Thursday, February 13, 2014

First Footsteps in East Africa

First Footsteps in East Africa – Sir Richard Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton gained notoriety by travelling to Mecca and Medina in the early 1850s. His journey to another Muslm holy city in the Somali country, Harar, in 1854-55 is one of his forgotten books. As far as he can believed, Burton’s chronicles of hard travelling are entertaining and idiosyncratic, to say the least. Here he criticizes millet beer and local indolence.

I tried this mixture several times, and found it detestable: the taste is sour, and it flies directly to the head, in consequence of being mixed with some poisonous bark. It is served up in gourd bottles upon a basket of holcus heads, and strained through a pledget of cotton, fixed across the narrow mouth, into cups of the same primitive material: the drinkers sit around their liquor, and their hilarity argues its intoxicating properties. In the morning they arise with headaches and heavy eyes; but these symptoms, which we, an industrious race, deprecate, are not disliked by the Somal—they promote sleep and give something to occupy the vacant mind.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Burton’s descriptions of Somali manners and society. But his personal recollections, I think, retain their brilliance and power. Here he recounts thirst near the end of the journey:

Our toil was rendered doubly toilsome by the Eastern travellers’ dread—the demon of Thirst rode like Care behind us. For twenty-four hours we did not taste water, the sun parched our brains, the mirage mocked us at every turn, and the effect was a species of monomania. As I jogged along with eyes closed against the fiery air, no image unconnected with the want suggested itself. Water ever lay before me—water lying deep in the shady well—water in streams bubbling icy from the rock—water in pellucid lakes inviting me to plunge and revel in their treasures. Now an Indian cloud was showering upon me fluid more precious than molten pearl, then an invisible hand offered a bowl for which the mortal part would gladly have bartered years of life. Then—drear contrast!—I opened my eyes to a heat-reeking plain, and a sky of that eternal metallic blue so lovely to painter and poet, so blank and deathlike to us, whose [Greek kalon] was tempest, rain-storm, and the huge purple nimbus. I tried to talk—it was in vain, to sing in vain, vainly to think; every idea was bound up in one subject, water.

This expedition had a violent ending. Near Berbera natives attacked their party. Lt. William Stroyan was killed and Lt. John Hanning Speke was severely wounded. Burton himself had a javelin piece his jaw, which caused the loss of four teeth.  The book omits that an official board of inquiry blamed Burton for excessive confidence and ignoring warnings of danger.

No comments:

Post a Comment