Thomas Wright

The Life of Sir Richard Burton

Chapter IV
20th February 1847-1849 Under the Spell of Camoens


1. Grammar of the Jataki Dialect, 1849.
2. Remarks on Dr. Dorn’s Chrestomathy of the Afghan Tongue, 1849.
3. Reports on Sind addressed to the Bombay Government.
4. Grammar of the Mooltanee Language.

15. Goa and Camoens.

He left Goa on 20th February 1847, taking as usual a pattymar, his mind vibrant with thoughts of his great hero, the “Portingall” Camoens, with whose noble epic all Western India, from Narsinga and Diu to Calicut is intimately associated. Passages from Camoens were frequently in his mouth, and in bitterest moments, in the times of profoundest defection, he could always find relief in the pages of him whom he reverently calls “my master.” Later in life he could see a parallel between the thorny and chequered career of Camoens and his own. Each spent his early manhood on the West Coast of India 74, each did his country an incalculable service: Camoens by enriching Portugal with The Lusiads, Burton by his travels and by presenting to England vast stores of Oriental lore. Each received insult and ill-treatment, Camoens by imprisonment at Goa, Burton by the recall from Damascus. There was also a temperamental likeness between the two men. The passion for travel, the love of poetry and adventure, the daring, the patriotism of Camoens all find their counterpart in his most painstaking English translator. Arrived at Panjim, Burton obtained lodgings and then set out by moonlight in a canoe for old Goa. The ruins of churches and monasteries fascinated him, but he grieved to find the once populous and opulent capital of Portuguese India absolutely a city of the dead. The historicity of the tale of Julnar the Sea Born and her son King Badr 75 seemed established, Queen Lab and her forbidding escort might have appeared at any moment. On all sides were bowing walls and tenantless houses. Poisonous plants covered the site of the Viceregal Palace, and monster bats hung by their heels at the corners of tombs. Thoughts of Camoens continued to impinge on his mind, and in imagination he saw his hero dungeoned and laid in iron writing his Lusiads. A visit to the tomb of St. Francis Xavier also deeply moved him. To pathos succeeded comedy. There was in Panjim an institution called the Caza da Misericordia, where young ladies, for the most part orphans, remained until they received suitable offers of marriage The description of this place piqued Burton’s curiosity, and hearing that it was not unusual for persons to propose themselves as suitors with a view to inspecting the curiosities of the establishment, he and some companions repaired to the Caza. Having seen the chapel and the other sights he mentioned that he wanted a wife. A very inquisitive duenna cross-examined him, and then he was allowed to interview one of the young ladies through a grating, while several persons, who refused to understand that they were not wanted, stood listening. Burton at once perceived that it would be an exhausting ordeal to make love in such circumstances, but he resolved to try, and a dialogue commenced as follows:

“Should you like to be married, senorita?”

“Yes, very much, senor.”

“And why, if you would satisfy my curiosity?”

“I don’t know.”

The rest of the conversation proved equally wooden and unsatisfactory, and quotations from poets were also wasted.

“The maid, unused to flowers of eloquence,
Smiled at the words, but could not guess their sense.”

Burton then informed the duenna that he thought he could get on better if he were allowed to go on the other side of the grating, and be left alone with the demure senorita. But at that the old lady suddenly became majestic. She informed him that before he could be admitted to so marked a privilege he would have to address an official letter to the mesa or board explaining his intentions, and requesting the desired permission. So Burton politely tendered his thanks, “scraped the ground thrice,” departed with gravity, and in ten minutes forgot all about the belle behind the grille. It was while at Panhim, that, dissatisfied with the versions of Camoens by Strangford 76, Mickle and others, Burton commenced a translation of his own, but it did not reach the press for thirty-three years. 77

We next find him at Panany, whence he proceeded to Ootacamund, the sanitarium on the Neilgherries, where he devoted himself to the acquisition of Telugu, Toda, Persian and Arabic, though often interrupted by attacks of ophthalmia. While he was thus engaged, Sir Charles Napier returned to England (1847) 78 and Sind was placed under the Bombay Government “at that time the very sink of iniquity.” 79

In September Burton visited Calicut—the city above all others associated with Camoens, and here he had the pleasure of studying on the spot the scenes connected with the momentous landing of Da Gama as described in the seventh and most famous book of the Lusiads. In imagination, like Da Gama and his brave “Portingalls,” he greeted the Moor Monzaida, interviewed the Zamorim, and circumvented the sinister designs of the sordid Catual; while his followers trafficked for strange webs and odoriferous gums. On his return to Bombay, reached on October 15th, Burton offered himself for examination in Persian, and gaining the first place, was presented by the Court of Directors with a thousand rupees. In the meantime his brother Edward, now more Greek-looking than ever, had risen to be Surgeon-Major, and had proceeded to Ceylon, where he was quartered with his regiment, the 37th.

16. “Would you a Sufi be?”

Upon his return to Sind, Burton at first applied himself sedulously to Sindi, and then, having conceived the idea of visiting Mecca, studied Moslem divinity, learnt much of the Koran by heart and made himself a “proficient at prayer.” It would be unjust to regard this as mere acting. Truth to say, he was gradually becoming disillusioned. He was finding out in youth, or rather in early manhood, what it took Koheleth a lifetime to discover, namely, that “all is vanity.” This being the state of his mind it is not surprising that he drifted into Sufism. He fasted, complied with the rules and performed all the exercises conscientiously. The idea of the height which he strove to attain, and the steps by which he mounted towards it, may be fathered from the Sufic poet Jami. Health, says Jami, is the best relish. A worshipper will never realise the pure love of the Lord unless he despises the whole world. Dalliance with women is a kind of mental derangement. Days are like pages in the book of life. You must record upon them only the best acts and memories.

“Would you a Sufi be, you must
Subdue your passions; banish lust
And anger; be of none afraid,
A hundred wounds take undismayed.” 80

In time, by dint of plain living, high thinking, and stifling generally the impulses of his nature, Burton became a Master Sufi, and all his life he sympathised with, and to some extent practised Sufism. Being prevented by the weakness of his eyes from continuing his survey work, he made a number of reports of the country and its people, which eventually drifted into print. Then came the stirring news that another campaign was imminent in Mooltan, his heart leaped with joy, and he begged to be allowed to accompany the force as interpreter. As he had passed examinations in six native languages and had studied others nobody was better qualified for the post or seemed to be more likely to get it.

17. Letter to Sarah Burton, 14th Nov. 1848.

It was while his fate thus hung in the balance that he wrote to his cousin Sarah 81 daughter of Dr. Francis Burton, who had just lost her mother. 82 His letter, which is headed Karachi, 14th November 1848, runs as follows:—“My dear cousin, I lose no time in replying to your note which conveyed to me the mournful tidings of our mutual loss. The letter took me quite by surprise. I was aware of my poor aunt’s health having suffered, but never imagined that it was her last illness. You may be certain that I join with you in lamenting the event. Your mother had always been one of my best relations and kindest friends; indeed she was the only one with whom I kept up a constant correspondence during the last six years. I have every reason to regret her loss; and you, of course, much more. Your kind letter contained much matter of a consolatory nature; it was a melancholy satisfaction to hear that my excellent aunt’s death-bed was such a peaceful one—a fit conclusion to so good and useful a life as hers was. You, too, must derive no small happiness from the reflection that both you and your sister 83 have always been dutiful daughters, and as such have contributed so much towards your departed mother’s felicity in this life. In my father’s last letter from Italy he alludes to the sad event, but wishes me not to mention it to my mother, adding that he has fears for her mind if it be abruptly alluded to.

“At the distance of some 1,500 84 miles all we can do is resign ourselves to calamities, and I confess to you that judging from the number of losses that our family has sustained during the last six years I fear that when able to return home I shall find no place capable of bearing that name. I hope, however, dear cousin, that you or your sister will occasionally send me a line, informing me of your plans and movements, as I shall never leave to take the greatest interest in your proceedings. You may be certain that I shall never neglect to answer your letters and shall always look forward to them with the greatest pleasure. Stisted 85 is not yet out: his regiment is at Belgaum 86, but I shall do my best to see him as soon as possible. Edward 87 is still in Ceylon and the war 88 has ceased there. I keep this letter open for ten or twelve days longer, as that time will decide my fate. A furious affair has broken out in Mooltan and the Punjaub and I have applied to the General commanding to go up with him on his personal staff. A few days more will decide the business—and I am not a little anxious about it, for though still suffering a little from my old complaint—ophthalmia—yet these opportunities are too far between to be lost.”

Unfortunately for Burton, his official respecting his investigations at Karachi in 1845 was produced against him 89, and he was passed over 90 in favour of a man who knew but one language besides English. His theory that the most strenuous exertions lead to the most conspicuous successes now thoroughly broke down, and the scarlet and gold of his life, which had already become dulled, gave place to the “blackness of darkness.” It was in the midst of this gloom and dejection that he wrote the postscript which he had promised to his cousin Sarah. The date is 25th November, 1848. He says, “I am not going up to the siege of Mooltan, as the General with whom I had expected to be sent is recalled. Pray be kind enough to send on the enclosed to my father. I was afraid to direct it to him in Italy as it contains papers of some importance. You are welcome to the perusal, if you think it worth the trouble. I have also put in a short note for Aunt Georgiana. Kindly give my best love to your sister, and believe me, my dear cousin, your most affectionate R. Burton.”

Chagrin and anger, combined with his old trouble, ophthalmia, had by this time sapped Burton’s strength, a serious illness followed, and the world lost all interest for him.

18. Allahdad.

He returned to Bombay a complete wreck, with shrunken, tottering frame, sunken eyes, and a voice that had lost its sonority. “It is written,” said his friends, “that your days are numbered, take our advice and go home to die.” They carried him to his ship, “The Elisa,” and as there seemed little hope of his reaching England, he at once wrote a farewell letter to his mother. With him as servant, however, he had brought away a morose but attentive and good-hearted native named Allahdad, and thanks in part to Allahdad’s good nursing, and in part to the bland and health-giving breezes of the ocean, he gradually regained his former health, strength, and vitality. At the time he regarded these seven years spent in Sind as simply seven years wasted, and certainly his rewards were incommensurate with his exertions. Still, it was in Sind that the future became written on his forehead; in Sind that he began to collect that mass of amazing material which made possible his edition of The Arabian Nights.

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