Posts Tagged ‘Victorian travellers’

Richard F Burton: Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina

September 17, 2019

Many years ago I read Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; recently as I’ve been travelling, I had the Librivox recording to listen to in the car. It is an astonishing work. Burton was a Victorian traveller, a polymath; at school we heard of him because we discovered his translation of the Kama Sutra

Non-Muslims are not allowed into the holy cities of Islam; in Burton’s day, discovery would have meant his death. He took the disguise of an Afghan and performed the Hajj along with many other Muslims, and was not detected. He describes the journey and the places, the food and the people in minute detail, a great achievement given that making notes and sketches and diagrams was a difficult and dangerous undertaking, too, when you are always under the watch of fellow-travellers. His knowledge as detailed in the book is positively encyclopaedic: all the religious sites are there, the practices, rituals and the necessary prayers. I do not imagine anything is missing, at the same time realising that much will have changed in the more than century and a half since his intrepid undertaking. And I do not know if there is a contemporary account to match and equal his.

Why did he do it? Because it was there? Real interest in Islam and the culture and way of life of the desert Arabs and Bedouin is there, and he was certainly not the first to travel widely in those regions; he regularly cites his predecessors. Several times in the Personal Narrative he makes it clear he is a Christian, that is, that he has not converted to Islam. And yet, he performs all the prayers and rites, apparently he was circumcised too; he knew a number of the languages of the region… and he is always reverent and respectful towards the Islamic faith. I am in awe, as well as confused by his motives and beliefs.

I also admire the Librivox volunteers who produced this recording. A number of them are non-native English speakers, which can make for tiring listening and vexing mispronunciations, but many of them make up for it by their familiarity with Arabic, for Burton’s account is peppered with Arabic words and phrases, both in the text and the footnotes, and every one is faithfully retained in the recording, and (to this non-Arabist) seemingly well-pronounced. However, it was Victorian practice when writing about sexual habits and activities to do so in Latin, and I’m afraid the garbled renditions of the volunteers made these possibly interesting extracts unintelligible…

Fitzroy Maclean: A Person from England

June 9, 2019

51CDaOHf69L._AC_UL436_  A fascinating piece of ‘old school’ travel writing from over sixty years ago, focusing on the ‘Great Game’ of the Victorian era as Britain vied with Russia for influence over Central Asia, the Russians expanding and consolidating their empire and the British looking over their shoulder at the possible threat to India… and nobody managing to do anything effective in Afghanistan – no change there, then.

Maclean tells the stories of a number travellers who got into all sorts of scrapes, particularly if they managed to reach the fabled goal of the emirate of Bukhara. English arrogance astonishes, as does the gung-ho approach to non-British peoples, their laws, beliefs and customs; there is an over-weening pride in Britain, British arms, Christianity. The account of an eccentric clergyman who travels to Bukhara in an attempt to free two captive English officers reads like a Boys’ Own Paper story, such an implausible yarn it seems to be. Alas, the officers have been beheaded before he arrives…

We do learn about the dangers and difficulties facing travellers at that time, crossing territories known to locals but not to outsiders; the Russians also encounter unexpected challenges in their advance, and some of these are documented by an intrepid American reporter. Gradually the entire of Central Asia does fall under Russian suzerainty; they are keen to have the territory pacified and under control so that they can move about freely, but are not that concerned with actually ruling it.

The author’s own attempts to get to Bokhara in 1938, and his tales of evading the NKVD in his efforts, are most entertaining, and sadly, when he returns twenty years later, much of the old attractiveness of Central Asia seems to have gone forever. A good, easy and entertaining read: Maclean writes well.

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