Sir Richard Burton's Travels in Arabia and Africa is a handsomely printed and nicely illustrated , outsized paperback containing a printed version of four lectures presented by Sir Richard. At the time these lectures were presented he was serving as Her Majesty's Consul to Brazil and among his audience were members of the the royal household of Brazil. Sir Richard was not a professional speaker and as explained in the editors introduction and biography of Burton, generally limited his lectures to specialized, professional societies. Propriety and the requirements of his position would have restrained him from being either too shocking or other than traditional. I had hoped to find some traces of the wild man of his rather extensive and accomplished reputation, but on reflection he would have accepted the limits of the venue and accepted the need for restraint.
Of the many explorations and travels made by Sir Richard Burton, his most famous would be his penetration into the secrets of Mecca and Medina, both while passing as a Muslim pilgrim of the Dervish sect and his expedition to find the headwaters of the Nile. These lectures include many details of his visits to the capitals of the Muslim faith and a slightly incomplete rendition of parts of the Nile Exploration.
Biogrophers of Burton are certain that he had converted to the Muslim faith at the time he visited Mecca. If this is true, there is nothing in his account to confirm his conversion. He was an accomplished linguist and had for years before learned to pass as a native in several parts of the then Muslim world. The evidence of the lecture is inconclusive, but favors his expressed claim, that he was not the first or second successful arrival of a non-Muslim into these forbidden cities, but that he was the first to succeed while in the character of a true believer.
The remaining lectures have their dramatics and include what would have been typical Victorian racial pride and negativity toward much of the native populations of Africa. Burton is almost matter of fact in describing the dangers of his trip, the regularity of human sacrifice in the African countries while saying little about the nearly desperate attacks on his health that dogged his expeditions.
Given the complexity of Burton's relationship with fellow expedition member and future competitor, (if that is the right word) John Speke Burton's description of how Speke was seized in a surprise attack on their camp and suffered 11 spear wounds before escaping is a short and dry moment assigned to what should have been a heart stopping portion of his narrative.Burton was also injured in this attacked but he makes no mention of his wounds. Later, Burton's notes would be only slightly more scandalized by the remains of a mass human sacrifice that had taken place despite Burton's official delivery of a protest against this practice.
The book has value to those interested in Sir Richard Burton. The point of view is the usual Victorian assumption of British and White superiority and there is little that might have been considered as unconventional or challenging to Victorian attitudes. For me the descriptions of the Mecca visit were the most vivid of the lectures.