First Footsteps in East Africa by Richard Burton

By Richard Burton

A 19th century travel legend, Burton endeavours to become the first white man to enter the forbidden city of Harar in Somalia.

In 1854, ever ready to appropriate, exploit and plunder the resources of the world, the British Empire desired to know what treasures the ancient city of Harar, in East Africa, might hold for them. There was just one snag – no European had ever entered Harar and death was promised to any infidel that tried.

This was exactly the kind of adventure bound to appeal to Richard Burton, a traveler whose linguistic skills and deep knowedge of the East had already led him to make the hajj to Mecca in the guise of a Muslim. Burton applied to the British authorities for the cash, assistants and local support necessary and set off through the desert to try his luck.

The majority of First Footsteps in East Africa describes Burton’s journey towards Harar and the perils therein; he describes the blood feuds of the Samalians, the treachery of the Bedouin and the lions and leopards that prowl in the hills. Burton introduces us to cultures and mores beyond our modern ken and never tires of celebrating the wisdom of the East:

“Without justice a king is cloud without rain,

Without goodness a sage is a field without fruit,

Without manners a youth is a bridleless horse,

Without lore and old man is a waterless wady,

Without modesty a woman is bread without salt.”

Burton describes and derides the local traditions with all the moral superiority of a Victorian yet he takes to the life like a camel to the desert. He defends himself against the unspoken allegation of ‘going native’ by complaining bitterly of life in the army barracks and European society in general:

“..where the business of life is comprised of ignoble official squabbles, dislikes, disapprobations and ‘references to superior authority, where social intercourse is crushed by ‘gup’, gossip and the scandal of small colonial circles,”

What Burton really likes is to be out in the wild where no other European could go. Under the guise of a Muslim trader, he leads his party through territories where blood feuds amongst the Bedouin rage and where smallpox ravages the population. His party continually despair of trouble up ahead or of evil omens and all warn him that he will be a dead man to enter Harar.

For their part, Burton’s observance and understanding of local beliefs and customs win him respect and admiration, if not love.

“In the mining towns of civilised England, where the ‘genial brickbat’ is thrown at the passing stranger, or in enlightened Scotland, where hair a few inches too long or a pair of mustachios justifies ‘mobbing’, it would have been impossible for me to mingle as I did with these people.”

Burton maintains the usual Victorian reticence through the book and his humour is as dry as the desert in which he travels. Yet there is a smouldering sense of mischief which leads him to tolerate the presence of the End of Time, a man who derives his nickname from his smattering of memorised sonnets from the Koran. With ‘cunning eyes, a hook nose, a bulging brown and scattered teeth’ Burton informs us that his stored knowledge of witty sayings makes him ‘the terror of men upon who repartee reposes’.

When a grain of rice gets stuck in the beards of his companions the End of Time remarks ‘the gazelle is in the garden’, to which Burton and friends reply ‘we will hunt her with the five’.

As Richard Burton journeys deeper into Somalia, the water gets bad, the people wilder and the danger greater. More than once the Bedouin feign an attack – with the idea of making a real one if the target makes a run for it. Such challenges are usually dealt with when Burton draws his revolver, ‘the father of the six’ and fires a shot overhead. Then the aggressive Bedouin become flattering and hospitable, treachery and dissimulation, according to Burton, being essential characteristics of the African Bedouin.

Passing through hostile foothills with thorns and tribes bearing poisoned arrows, Burton arrives close to Harar and the village that hosts him also prays for him – and here we hear more of the author’s dry wit:

“..all the villagers assembled and recited the Fatihah, consoling us that we were dead men.”

Burton continues, of course, though half his party is too terrified to join him. He comes to the city of Harar and discovers it to be an unremarkable pile of rocks, devoid of any charm or grandeur. He’s ushered into to see the Amir and begins to make speeches full of the oriental pomp suitable for the occasion, declaring the earnest will of the British Empire to re-establish friendly connections and trade with the great city of Harar. He continues in this flowery vein until the Amir smiles and Burton realises that he won’t be executed that day at any rate. He lies down to rest that night and is:

“..profoundly impressed with the poesie of our position. I was under the roof of a bigoted prince whose least word was death; amongst a people who detest foreigners; the only European who had ever passed over their inhospitable threshold, and the fated instrument of their future downfall.”

Richard Burton’s adventures are truly the stuff of great travel books but the reader must make allowances for his idiosyncratic style. The footnotes at times rival the length of the chapters themselves as Burton occupies himself at great length with the origins of fables, customs and efficacy of local poisons, citing whole scientific experiments conducted upon the local wildlife.

In addition, Burton can be stiff and wooden in his efforts at exactitude which nonetheless impress. He says something like ‘I will now attempt a sketch of the Somal people’ and then conjures 1000 words on their physiognomy, describing at length and without mercy the physical tendencies of men, women and children.

Richard Burton’s First Footsteps in East Africa is a gem, a classic among travel books and an education in a world that has long disappeared. It reminds us that a Christian-Judaic ethos has never been universal and that all societies are a rule unto themselves.

Yet, his mission successfully accomplished in Harar, Burton finds himself in a low mood as he rides his camel back and reflects:

‘ melancholy a thing is success. Whilst failure inspirits a man, attainment reads the sad, prosy lesson that all our glories ‘are shadows, not substantial things.'”