Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton

Henry Stanley

From “Four Great African Travelers,” Century Magazine/May, 1873


THE first on the list of African travelers whose discoveries I propose to glance over in this article is Captain Richard Francis Burton.

This great traveler has always appeared to me an eccentric genius, with natural physical and intellectual gifts fitting him to do well almost anything he might undertake. That he does not stand today higher than his predecessors or successors in Africa, as he might easily have done, may be ascribed to circumstances which are partly the result of certain peculiarities of his nature, and partly owing to that unsympathetic and superficial society into which he had drifted in India, during early manhood.

A stranger, on seeing Burton for the first time, would be apt to exclaim, “That’s a hardlooking man!” But if he were informed that this man was the dauntless being who, in the guise of an Arab merchant, penetrated to Mecca and Harar—two seats of Mohammedan bigotry—he would be apt to add that he was “just the kind of man to do it, judging by his looks.”

Hard is indeed the character of Burton’s features. High cheekbones, gray eyes, set deep in cavelike sockets, shining with a fierce light, with prominent and bristly eyebrows jutting over them like a penthouse—forehead low, and slightly retreating—nose thick, and anything but classic—an upper lip clothed with a stiff moustache not large enough to hide the sneer in which his lips are set, and jaws vast and square as if settled down into a defiant belligerency—form the tout ensemble of a face that was intended for a born pugilist. His form of medium height, and largeboned, perhaps lends color to this judgment.

Burton is called a “wicked man” by some people. But Burton is more reckless than wicked. He delights to banter feebly intellectual folks and shock their prejudices. His intimate friends, however, looking under the crust of informality and bluntness which covers his real self, discover another man, essentially Burton—a man not altogether unlovable, a man extremely sociable and delightful, a philosopher, and wise beyond first conception, a conversationalist of rare power, and a scholar who has amassed within the recesses of an extraordinary memory a rich store of Arabic, Persian, and Hindoo lore.

Howsoever Burton endeavors to screen himself under the rough guise of an explorer, the itinerating litterateur peeps out in all his books, especially in the record of his explorations in Africa. But his style, though it evinces scholarship, is abrupt, incohesive, and pedantic. He coins words where a new coinage of them is simply superfluous. In parts it also borders on quaintness, as if he had caught the habit of Sir Thomas More or Roger Bacon.

His powers of composition are most conspicuous in his scenic descriptions. These are so full of fervor and freshness that they appear like sunbeams shining through a dark cloud of fevers, disappointments, calamities, and many-phased trouble, and we get a glimpse, though dim and indistinct, of the reverence for things divine that is latent in him.

This short sketch of the man and his character will serve as a prelude to a few remarks upon his great feat of exploration in Africa.

Captain Burton, accompanied by Captain J. H. Speke, landed at Zanzibar on the 19th December, 1856, both as ignorant of the nature of the work they were about to engage in, and of the mode to accomplish that work, as any two men could well be. They had been commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society of London to proceed to Central Africa, to discover a lake which was believed to be the source of the River Nile.

On their arrival at Zanzibar, the two travelers were informed that they had come at the wrong season to start, that the proper time to commence their march was in June. But for many reasons this was an advantage; they thus had ample time for preparation, to purchase and pack up the thousand and one impedimenta which they would be compelled to take with them, to study the language, the manners and customs of African tribes, and pick up serviceable information respecting the interior and the different routes which led into it. Some men would have improved the opportunity to do so, and Burton did do something in this way; yet, six months later, when about to depart, I note with astonishment his remark that his “preparations were too hurried.”

The donkeys, porters, guides, and armed guard having been collected, the presents for the chiefs and the cloths for barter having been purchased, the two white men and their motley force landed at Kaole, three miles south of Bagamoyo, about the middle of June, 1857. Ten days later, amid doleful forebodings from the Indian merchants, and with kindly words of farewell from the British consul, the first expedition from East Africa resolutely set its face towards the west, and the troublous, harassing march to Ujiji began.

In their front they beheld the blue land waves rise in succession one above another, paling in the far distance until they resembled the milky blue sky which domed them. On each side extended sweet landscapes, bounded by shaggy forests, reposing under the tropic heaven, and vivid, spontaneous vegetation all around them. As they looked behind to catch a last solemn glance at what they were leaving, they beheld at their feet the village of Kaole nestling in a palm grove, and beyond this the billows of the Zingian Sea, blown into light playful curls, as the morning land breeze toyed with them! What solemn thoughts must have filled at this time the minds of the two travelers! To the east was a radiant, sheeny sea, which at this time possessed an indescribable charm for them; to the west extended a mysterious and sombrous infinity of jungle and forest—perhaps full of lurking terrors, disease and death!

The two travelers soon found that they had engaged in no child’s play. Their troubles grew thickly. The undisciplined mob they were leading towards the interior gave them great trouble; some clamored for tobacco, others for guitar strings, and their guards—donkey drivers from their birth—complained of the indignity of being required to drive asses. Their guides also, after receiving their advance, deserted them, and the Balooch soldiers insulted the white men. Subsequently there was not one person attached to this expedition who did not at some time or other attempt to desert. On the second day out they were mulcted by a contumacious chief of a large quantity of cloth, and on the fourth day a hyena attacked and killed three asses belonging to the expedition.

On the 8th of July, after struggling through a low and unhealthy district, they reached what the Arabs call “The Valley of Death, and the Home of Hunger,” a broad plain traversed by the Kingani River. The water was everywhere bad, a mortal smell of decay pervaded the atmosphere, and both Burton and Speke were so affected by fever that they were unable to walk.

Burton’s account of his journey through the land of Ugogo is exceedingly interesting, but is marred greatly by the lachrymal outpourings of a temper already greatly embittered by bile, and trouble with the ferocious and utterly intractable people he had to deal with.

Ugogo, which is generally reached in two months by caravans traveling inland, is the halfway district between the coast and Unyanyembe—the central province of the Land of the Moon. The people are a mongrel race, a mixture of the tribes of the mountains and the interior tableland. The plains are rich in grain, and the hills with cattle. Milk, honey, eggs and clarified butter are sold by the people readily for American sheeting and beads. The district abounds in game and elephants, and giraffes are frequently met.

After being subjected for several successive days to much contumely and abuse, the travelers, on the 12th October, 1857, shook the red dust of Ugogo from their feet, and on the 7th day of November, the one hundred and thirty-fourth day from the coast, they arrived in Unyanyembe, where they were received with open arms by the hospitable Arab merchants dwelling there. It may be presumed that this was the only day of real pleasure that Burton enjoyed since leaving the coast, and that the sight of his caravan, after so many vicissitudes, wriggling snakelike over the plain, each member of it boiling over with uncontrollable delight, while horns boomed, and muskets roared like saluting mortars, must have puckered his face on this day into a hundred smiles.

The great labor, however, lay yet unaccomplished, the inland sea was yet undiscovered; and so the expedition is found, after a month’s detention at Unyanyembe, sallying out of its enclosed camp, bound for Ujiji.

Burton’s account of the journey from Unyanyembe to Ujiji is replete with interest, and contains passages of great beauty. The latter place was distant from Unyanyembe 260 miles, and was reached on the 13th February, 1858. The character of the intervening country was undulating ground, intersected with low conical and tabular hills, whose lines ramified in all directions. During the rainy season the country is clad in vivid green. In the dry season it has a grayish aspect, “lighted up by golden stubbles, and dotted with wind-distorted trees, shallow swamps of emerald grass, and wide sheets of dark mud.”

Altogether, Unyamwezi presents a scene of peaceful beauty. Burton says: “Few scenes are more soothing than a view of this country in the balmy evenings of spring, and the charm of the glorious sunsets with their orange glows, and their quickly changing variegated colors, affects even the unimaginative Africans as they sit under the eaves of their huts or under the forest trees to gaze upon the glories around.”

Upon surmounting a range of mountains which surround the lake on all sides, the great inland sea dawned upon their joy-lit eyes. Though the first view of it was disappointing, the great lake Tanganika shortly revealed itself in all its beauty and extent.

Sad, indeed, was the condition of the two travelers when they arrived at Ujiji. Burton was half paralyzed, and Speke was half blind. They had paid a fearful penalty for the privilege of first discovering the great lake.

Soon after their arrival upon the palm-clothed shores of the Tanganika, Burton and Speke set out to resolve the problem of the Rusizi, a river which was said to either run out of the lake or run into it, at its northern extremity. They were unsuccessful, and Burton, to retaliate upon the stubborn untractable natives, fills pages of his book with fierce abuse of them. His ambitious struggle for the mastery over African geography ceased from this time, and Speke is henceforth permitted to come to the front, to cope with the difficulties, and to finally emerge from the contest with honor and credit to himself. Hence ensued fault-finding between the two, bickerings, jealousies, and heart-burnings.

On the return of the travelers to Unyanyembe, Burton, wearied with African travel, and sore in mind and body, gave permission to Speke to set out by himself towards the north. After fifty-two days’ absence, Speke returned to his companion, and quietly announced the discovery of the Lake Victoria Nyanza, the SOURCE OF THE NILE. Thus had the laurel leaves which should have graced Burton’s brow been transferred to that of Speke, as the reward of his tireless energy and patient endurance; and the two friends from this time forth became bitter enemies.

On the 2d of February, 1859, Burton and Speke greeted old ocean with true British cheers, after an absence from Zanzibar of 19 months. In due time they arrived in England, Speke to be received with open arms and warm congratulations by the Royal Geographical Society, and to be chosen as leader of a second East African expedition; Burton to be graciously—snubbed.