Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton
Edward Rice’s extensive subtitle, The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the “Kama Sutra,” and Brought the “Arabian Nights” to the West calls attention to the biographer’s task: to make Sir Richard Francis Burton come alive to his readers as a great adventurer. In this task he has succeeded admirably. During his lifetime, Burton appeared to his contemporaries to be a personality larger than life. Sometimes adulated, often reviled, he stood apart from the great majority of prudish, decorous Victorians as though he were a mutation from the body of society. In death, he became a legend.
To separate the various strands of Burton’s authentic life and of his world from myth, Rice insists upon calling his subject “Captain,” the military designation that provided Burton’s essential occupation. Whether ethnologist, translator, literary artist, explorer, or moralist, Burton was at core an officer of the Crown, one whose distinguished career was made possible through the support of the military establishment.
To previous studies of this ever-fascinating figure, Rice adds three major insights—but neglects to address two significant problems. First, he traces Burton’s activities from the sound perspective of services required or permitted as a military officer working within an imperialistic hierarchy. Next, he provides a detailed, generally sympathetic account of Burton’s complex religious experiences. Finally, he views his subject objectively, with neither idolatry nor distaste. Indeed, Rice may go too far in the direction of objective tact. By limiting his psychological interpretation of Burton’s character to data that can be verified, by curbing his own biases, he offers the reader a much-diminished Burton from the swaggering romantic of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s television docudrama The Search for the Nile or the dour, testy romantic of the film Mountains of the Moon (1990).
To trace the footsteps of his elusive hero, Rice devoted more than ten years of research in many of the dusty byroads of the once-mighty British Empire. After ten lengthy trips to India and Pakistan (formerly Sind, Baluchistan, and the Punjab), to Nepal, Iran, the Arab countries, and Palestine, often using Burton’s books as a guide, Rice came to the understanding that “there was more to his life than had yet been covered.” An adventurer himself, Rice had managed—over a period of eighteen years, while traveling and working abroad—to view “firsthand the sites of Burton’s life.” Among his destinations were Bombay and Karachi, also Calcutta and Delhi, places where he had actually lived and not simply passed through as a tourist; he visited Beirut and Baghdad, “then Damascus, the city where Burton had been English counsel for two years”; he worked briefly in Gaza, where Burton had searched for a kidnapped fellow officer; he “wandered through the streets of Istanbul” where Burton had sought a commission during the Crimean War; he crossed the forbidding Somali desert; and later he traveled into Uganda and Kenya, where Burton—during his greatest adventure—had searched for the source of the Nile. Although Rice never upstages the subject of his biography, his own credentials as explorer, traveler, and romantic are remarkably well suited to his task. One can scarcely imagine a biographer better prepared by reason of temperament, courage, or dedication to hunt down the traces of Burton’s own adventures. In spite of his self-effacing modesty as researcher, Rice provides readers the basic data for a new legend; among names included in any short list of twentieth century “scholar adventurers” (in Richard D. Altick’s language), Rice must be counted, not only for his heroic devotion to the objective of gathering evidence but also for his nearly obsessional personal quest to test his mettle against that of Burton.
By the same line of reasoning, Rice offers to Burton scholars a unique gift of personal involvement in ethnological research. Always concerned with the impact (more than the fact) of his subject’s experiences, he has studied in depth the sociological-cultural scene of Burton’s travels. He spoke to “yogis, Sufis, Sikhs, ranis, maharajas, shaykhs, drug addicts, mahouts, black marketeers, rickshaw wallahs, brahmins, and half- castes.” He wandered up the Indus Valley and deep into India, a trip of some eighteen hundred miles, “through lands very much a part of Burton’s life, past Hyderabad, where he had lived in a brothel studying mysticism and gathering information for his general.”
Because of this study—and research as well at the Sikh...
(The entire section is 1916 words.)