Portrait of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton
Last week we were remembering the life of an eccentric, academic, knight of the realm: Sir Patrick Moore. As I was wading through the gloriously wide-ranging paeans – celebrating everything from his contribution to astronomy to his xylophone playing and, who could neglect to mention, his monocle – I was reminded of another eccentric pioneer of the unknown, Sir Richard Francis Burton. Though separated by a couple of hundred years, the public interest in these two knights is contingent upon the same dual foundation: their academic prestige, and their extraordinary self fashioning.
Patrick Moore lived between 1923 – 2012. Countless of the posthumous commentaries have articulated the profound effect he had upon the world of astronomy over the course of his career. Not only did he make significant academic contribution to the field himself, but his affability and enthusiasm is credited with having recruited an entire generation of proficient astronomers. Richard Burton lived between 1821 – 1890. To understand his career in precise terms, one would have to range through a great list of endeavours (Wikipedia, for one, have taken this approach). But for the sake of brevity and romance, let’s here regard him as an adventurer. In more literal terms than Moore’s forays into the unknown aspects of the universe, Burton travelled to the heart of obscure communities in (relatively) unknown countries. The empire was reasonably well established, and exploring was nothing new, but Burton, however, found the existing methods of observation limiting to ethnographical discovery. ‘The European official in India,’ he wrote, ‘seldom, if ever, sees anything in its real light, so dense is the veil which the fearfulness, the duplicity, the prejudice, and the superstitions of the natives hang before his eyes. And the white man lives a life so distinct from the black, that hundreds of the former serve through what they call their “term of exile” without once being present at a circumcision feast, a wedding, or a funeral.’ Burton believed that to truly know another culture, one must assimilate oneself within that culture. His method of ethnographic discovery then, depended upon a flawless fluency in the language, the donning of the appropriate costume, and an elaborately constructed character.
In what might be considered the pinnacle of his ethnographic espionage, Burton realised his dream of making the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1853. From the moment he set sail, Burton was in disguise. First, he was a Persian Mirza, followed by a Dervish, and finally, a Pathan, or Indian-born Afghan, educated at Rangoon as a hakim or doctor. His character and ethnicity was modified in accordance with context. Somewhat poetically, he called himself Al-Haj (the pilgrim) Abdullah. Having inexhaustibly studied the minutiae of Eastern customs and idioms, as well as the rituals demanded of the pilgrimage, Burton’s adventure was a success. Published in 1855, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah is the vivid – though undeniably dense – 3 volume account of his covert voyage.
As with all complex characters, however, both Burton and Moore kink, at times, too close toward the socially unacceptable. Many of Burton’s cultural accounts and racial profiles are, by today’s standards, painful to read. Though he is enthusiastically collected, a letter of his failed to sell in 2001 owing to its blatant anti-Semitism. The memory of Patrick Moore is somewhat blighted, too, by the recollection of the nationalistic bent of his politics. For many, his membership of the UK Independence Party is problematic, particularly when coupled with his tendency to speak out against immigration. The romance of Burton’s adventure has suffered the inevitable historical scrutiny; the dangerousness of his pilgrimage, for instance, is now considered to have been much exaggerated for dramatic effect. Whether it was dangerous or not, isn’t there something still boyishly irresistible about the extraordinary lengths Burton’s fascination with discovering the unknown took him to? It is certainly true that no one could help but remark upon Patrick Moore’s inexhaustible enthusiasm, recording, in fact, his final broadcast shortly before he died. The eccentricities of these men will undoubtedly continue to attract attention, but it is their sheer passion which will maintain them as figures to be marvelled at.