The secret pilgrim

Richard_Francis_Burton_by_Rischgitz,_1864

Richard Burton travelled the globe, charted its cultures – and sometimes infiltrated them with disguises. Kanishk Tharoor reads a novelisation of the explorer’s life.

The Collector of Worlds
Iliya Troyanov
(translated from German by William Hobson)
Faber and Faber
Dh54

It’s almost impossible to build an empire without shape-shifters. In moulding a world full of differences, conquerors inevitably make some subjects into liminal figures with multiple roles: intermediaries, informants and spies. Few more illustrious servants of empire took on this burden than Richard Francis Burton, a 19th-century British agent, traveller and master of disguise. He most famously posed as Mirza Abdullah, an Indo-Persian dervish, to perform the haj in 1853 – surely the ultimate shape-shifting subterfuge for a European in the Middle East at the time. Burton’s account of the pilgrimage, along with those of voyages in the Indian subcontinent, east and west Africa, and South America, made him a celebrity back in Britain. For his contemporaries, Burton was a kind of “Renaissance explorer”, celebrated not only for his intrepid travels but also for his knowledge of the peoples he encountered, an understanding so seemingly encyclopaedic that he could masquerade as one of them.

It is the thrill of this possibility – of inhabiting a purely foreign persona – that animates Iliya Troyanov’s fascinating and frustrating recent novel, The Collector of Worlds, an exploration of Burton’s life. It is also the conceit that has tarnished the shape-shifter’s once-glowing reputation. His writings – as fluent and energetic as their author – are today infamous among postcolonial critics. According to the late Edward Said and others, Burton’s travelogues are insidious examples of the 19th century “Orientalist” project: in trying to explain the Orient to a western, increasingly imperial-minded audience, Burton participated in the casting of the Middle East as an “Other”, a composite of stereotypes and fantasies in opposition to which Europe moulded its ideologies of empire. Whether one broadly agrees with Said or not, it is undeniable that, when first published, Burton’s many writings on the Middle East suggested an intellectual conquest of Islam, charting with apparent authority and relentless detail the habits, mores and beliefs of the Muslim world. They told a western audience that the Orient was not an impenetrable murk, but rather an almost cartoonlike world populated by convenient, reassuring stereotypes – a place within the remit of European knowledge and control.

Burton was convinced that his work was not remotely insidious, but instead rather practical. “It would be difficult,” he wrote, “to supply a better illustration of that popular axiom, ‘Knowledge is power’, than the conduct of Orientals to those who understand them, compared with their contempt felt, if not expressed, for the ignorant.” But Burton was not a dispassionate observer of “Oriental” affairs. Instead he stars in each narrative of adventuring daring-do as the protagonist, the central figure in his own elaboration of the “East”. In the preface of Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah, his most famous travelogue, Burton recognises and refuses to apologise for the “egotistical semblance” of his work, even if some ungenerous critics may see his narrative as pieced-together “outpourings of a mind full of self”.

Read the rest of this essay at the Review of The National

This article was originally published on 9 July 2009

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