The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World

by Dane Kennedy
368 pages,
ISBN: 0674018621

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Intrepid Orientalist
by Christopher Ondaatje

Soon after Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) returned from his daring journey to Mecca in 1853, there appeared an unsettling photographic portrait that revealed a man who had dispensed with any attachment to Victorian society. At the bottom of his personal copy of the photograph, now in the possession of the Royal Geographical Society, Burton provided a stunning caption in his distinctive handwriting: "The highly civilized man". This serves as the title of Dane Kennedy's scholarly biography. Burton was one of Victorian Britain's most protean figures. "Explorer and ethnographer, polyglot and poet, consul and connoisseur of the sword, infantry officer and enfant terrible, this famed-and in some circles infamous- Victorian is such an oversized figure that he seems at first sight almost sui generis." Most biographers have tended to portray Burton in Nietzschean terms as a heroic, independent spirit operating outside the bounds of social convention. Kennedy sets out, first, to counter these claims of Burton's extraordinariness; and second, to provide fuller insight into the wider Victorian world of Burton's day. In both respects the author succeeds where others have either failed or simply avoided probing too deeply into Burton's self-created myths. In seven poignant chapters (followed by an eighth which deals with Burton after his death), Kennedy offers a chronological study of Burton's peripatetic career as a gypsy, orientalist, impersonator, explorer, racist, relativist, and sexologist. Burton as gypsy is the first stage of Kennedy's effort to establish a myth-free, historically accurate depiction of Burton's life. This is an important springboard for the author, enabling him to show how "Burton's natural talents were nurtured, his career options determined, and his provocative views on race, religion, and other issues informed by the broader forces-social, political, cultural, intellectual, and more-that shaped the Victorian world." The second chapter identifies Burton with Orientalism and tells the story of Burton's journey to India in 1842 as an impatient 21-year-old, just been expelled from Oxford, and traveling as an ensign in the East India Company. Encouraged to pursue his interests, his natural enthusiasm and ability to absorb customs and languages, transformed the young Burton into one of the 19th century's most provocative interpreters of non-Western societies. The Victorian public began to recognize Burton in the 1850s, when he hazardously entered Mecca in the guise of a Muslim pilgrim. Kennedy's third chapter-"The Impersonator"-observes that this historic journey was a carefully calculated effort to attract attention. It brought him the renown his first books on India had failed to produce, and resulted in his masterpiece, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, which was published on his return in 1855. The chapter also deals with Burton's first attempt to oppose Western prejudices against the Islamic world, particularly the conviction that it was "inferior to the West because of the sanction it gives to polygamy, veiling, and other practices that seem to subordinate women." Burton's determined role as "Explorer", first in Somalia (1855), and later in his ill-fated attempt, with John Hanning Speke (1857-1859), to discover the true sources of the White Nile, are perceptively covered in Kennedy's fourth chapter. This well-known story produced articles, books, a historical novel, a BBC television series and a Hollywood film. However, unlike other biographers, Kennedy goes to some lengths to explain that Burton's experiences among black Africans exposed his inability to acquire the empathy for African peoples and practices that he had achieved in India and the Near East. Emboldened by the movement of "scientific" racism that appeared in Britain, Burton became one of Britain's leading proponents of the view that "Africans constituted a distinct and inferior species of humanity." In his fifth chapter, Kennedy continues to develop the portrait of Burton as "The Racist". When Burton turned his attention from Africans to other peoples, his views on race became even more complicated and contradictory. It is therefore surprising that Burton's first posting as a British Consul in 1861 was to Fernando Po and West Africa, a region that had a long and troubled association with Britain. The fifteen years between 1865 and 1880 were a troublesome time for Burton, and this uneasy period is related in Kennedy's sixth chapter, entitled "The Relativist". Burton's transfer from West Africa to Brazil dashed his hopes of achieving the position he craved in London's scientific and literary circles. His mood deteriorated and he sank into an alcoholic depression that made his South American years some of his darkest and least productive. Burton's subsequent appointment to the Damascus consulship in 1869 ended in disgrace when he was recalled only two years later. He was immediately embroiled in controversy for running afoul of Protestant missionaries, already antagonistic to Burton's antimissionary reputation, and then clashing with several members of the local Jewish community. Eventually, in 1871, complaints to the British Ambassador to Constantinople about Burton's unauthorised wanderings and his denunciation of Muslim treatment of Christians led to his recall. Burton, however, believed that his dismissal owed more to the complaints of three Sephardic Jews who felt that he had failed to carry out his consular duties in regard to them. Burton was nearly expelled from the Consular Service and only vigorous lobbying by his wife, Isabel, secured his final consular posting in 1873 to Trieste, a diplomatic sinecure tucked in the southwestern corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which imposed few administrative demands on him. In Trieste he languished, bitterly resentful of his fate. This resentment found its most troubling expression in a burst of anti-Semitism, in particular in a remarkable unpublished manuscript, Human Sacrifice among the Sepherdine [sic] or Eastern Jews-still in the possession of The Board of Deputies of British Jews in London. Dane Kennedy's discerning explanation of this and other literary pursuits pulls no interpretive punches as he dissects Burton's true leanings. It is a revealing and outspoken section of the book, which also explains how Burton's enforced leisure laid the groundwork for the burst of creativity and the ensuing controversy that marked the final decade of Burton's life, recounted in Kennedy's seventh chapter, "The Sexologist". The final decade of Burton's life, when his physical powers waned, found the ageing explorer/ethnographer turning "his still formidable intellectual energies to the study of sexual desire and its varied expressions and means of gratification." This is the period during which Burton's translation and publication of works like the Kama Sutra (1883), The Ananda-Range (1885), and The Perfumed Garden (1886) were regarded in England as being blatantly obscene. In 1885-86, Burton published a ten-volume translation of tales from the Arabian Nights entitled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, followed in 1886-1888 by an additional six-volume Supplemental Nights. This mammoth publishing undertaking provided a skeptical public with the first unexpurgated translation of the tales with footnotes about esoteric aspects of Islamic culture, especially sexual customs. Burton's now infamous "Terminal Essay", an endpiece to the edition, is perhaps the most complete discussion about homosexuality, across time and cultures, ever published. The Obscene Publications Act prevented such publications from being distributed through regular channels, but Burton, together with two other backers, formed the "Hindu Kama Shastra Society", which not only masked their identity but protected them and their printer from prosecution. Richard Burton died in Trieste on 19th October, 1890, and the bizarre events that followed his death are recounted in Dane Kennedy's final chapter, "The Afterlife". Isabel his wife, a Roman Catholic, made a number of surprising decisions that ensured that her husband's posthumous career was as controversial as the one he had pursued in life. A series of masses were held in Catholic churches for Burton (not a Catholic), followed by a large public funeral complete with Catholic rites. Burton's coffin was shipped to England for one more Catholic funeral service before his body was laid to rest in a tent-like marble tomb in Mortlake. Then, in a final baleful decision, Isabel burnt the mass of Burton's unpublished manuscripts, journals, letters and papers, including his final unpublished manuscript, "The Scented Garden". It was correctly regarded as being one of the great literary crimes of the century. Kennedy's detailed examination of Burton's career is exhaustive. The Highly Civilized Man successfully casts new light, as Burton did, on the nuances of circumstance which are crucial for historical accuracy. More than any other biography, Kennedy's book makes Burton emerge as a man who contributed much more than most to the vast body of knowledge about other peoples that constituted the Victorians' "imperial archive". "Difference became for Burton the basis for critical inquiry, capable of being turned in any direction, not least against Britain itself." Burton's unique grasp of cultural differences, and his immense curiosity and appreciation for different worlds, so unlike the attitudes of narrow-minded, repressed Victorians of his day, has provided Kennedy with the reason for writing this exceptional biography. For the first time, we're given a thorough explanation for Burton's manic immersion in other cultures, as well as an opportunity to comprehend the context which stimulated his interests-the wide-ranging set of concerns that characterised the Victorian engagement with difference.

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