (what I had already guessed)
that the freedom of speech he used, he used deliber-
ately, not to shock England, but to teach England
that only by absolute freedom of speech and thought
could she ever come to be worthy of her heritage.

"But Em afraid it's too late," he added; "Eng-
land's going to some great defeat; she's wedded to
lies and mediocrities." . . . He got bitter
again, and I wished to turn his thoughts.

"Which would you really have preferred to be,"
I probed, "Viceroy of India or Consul-General of

"Egypt, Egypt!" he cried, starting up, "Egypt!
In India I should have had the English Civil Serv-
ants to deal with — the Jangali, or savages, as their
Hindu fellow-subjects call them — and English preju-
dices, English formalities, English stupidity, Eng-
lish ignorance. They would have killed me in India,
thwarted me, fought me, intrigued against me, mur-
dered me. But in Egypt I could have made my own
Civil servants, picked them out, and trained them.
I could have had natives, too, to help. Ah, what
a chance!

"I know Arabic better than I know Hindu. Arabic
Is my native tongue; I know it as well as I know
English. I know the Arab nature. The Mahdi


business could have been settled without striking a
blow. If Gordon had known Arabic well, spoken
it as a master, he would have won the Mahdi to
friendship. To govern well you must know a people
— know their feelings, love their dreams and aspira-
tions. What did Dufferin know of Egj'pt? Poor
Dufferin, what did he even know of Dufferin? And
Cromer's devoid even of Dufferin's amiability!"

The cold words do him wrong, give no hint of
the flame and force of his disappointment; but I can
never forget the bitter sadness of it: "England
finds nothing for me to do, makes me an office-boy,
exiles me here on a pittance." The caged lion I

I have always thought that these two men, Carlyle
and Burton, were the two greatest governors ever
given to England. The one for England herself, and
as an example to the world of the way to turn a
feudal, chivalrous State into a great modern indus-
trial State; the other the best possible governor of
Mohammedan peoples — two more prophets whom
England did not stone, did not even take the trouble
to listen to. She is still paying, as I have said, some-
what dearly for her adders' ears and must yet pay
still more heavily.

I have found fault with Carlyle because he was a
Puritan, deaf to music, blind to beauty. Burton went
to the other extreme : he was a sensualist of extrava-
gant appetite learned in every Eastern and savage


vice. His coarse, heavy, protruding lips were to me
sufficient explanation of the pornographic learning
of his Arabian Nights. And when age came upon
him; though a quarter of what he was accustomed
to eat in his prime would have kept him in perfect
health, he yielded to the habitual desire and suffered
agonies with indigestion, dying, indeed, in a fit of
dyspepsia brought on by over-eating. And with
these untamed appetites and desires he was peculiarly
sceptical and practical; his curiosity all limited to
this world, which accounts to me for his infernal
pedantry. He never seemed to realize that wisdom
has nothing to do with knowledge, literature nothing
to do with learning. Knowledge and learning, facts,

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Online LibraryFrank HarrisContemporary portraits → online text (page 11 of 20)