The peoples politics of Nelson Mandela

Harry Boyte

Director, Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College

Across the world, people have rightly celebrated Nelson Mandela as a figure who “now belongs to the ages,” as President Barack Obama put it in his tribute to the late South African leader. But recognition of his people’s politics has been largely absent. We need to switch from the dominant “great man” view of Mandela as a singular savior of South Africa to an understanding of his citizen-empowering politics if we are to do justice to his legacy and its potential for contribution to a world in turmoil and crisis.

Nelson Mandela was a populist not in the sense in which the term is commonly used in the media, to mean a rabble-rousing demagogue. Mandela was a populist in the deepest meaning of term. He had a profound and also unromantic belief in the potential of everyday citizens to shape the world.

Today’s public discussion of Nelson Mandela is decontextualized and depoliticized, as well as sanctified. Lost is his schooling in the ancient civic culture of the Eastern Cape.

Mandela was born in Mvezo, a tiny village in the Transkei, in the southeast of South Africa. When his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyisa, was stripped of his chieftainship after defying British authority, he was taken into the home of the paramount chief of the Thembu people.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described the meetings at “the Great Place,” Mquhekezweni. “Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer. … All were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens.”

These experiences became seasoned in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1950s called the Congress of the People (CoP). It produced the Freedom Charter of 1955, the anti-apartheid movement’s manifesto, and aimed at a national awakening instilling freedom consciousness.

In the view of its organizers, the people, not the African National Congress or other political parties, were the driving force of change. As one leader, Rusty Bernstein put it, the ideas of the Charter needed to be “an exercise in getting the people to tell the leadership and self-regarding elites what THEY ought to work for in the name of the people.”

The Congress of the People also challenged anti-apartheid whites to organize in their own communities. Estranged from the white mainstream, they were largely unable to do so.

This movement powerfully shaped Mandela. The Charter, he argued was “by no means a blueprint for a socialist state.” Rather it was “a programme for unification” involving “a democratic struggle of various classes and political groupings.”

Mandela’s schooling generated a clear distinction in his thinking between ideological politics, or “party politics,” and people’s politics. The distinction is clear in an interview published last year in the Australian journal Thesis Eleven with Jakes Gerwel, aide to Mandela throughout his presidency.

Mandela, Gerwel argued, stressed psychological liberation akin to the emphasis of Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko. “Not to be victim to your suffering [and] to be victim of those who perpetrated it against you … He rose above that by the generosity of spirit….”

Gerwel traced such generosity to Mandela’s politics. “People often talk about Mandela’s values,” Gerwel said. “The thing that I remember him teaching me was: ‘Jakes, never let your enemy choose the terrain of combat by reacting in anger. If you act in anger to anybody, you are allowing that person to choose the terrain.’ This was a combination of genuine principled morals with a great tactical sense.”

Gerwel emphasized that “Mandela is a politician through and through. He understands party politics and politics to his finger tips. He is not a saint, and he often made that point. He is a hard politician [who] uses power and his political agency for the good.”

In his prison years on Robben Island, Mandela further developed his commitment to nonracial people’s politics. Afrikaner guards who smuggled in newspapers for him to read, provided extra rations, and taught him Afrikaans, the main language of the white population, tempered any desire for racial recrimination.

Meanwhile, exchanges with young hotheads brought home the dangers of a politics of posture. “When you say, ‘What are you going to do?’ they say, ‘We will attack and destroy them!'” he recounted. “I say: ‘All right, have you analyzed how strong they are? Have you compared their strength to your strength?'”

In 1986, Mandela, still in prison, began negotiations with moderates in the National Party government. Simultaneously, parallel efforts began to appear among whites on a large scale.

In 1986, Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, leaders of the white opposition party in the South African Parliament, resigned in frustration at the Parliament’s inability to address the country’s growing crisis. They founded the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (Idasa), with the aim of generating discussion and work across the deepening racial divide. Slabbert called this “the politics of negotiation.” Their politics, in the same vein as Mandela’s, took up the challenge to whites made by the Congress of the People and leaders like Mandela, more than thirty years before.

For most whites in South Africa in the 1980s, the everyday lives, concerns, talents, and oppressive conditions of blacks were invisible. Idasa’s work closely paralleled Mandela’s efforts.

In 1987 in Dakar, Senegal, the organization brought together white moderates among politicians, labor unionists, journalists, religious and business leaders with exile leaders of the African National Congress for the first time. The meeting reverberated around the world. Over the next seven years, Idasa followed up by organizing hundreds of meetings which brought whites together with blacks, colored and Indians.

After the 1994 election, Idasa became the leading force on the African continent emphasizing the idea that democracy is a society, not simply a state. Its grassroots popular education efforts taught organizing community methods and nonpartisan empowering citizen politics to thousands of people. Throughout its history, Mandela remained Idasa’s friend.

Nelson Mandela believed that ordinary citizens can become bold, confident, responsible agents of change, able to rise to the occasion of even the most daunting challenges. He devoted his life to seeing the democratic potential of the people realized.

The wisdom of his people’s politics has never been more needed.

Harry Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, lives several months a year in South Africa, where he is also a Visiting Professor at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

British imperialism as natural science: The Royal Geographical Society’s 1856 expedition to find the source of Africa’s White Nile River

This is a paper I wrote for a history class at Augsburg. The assignment was to choose a popular movie as a secondary source for a historical event or character. I chose “Mountains of the Moon” the story of the exploration for the source of the White Nile river in 1858 by the British Royal Geographical Society. Sir Richard Burton was an amazing character of history to research.

In the 1850’s central Africa remained largely unknown and undiscovered to Europeans. The success of locating the source of Africa’s longest river, The Nile, would define Great Britain as the conqueror of a mystery shrouded for millennia, escaping the likes of Alexander the Great and Napoleon. Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, great explorers officers in the British Army, set forth and completed a journey that would forever change the world. In 1856, the primary reason to invest in the exploration of central Africa and locate the source of the White Nile was to claim the region for the British Empire. Royal Geographical Society expeditions may have departed England in the interest of progressing natural science, but they returned under a banner of conquest.

Continue reading British imperialism as natural science: The Royal Geographical Society’s 1856 expedition to find the source of Africa’s White Nile River

Burton, Sir Richard Francis (1821–1890)

Undated photograph of Burton, from Men of Mark (London, 1876). In his upper cheek the scar from a spear point driven through his face during a skirmish with Somali tribesmen in 1854.

Undated photograph of Burton, from Men of Mark (London, 1876). In his upper cheek the scar from a spear point driven through his face during a skirmish with Somali tribesmen in 1854.

Burton, Sir Richard Francis (1821–1890), explorer and author, was the son of Colonel Joseph Netterville Burton and Martha Beckwith, daughter and coheir of Richard Baker of Barham House, Hertfordshire. The eldest of three children, he was born on 19 March 1821 at Torquay. His sister was Catherine Eliza Burton, later Lady Stisted; his brother, Edward Joseph Netterville Burton, served in the Indian army. After Colonel Burton was placed on half pay for refusing to testify against Queen Caroline in 1820, he moved his family to the continent, where Burton spent his youthful years in France and Italy, with a brief interlude in 1829 in an English preparatory school. Determined that Burton should become a clergyman, a career choice that seems preposterous in retrospect, Colonel Burton insisted that he go to Oxford, where he matriculated from Trinity College in 1840. Although his intellectual accomplishments exceeded those of most undergraduates of the day, Burton’s behaviour, ranging from unconventional Latin and Greek pronunciation to increasingly rebellious activities, denied him academic recognition. An unauthorized steeplechase outing finally caused his rustication in 1842.

Early experiences in India

Colonel Burton then acquiesced to his son’s requests and purchased a commission for him in the Bombay army. Burton arrived in India on 28 October 1842 and was posted to the 18th regiment of Bombay infantry. In 1844 his regiment was sent to the newly annexed Sind, where Burton spent much of his Indian service. Besides infantry duties, Burton served as a staff interpreter, surveyor, and intelligence officer during his Indian years. His phenomenal gift for mastering languages, apparent from childhood, flowered in India as he periodically exhibited proficiency in the East India Company’s language examinations. Within a year of his arrival, he had scored first in both the Hindustani and Gujarati examinations, administered under the strict supervision of the accomplished orientalist Major-General Vans Kennedy. Altogether Burton passed seven language examinations in India; over the course of his lifetime, he mastered more than forty languages and dialects.

Besides languages, Burton also mastered cultures with such proficiency as to enable him to pass among native peoples in disguise. His favourite persona was that of Mirza Abdullah of Bushehr, half Arab and half Iranian, practitioner of various trades and professions, whichever best suited the needs of the moment. ‘What scenes he saw!’ Burton wrote of himself. ‘What adventures he went through! But who would believe, even if he ventured to detail them?’ (Falconry in the Valley of the Indus, 1852, 103). This ability was of great service to General Sir Charles Napier, who greatly influenced Burton, as Napier imposed order on the Sind. Besides providing political intelligence, Burton informed Napier’s attempts to stamp out such abuses as wife murdering, infanticide, and pederasty while establishing a British-style legal system. Concerned about stories of male brothels, Napier again turned to Burton, who observed them in disguise and provided a report that enabled Napier to suppress them. This report, which was supposed to remain secret, was circulated by officers hostile to Burton after Napier’s departure. Attempts to have Burton dismissed from the service failed, but his prospects in India were permanently blighted, a fact that became apparent when he applied to be official interpreter only to see the post awarded to an incomparably less qualified officer. Still unwell from an earlier bout of cholera, Burton was granted sick leave and returned to England in 1849.

As he recovered Burton turned to literary pursuits. His first book, Goa and the Blue Mountains (1851), was quickly followed by three more: Scinde, or, The Unhappy Valley (2 vols., 1851), Sindh, and the Races that Inhabit the Valley of the Indus (1851), and Falconry in the Valley of the Indus (1852), the last containing a remarkable autobiographical postscript. Although Burton is most often thought of as a traveller, explorer, or linguist, he is probably best understood as a writer. During four decades of literary production, he published dozens of books, many of them multi-volumed, and over 100 articles or their equivalent, besides writing several book-length manuscripts that were never published. He accumulated voluminous notes and sketches while keeping two series of diaries, one of research and observations, the other of his innermost thoughts. Burton was a brilliant conversationalist and a riveting lecturer: it was said that his conversation was better than his books and his diaries better than his conversation. Few ever saw the diaries, however, for they were destroyed along with most of his other papers, some in a warehouse fire in 1861, others after his death. Despite the scale of his literary output, Burton’s expectations of deriving a substantial income from it were usually disappointed.

In forbidden cities

In 1852 Burton proposed to the Royal Geographical Society that he make the hajj, or pilgrimage, to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Forbidden to non-Muslims, less than half a dozen Europeans were known to have visited them and lived, and of those only the Swiss explorer J. L. Burckhardt had left a detailed account. Burton intended to make the pilgrimage in complete disguise as a Muslim native of the Middle East. While his experiences in India provided good preparation, this was an exploit of linguistic and cultural virtuosity which carried considerable risk for its perpetrator. With support from the Royal Geographical Society and a leave from the East India Company, Burton sailed from England in April 1853.

Burton first travelled to Egypt, where he spent a month in Alexandria and some further weeks in Cairo renewing his familiarity with Islamic mannerisms. He modified his former persona to become Sheikh Abdullah, a wandering Sufi dervish and practitioner of medicine. So successful was he in the latter role that he soon developed a thriving practice. He also perfected his Arabic, which he had learned in India, at venerable al-Azhar University. After the fasting month of Ramadan he proceeded by camel to Suez, whence a tumultuous voyage on a pilgrim boat took him to the Arabian port of Yanbu‘ al-Bahr. He then travelled by caravan to Medina, arriving on 25 July 1853. There he remained for some weeks as he explored the city, visiting the Prophet’s tomb and venturing to nearby sites such as the battlefield at Uhud. On 31 August he departed Medina with the Damascus caravan and reached Mecca early on 11 September 1853. Later that morning he proceeded to the Great Mosque and stood before the Kaaba.

There at last it lay, the bourn of my long and weary pilgrimage, realising the plans and hopes of many and many a year … I may truly say that, of all the worshippers who clung weeping to the curtain, or who pressed their beating hearts to the stone, none felt for the moment a deeper emotion than did the Haji from the far north …. But, to confess humbling truth, theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm, mine was the ecstasy of gratified pride. (A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage, 3, 1855–6, 199–200)

During the several days that Burton spent in Mecca, he performed the associated rites of the pilgrimage such as circumambulating the Kaaba, drinking the Zemzem water, and stoning the devil at Mount Arafat. All the while, as at Medina, he secretly made the detailed notes that enabled his resulting book to surpass all preceding Western accounts of the holy cities. Burton had originally hoped to continue east into the unexplored regions of central Arabia, but unrest among the Bedouin tribes prevented him, so he returned to Egypt in the early autumn of 1853. A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah (3 vols., 1855–6) made Burton famous and became a classic of travel literature.

Instead of going on to Britain, where he would have received a hero’s welcome at the Royal Geographical Society and the applause of the general public, Burton lingered in Cairo until November 1853, when his leave expired. Even as he completed the manuscript of his Personal Narrative after returning to Bombay, he was planning the penetration of another forbidden city. This time his objective was Harar, an important religious centre and notorious base for the slave trade in Somalia. No European had ever entered Harar, and its inhabitants believed that should any Christian do so, the city would fall. Burton now proposed an expedition into Somalia, until then only tentatively explored, intending to travel inland to Harar, survey the coast around Berbera, and then strike south-east across the Somali peninsula, ending in Zanzibar. The Bombay council, with the enthusiastic support of its senior member James Grant Lumsden, approved the expedition. Besides Burton, who would be leader, it was to include Lieutenant William Stroyan of the Indian navy, Lieutenant G. E. Herne of the Bombay infantry, and assistant surgeon J. E. Stocks, but Stocks died just before leaving India and was replaced by infantry Lieutenant John Hanning Speke. However, when the party assembled at their staging point at Aden on 1 October 1854, the political resident, Colonel James Outram, dismissed their plan as excessively dangerous and liable to stir up hostility. He insisted that the expedition be limited to coastal areas. Burton accordingly revised the plan, sending Speke to explore the possibly gold-bearing Wadi Nogal, and Herne and Stroyan to investigate Berbera and its environs. He reserved the trip inland to Harar for himself.

Burton sailed from Aden on 29 October 1854, disguised as a Turkish merchant. After some pleasant preparatory weeks in the town of Zayla on the Somali coast, he started for Harar. As he approached the city, however, he fell under suspicion of being a foreign spy. Reasoning that his Turkish identity would afford little protection from the amir of Harar, who was notorious for capriciously executing people or leaving them to languish in his dungeons, he decided to present himself as a British agent on a diplomatic mission, forging a letter to that effect, in hopes that the amir would be unwilling to offend the British government. On 3 January 1855 he entered Harar. The amir received him courteously, although Burton spent an uneasy ten days in the city before being allowed to depart. After a difficult trip back to the coast, where he met Herne and Stroyan at Berbera, he returned to Aden on 9 February 1855. Speke, having failed to reach his objective, had arrived a short time earlier. As was becoming customary with Burton, his experience translated directly into a book, First Footsteps in East Africa, or, An Exploration of Harar (1856). The experience also whetted Burton’s appetite for further African exploration.

The Nile

Soon after Burton reached Aden, he applied for another leave, this time to look for the source of the Nile, the greatest geographical mystery of the time. Of Burton’s many adventures, this is probably the one best remembered by the general public. The origin of the eastern branch of the river, the Blue Nile, in the Ethiopian highlands, was fairly well understood, but that of the great western branch, the White Nile, lay somewhere in one of those blank spots on the map that irresistibly beckoned to nineteenth-century explorers. Burton now proposed to march inland via Harar and on to the Nile. He returned to Berbera on 7 April 1855 where he joined Speke, Stroyan, and Herne. Encamped a short distance from the town, they were attacked and overwhelmed by a large party of Africans early on 19 April. Herne, though badly beaten, escaped relatively unscathed, but Speke was severely wounded, and Stroyan was killed. Burton, hit in the face with a javelin, acquired his distinctive scar. A friendly African vessel rescued the three survivors and brought them back to Aden on 22 April 1855. There the attending physician recommended Burton’s immediate return to England.

Return to Britain, and the Crimean War

Burton was probably disappointed at his reception in London. He read his Harar paper before the Royal Geographical Society on 11 June 1855 and he was later awarded the society’s gold medal, but the pilgrimage to Mecca was old news, and the significance of his adventures in little-known Somalia was not understood. Public attention was focused to the Crimean War, where British forces appeared to be faring poorly. Burton obtained permission to volunteer for service and travelled to Constantinople, where he became chief of staff to General W. F. Beatson’s contingent of bashi bazouks, although he remained a captain, the highest military rank he ever held. The bashi bazouks, irregular horsemen from the Turkish provinces, were a promising if unruly body of cavalry, but they were never sent into action. A well-developed plan by Burton to use them to relieve the beleaguered city of Kars in Armenia was dismissed out of hand, while he rightly rejected an ill-prepared proposal that he undertake a solitary mission into the Caucasus. After General Beatson was replaced, Burton sailed for England on 18 October 1855, having seen little of the front during his four months in the Crimea. His short, critical memoir of his experiences was not published until many years later.

Exploring east Africa, and the quarrel with Speke

In London, Burton revived his plan for exploring the sources of the Nile. His objective was the great lakes of central Africa, from which he correctly believed the Nile flowed, but their location, or even their existence, was uncertain. The Royal Geographical Society and the Foreign Office supported the expedition, as did the East India Company, which gave Burton two years’ leave at full pay. Burton, as leader of the expedition, invited John Speke and another friend, the physician and linguist John Steinhäuser, to join him, although delays prevented the latter’s participation. Steinhäuser would be doubly missed, both as a physician and a stabilizing influence. Burton and Speke arrived at Zanzibar, the staging area for the expedition, on 20 December 1856. There they spent several months of preparation and made preliminary probes along the coast, looking for the best point to strike inland. Burton also compiled an enormous quantity of notes about Zanzibar, including a book manuscript, which he entrusted to an official of the East India Company for dispatch to the Royal Geographical Society.

Burton and Speke sailed from Zanzibar to Kaole on 17 June 1857. They headed east with a caravan of more than 100 bearers heavily laden with supplies and instruments for an expedition that was expected to last as long as two years. The journey was arduous, as both Burton and Speke became too ill to manage their men who stole, deserted, and mishandled materials. Arriving at the Arab slaving post of Tabora on 7 November, they paused for a month to refit and gather additional information before resuming their march east. When they did so, Burton became so ill that he could no longer walk and had to be carried about for nearly a year. On 13 February 1858 they discovered Lake Tanganyika. This alone would have been remembered as a momentous event in African exploration, had it not been overshadowed by what ensued.

On leaving Lake Tanganyika on 26 May, they returned to Tabora, where Burton devoted himself to linguistic and anthropological studies as preparatory steps for further explorations. Speke, who had no interest in these subjects, proposed to travel north and verify stories of an enormous lake there. Burton, still ill, chose not to go. That turned out to be a serious mistake, for Speke discovered Lake Victoria, which he decided was the source of the Nile. It is indeed the major source of the river, although Speke had no way of verifying that fact after only a brief visit to the lake’s southern shore. The exhaustion of their supplies prevented further explorations. On the arduous return trip Speke became desperately ill and was nursed back to health by Burton. Not until 4 March 1859 did they reach Zanzibar, where Burton learned that most of his papers, including the Zanzibar book manuscript, had not been forwarded to London and were apparently lost. On 22 March he and Speke sailed for Aden.

Although Burton later wrote that Speke’s attitude towards him altered immediately after the latter’s return from Lake Victoria, their outward relations still seemed amicable. When Speke sailed on to London, Burton remained in Aden for further recuperation—another mistake as it turned out, although Speke promised to make no announcement of the expedition’s results until Burton joined him. When Burton arrived in London on 21 May 1859, he was dismayed to find that Speke had lectured before the Royal Geographical Society, had proposed another expedition to Africa, and was claiming by far the greater share of credit for his and Burton’s accomplishments. Speke became the hero of the moment and continued to extol his own achievements in speech and print; Burton, though usually an avid controversialist, made no public attack against Speke for several months. Not until early 1860 did he set forth his position with the publication of The Lake Regions of Central Africa (2 vols., 1860). By then Speke had returned to Africa, but a rift had opened between them that would never be closed.

The dispute between Burton and Speke became one of the most celebrated scholarly controversies of the nineteenth century. Although Speke can be faulted for his conduct, the episode ultimately did little credit to either man. As each sought to strengthen his own claims and diminish the other’s, the scientific purpose of their labours, elucidation of the sources of the Nile, was obscured. Meanwhile they were incited by malicious individuals who found cruel sport in watching two famous explorers destroy each other’s reputation. The initial course of the argument went in favour of Speke, who received lavish funding for a return expedition to Africa in company with Captain James Augustus Grant to establish the connection between Lake Victoria and the Nile. Burton was left in the background. He had the further misfortune of finding that his brother, Edward, had lapsed into mental illness from which he never recovered.

In North America

Burton sailed for North America in April 1860 and travelled in Canada and through the United States. The first portion of the trip is poorly documented, but the obscurity lifts with the material contained in The City of the Saints and across the Rocky Mountains to California (1861), which begins with a stagecoach journey across the American West to Salt Lake City. There Burton remained for nearly a month, noting Mormon institutions and enjoying a lengthy interview with the Mormon prophet, Brigham Young. Burton’s City of the Saints is by far the best account of Mormonism of its day, exceeding in judgement and detail those of Remy, Twain, and Emerson. From Salt Lake City, Burton proceeded to San Francisco and returned to England via the Isthmus of Panama, arriving late in 1860.

Marriage, minor consular posts, and further dispute with Speke

On 22 January 1861 Burton married Isabel Arundell (1831–1896), the descendant of an old Roman Catholic family [see Burton, Isabel]. She had been in love with Burton since their first meeting ten years earlier, but the match had been impeded by her parents, who disapproved of Burton’s character and financial prospects. She, to the chagrin of Burton’s family and many of his friends, remained a staunch Roman Catholic, while Burton, though initiated into many religions during his life, persisted in agnosticism. Each probably hoped to convert the other; if so, neither succeeded. Nevertheless, Isabel Burton adored her husband, even as she disapproved of some of his work; he in turn was devoted to her and, during his final years, heavily dependent on her. Shortly after his marriage Burton suffered a serious misfortune when a warehouse fire destroyed most of his papers and memorabilia from India, the Middle East, and east Africa. The disaster prefigured the similar fate that befell his papers after his death.

Newly married and needing employment, Burton approached the Foreign Office for a consular position, hoping for the post at Damascus. Instead, he was offered the consulship at Fernando Po, a small, unhealthy island in the Bight of Biafra on the west African coast. When he accepted the position on 27 March 1861 he requested to retain his commission in the Bombay army, but he was struck from the list, thereby losing not only his half pay but also any prospect of a pension or sale of his commission, an action about which he always complained bitterly.

Burton did not permit Isabel to accompany him to Fernando Po, which he described as ‘the very abomination of desolation’. He slipped away from the post at every opportunity for excursions on the African mainland or to meet Isabel in the Canaries or England. Although he loathed Fernando Po, he worked continuously at his writing with Wanderings in West Africa (2 vols.) and Abeokuta and the Cameroons Mountains (2 vols.), both appearing in 1863. Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo (2 vols.), though written in 1862, was not published until 1876. He also compiled a collection of aphorisms, Wit and Wisdom of West Africa(1865). The most remarkable of his exploits during this time was a mission to Dahomey, where he was instructed to take diplomatic measures to suppress the slave trade. He was there during, though he did not actually witness, the human sacrifices that he described in A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome (2 vols., 1864). In August 1864 he returned to England on home leave.

When Burton arrived in London, the Nile controversy was raging again. Speke and Grant, so long overdue that they were feared lost, had reappeared. When Speke addressed the Royal Geographical Society on 23 June 1863, he announced his discovery of a major outlet on the north of Lake Victoria, which, he claimed, established that lake as the source of the Nile. Again he attacked Burton. After the initial excitement, however, public opinion, previously so favourable to Speke, slowly swung to Burton as questions were raised about the accuracy of Speke’s findings. Most damaging, although Lake Victoria does flow into the Nile, Speke could not demonstrate that fact incontrovertibly, for he had not followed the river continuously from the lake. In neglecting to do so, he had not explored Lake Albert to ascertain its contribution to the Nilotic system. That left the further possibility that Lake Tanganyika, which Burton incorrectly held to be the source of the Nile, was somehow involved. Speke’s conduct also alienated many. It was proposed that Burton and Speke debate their differences at a scholarly meeting soon to convene in Bath. Goaded by a manipulative third party, Burton agreed. The debate was scheduled for 16 September 1864, but on the day before the meeting Speke was killed in an apparent shooting accident that may well have been suicide. Burton certainly believed it was so. The Nile Basin (1864) is a statement of Burton’s position at that stage of the controversy.

Burton did not return to Fernando Po, for in September 1864 he was transferred to the consulate in Santos, Brazil. Considering Santos unhealthy, Burton established a pleasant retreat at São Paulo, 45 miles distant. At Rio de Janeiro he and Isabel enjoyed the favour of emperor Dom Pedro II, a student of Arabic and other Eastern languages. A leave in Minas Gerais resulted in The Highlands of the Brazil (2 vols., 1869). Another literary production of Burton’s Brazilian years was Vikram and the Vampire (1870), a translation of Hindu folk tales. In April 1868 Burton fell dangerously ill. When he was granted sick leave he sent Isabel to London to lobby for a better post while he set off on a tour of South America. Two visits to the theatre of war between Paraguay and its neighbours provided material for Letters from the Battle-Fields of Paraguay (1870). He was wandering through Peru in February 1869 when he learned that he had been appointed consul at Damascus. On arriving in England on 1 June 1869, Burton obtained some additional months of sick leave, some of which he spent on the continent with his friend Algernon Charles Swinburne.

At Damascus

The consulship at Damascus was the realization of Burton’s diplomatic dreams. In contrast to his previous postings, Burton closely involved himself in his duties. Once again he resumed his old practice of disguise, mixing with the people at night to gather information. When tensions between Christians and Muslims threatened a repetition of the massacre of 1860, Burton took effective action. Meanwhile, he and Isabel enjoyed some of the happiest moments of their lives. For the first time, Burton displayed an active interest in archaeology, correctly identifying some inscriptions as Hittite in origin. But he also encountered serious opposition. Burton’s immediate superior, the consul-general at Beirut, was an enemy, and the ambassador at Constantinople, who apparently feared that Burton might take his job, undermined Burton’s authority. The Turkish pasha of Syria, Muhammad Rashid, was invariably hostile. Burton believed the pasha attempted to have him murdered on one occasion; on another, the pasha certainly forged a document damaging to Burton. Although Burton was generally popular at Damascus, he made a number of local enemies among various ethnic and religious groups who were vocal in their complaints. Especially damaging were those of the Jewish moneylenders whom Burton refused to assist in debt collection. In London, Sir Moses Montefiore and Sir Francis Goldsmid accused Burton of antisemitism. There seems to have been little foundation to any of these reports, but by spring 1871 the Foreign Office was considering transferring him to another post. At that moment, Burton’s name became associated with an exceedingly ill-advised attempt to facilitate the conversion and resettlement under British protection of several hundred Shazlis, members of a Muslim mystical sect. When the Turkish authorities heard of this, they successfully demanded Burton’s immediate recall. Instructing Isabel to ‘pay, pack and follow’, he left Damascus on 18 August 1871 (Burton, 1.569).

For a year Burton was without employment while the Foreign Office awaited a suitable vacancy. As always, he continued to write, quickly publishing Unexplored Syria (2 vols., 1872). Resentful over his recall, he vented his anger in another manuscript that contained many antisemitic sentiments, something previously absent from his writing. Isabel dissuaded him from publishing it, but she preserved the manuscript, and it appeared posthumously as The Jew, the Gypsy, and El Islam (1898) when the Dreyfus affair was at its height. In need of income, he accepted a lucrative offer to explore for sulphur in Iceland, where he spent the summer of 1872. As usual, his experiences turned into a book, Ultima Thule, or, A Summer in Iceland (2 vols., 1875), but the sulphur venture failed.

The scholar and poet

While in Iceland, Burton was offered the consulship at Trieste, for which he sailed on 24 October 1872. He frequently complained about the post and long hoped for a loftier position in a place more suited to his talents, but it was a virtual sinecure that gave him plenty of leisure to write. Sometimes he worked on as many as eleven literary projects simultaneously. He translated Francisco Lacerda’s Lands of the Cazembe (1873) and annotated and wrote a long preface to Albert Tootal’s The Captivity of Hans Stade of Hesse (1874). Etruscan Bologna appeared in 1876 as did A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry. An interest in the Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camõens, dating from his Indian days, resulted in a two-volume translation of Camõens’s Lusiads in 1880, followed by a commentary on Camõens and his work, also in two volumes, in 1881.

Besides being a translator of poetry, Burton was also a poet himself. His Kasidah of Haji Abdu el-Yezdi, a Lay of the Higher Law (1880) is by far his most notable poetic effort. Unlike most of Burton’s compositions, which were hastily written and carelessly (if at all) edited, this is a polished work that contains many fascinating autobiographical insights. Unfortunately, it was perceived as an echo of Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam and only half of its print run of 200 copies was sold, although after Burton’s death it became quite popular, going through many editions and long remaining in print. Nor was this Burton’s only poetic effort, for poetry is often interspersed in his works. He had also published another volume of poetry entitled Stone Talk in 1865, but Isabel, who disapproved of its satiric nature, bought up the copies and destroyed them.

Isabel Burton approved even less of Burton’s presentation of sexual material in his writing, for he was determined to challenge public mores. This had motivated him to participate in the establishment of the Anthropological Society of London, the Anthropological Institute, and the short-lived London Anthropological Society. These, however, were too timid to suit him. With his friend Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, he developed a plan for translating and publishing classic Eastern erotic works. Because of the danger of prosecution, in 1882 they formed the Kama Shastra Society, ostensibly an organization based in Benares but in reality consisting entirely of Burton and Arbuthnot. Aided by Indian pandits, the society’s first publication, the Kama sutra, appeared in 1883. Of all of Burton’s works, this is probably the most widely read, but since almost all of its uncounted editions were pirated, Burton did not profit. The Ananga ranga (1885) was mostly translated by Arbuthnot, with Burton helping to polish the manuscript. The Kama Shastra Society’s third publication, The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefzaoui (1886), was translated by Burton from a French translation of the Arabic original. In collaboration with Leonard Smithers, Burton also produced his translations of erotic classical literature, the Priapeia(1890), and the posthumous Carmina of Gaius Valerius Catullus (1894).

Burton received frequent leave during his Trieste years. In December 1875 he and Isabel sailed for India, a journey that he recorded in Sind Revisited (2 vols., 1877). He also absented himself from the consulate on several occasions to go hunting for gold, much to the annoyance of his superiors. With the support of Khedive Isma‘il, he twice went into the Midian during 1877–8 to look for its ancient goldmines. When this failed, the khedive reneged on his promise to pay the expenses, leaving Burton with a substantial loss. Burton returned to Egypt in the autumn of 1879 in a futile effort to press his claims for reimbursement. While there he explored the Faiyûm and the Natron lakes with William Robertson Smith, compiler of the Dictionary of the Bible. The sight of a slave caravan in the desert so moved him that he forwarded a plan to London for the suppression of the slave trade in the Red Sea, but the government was not interested. Despite Foreign Office warnings, he made yet another gold-hunting expedition to the Gold Coast in 1881–2. This one actually looked promising, but when the Foreign Office heard of it he was ordered to desist, causing yet more loss. Even so, the trips inevitably resulted in books, The Gold Mines of Midian and the Ruined Midianite Cites (1878), The Land of Midian (Revisited) (2 vols., 1879), and To the Gold Coast for Gold (2 vols., 1883). Official business again brought him to the Middle East in 1882, when he was sent to search for his friend Edward Henry Palmer, who had been murdered in the desert. Burton’s long account of this journey found no publisher.

Although the volume of Burton’s literary production remained large, its quality seemed to be diminishing. The two best books published during his first years at Trieste had mostly been composed earlier: Zanzibar (2 vols., 1872), after the long-lost manuscript was found, and Two Trips to Gorilla Land (2 vols., 1876). Publishers became increasingly reluctant to accept his work. Shortly after the appearance of The Book of the Sword (Burton was a master fencer) in 1884, Burton had his first heart attack. With deteriorating health and apparently declining literary power, he was in fact about to publish his greatest work.

The Arabian Nights had been an important part of Burton’s life for decades. In 1882 he began translating it in earnest. Although there were other translations of the Nights in English, Burton’s was distinguished by his retention of the sexual content of the original Arabic versions, while his extensive footnotes drew on a lifetime of travel and research. Unable to get an acceptable offer from a publisher, he decided to print it himself, a venture that must have seemed more speculative than any of his searches for gold. He and Isabel announced a limited subscription of 1000 copies, hoping for 500 responses; to their surprise, they received 2000, but kept their word and accepted only 1000. At last Burton’s literary efforts were rewarded with financial success, as he got 16,000 guineas from an outlay of 6000 . According to Isabel, he reflected,

I have struggled for forty-seven years, distinguishing myself honourably in every way that I possibly could. I never had a compliment, nor a ‘thank you’, nor a single farthing. I translate a doubtful book in my old age, and I immediately make sixteen thousand guineas. Now that I know the tastes of England, we need never be without money. (Burton, 2.442)

Despite its deliberately archaic style, The book of the thousand nights and a night: A plain and literal translation of the Arabian nights entertainments (16 vols., 1885–8) has become the pre-eminent English translation of the Middle Eastern classic. It is the keystone of Burton’s literary reputation.

In 1886 Burton was made KCMG, but later that year his application to be ambassador to Morocco was rejected. He then requested early retirement; this too was refused, although his already light workload was reduced. In 1888 he completed the six volumes of the Supplemental Nights, including the famous ‘Terminal essay’. The last months of Burton’s life were devoted to a new translation of The Perfumed Garden, this one to be made directly from the original Arabic text. He called it ‘The scented garden’ to distinguish it from its predecessor. ‘I have put my whole life and all my life blood into that Scented Garden’, he said, ‘and it is my great hope that I shall live by it. It is the crown of my life’ (Wright, 2.217). Burton was one day from completing it when he died at the consulate in Trieste on 20 October 1890. On 15 June 1891 he was buried in the cemetery of St Mary Magdalene, Mortlake, Surrey, in a mausoleum shaped like an Arab tent, designed by Lady Burton. After his death, she burned most of his vast accumulation of personal papers, including the more than 1000 pages of ‘The scented garden’ manuscript.

A fascinating person to the many who knew him, Sir Richard Burton has also captured the interest of succeeding generations. There have been more than a dozen Burton biographies and at least three of Lady Burton. Virtually all of these have been published by trade presses and marketed to broad audiences. Burton has also been the subject of documentary films and fiction, perhaps most notably in William Harrison’s novel Burton and Speke (1982), from which the film Mountains of the Moon (1990) was made. Many of Burton’s books have been reprinted since his death, attaining a level of success far greater than during his lifetime. His wide range of accomplishments and enigmatic character, yet to be fully defined, make him continually attractive to researchers, writers, and readers.

Jason Thompson


Thompson, Jason. “Burton, Sir Richard Francis (1821–1890).” Jason Thompson In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, May 2009. (accessed September 26, 2012).