Friday, January 08, 2010

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton by Edward Rice

(Book Review)

A couple summers ago, not long after I wrote my blog post on "Riverworld", I was out grabbing a bite to eat with the Bear, and we got onto the subject again. "Look, I know everyone gives me a hard time about those books," he said. "But I defend them on these lines: if it wasn't for 'The Riverworld' series, I would never have found out who Richard Burton was. And Richard Burton was one cool cat."

I had never heard of Richard Burton, and admitted such. Where upon the Bear launched into all the cool things Richard Burton had done. "He was absolutely amazing. He was an explorer and secret agent. He was one of the first Westerners to enter Mecca and write about it. He helped to discover the source of the Nile River..." Et cetera.

So, last summer when I was at the Oita International Center, I found this book in their library. And of course I was immediately reminded of what the Bear had told me. And I thought: Yeah, might as well check it out. He sounded like an interesting guy from what the Bear said. And besides, it fits into my reading project on 19th Century European history (kind of. Even though Burton spent most of his life away from Europe, he was always connected with the British Empire and it's Imperial ambitions.)

Now again, I had never even heard of Richard Burton until the Bear mentioned him to me. But as I read this book and learned about his impact on history and literature, I started to wonder why I hadn't heard of him before. He's one of those names that you've never heard of before, but you probably should have.

For example, Richard Burton was one of the main people responsible for introducing the West to such Eastern classics as "Arabian Nights" and "Kama Sutra". He is also responsible for words like ESP and safari.

The scope of his life is pretty amazing. Doing some internet research on the guy, it seems everyone who writes anything about Burton invariably has to say, "It's so amazing how much adventure and travelling he crammed into his life." In fact I feel like it's a cliche to even mention it, but what review would be complete without running down briefly through his exotic adventures.

After a childhood spent wandering around Europe, Burton wet out to join the British army in India, where he learned the languages and culture, and participated in the various Indian and Afghan wars. He converted to Islam and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. He went on two expeditions to seek the source of the Nile river. He travelled America and wrote about the Mormons and the American West. He participated in the Crimean War. He was a British consular in Brazil, in Fernando Po, in Damascus, and in Trieste.

Before I started this book, I wondered if I might feel an affinity with Burton. (After all, I was exploring my little area of Japan with my "Better Know a City" Project). But in fact it was almost a bit depressing for me to realize how many languages Burton had mastered, and how many adventures he had had, before he even reached 25. But I suppose it's always bad to compare yourself with an historical figure.

Because Burton's story touches so many areas of the globe, as you read about his life you get to learn a lot about the history and culture of many different areas. For example you get to learn a bit about the history of the Crimean War when Burton participates in that. You also learn about what 19th century Palestine was like when Burton is the Consular in Damascus. When Burton goes to Brazil, you learn about the war between Brazil and Paraguay (W). (I had never heard of this war before, but it sounds pretty horrific. Paraguay lost 80 percent of its population during the war).
The search for the source of the Nile River also takes up a large portion of this book, and it was also very fascinating. I never thought before of how difficult it was to track down and locate the source. (It doesn't seem like it would be that difficult. You just follow the river upstream. And yet this book documents all the trouble the Burton and his friends had finding it.) I also found the description of Lake Victoria in Africa, one of the world's largest freshwater lakes, and its discovery fascinating.

It's both a good and bad thing. All of this was really interesting, but sometimes I felt like I was getting bombarded with information as I chugged my way through this book. Burton travels to so many places, and has so many interests, that sometimes I felt like I was swimming in information about Indian snake cults, Islamic mysticism, Afghanistan warlords, and others, when all I really wanted was for the story to get moving again.

When the narrative does eventually pick up again, what makes Burton's story more interesting is that he was connected to the geo-politics of the time. This isn't just a story about a loner hacking his way through the jungle, but on many of his missions Burton was working as an agent for the British government. The author Edward Rice writes a lot about "the great game" in which Britain and Russia vied for control of the middle east, and secret agents from both countries wandered the region supporting friendly governments or trying to upset rival ones.

Which brings me to one last sidenote.
This book was published in 1990. Since that time, recent events have increased the relevance of some of its subjects.
For example, the feud between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims. Also the waring factions in Afghanistan, and the British attempt to control them.
For this reason the book has a lot more relevance now, and is worth picking up to get some historical perspective. Neither of these subjects are the main focus of the book, but they're both important parts of the story, and intersect with Burton's life.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Solutions for Central America

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