He was known as a rake, an explorer, and a lover of ancient languages. Sir Richard Burton’s complex character is fully on display in his first book Goa, and the Blue Mountains, originally published in 1851.
As a British army officer in India, Burton contracted cholera, and he was sent to the Nilgiri hills to recuperate. Rather than proceed directly there however, he took a leisurely journey down the Indian coast, for he wanted to experience the “exotic East”. (Burton later translated the Kama Sutra and produced an extremely naughty version of the Arabian Nights.) He is drawn to the town of Seroda, for instance, by the promise in English periodicals of “a village, inhabited by beautiful Bayaderes…Eastern Amazons…high caste maidens…equally enchanting to novelty-hunters and excitement-mongers…” Reality of course proves much different, and Burton reacts with the bitterness of a disappointed lover: he finds that “the ladies all smoke, chew betel-nut, drink wine and spirits…” and that “a stranger soon learns everything is done to fleece him…”
Burton mingled with everyone in India: he posed as an English gentleman looking for a wife to gain entrance into a school for girls, and attended balls at the palaces of tarnished royalty. He met an old beggar in Goa from whom he elicited the tragic story of a failed romance. When Burton offered aid to the man, he refused: death held no danger for this former soldier, and Burton was genuinely touched.
As to the best method of travel in India, Burton recommends:
If in good health, your best plan of all is to mount one of your horses, and to canter him from stage to stage, that is to say, between twelve and fifteen miles a day. In the core of the nineteenth century you may think this style of locomotion resembles a trifle too closely that of the ninth, but, trust to our experience, you have no better. We will suppose, then, that you have followed our advice, engaged bandies for your luggage, and started them off overnight, accompanied by your herd of domestics on foot. The latter are all armed with sticks, swords, and knives, for the country is not safe one, and if it were, your people are endowed with a considerable development of cautiousness. At day-break, your horse-keeper brings up your nag saddled, and neighing his impatience to set out, you mount the beast, and leave the man to follow with a coolie or two, bearing on their shoulders the little camp-bed, on which you are wont to pass your nights. There is no danger of missing the road: you have only to observe the wheel-ruts, which will certainly lead you to the nearest and largest, perhaps the only town within a day’s march.
He traveled widely, visiting Goa, Seroda, and Panjim, and devoting the latter portion of the book to his sojourn in the Nilgiri hills. He is often unsparing in his characterizations of “romantic” locales and showed the dirt and grime that was often a potent aspect of a city, yet he can wonderfully evoke the beauty of the Indian countryside: here is his description of the province of Malabar:
The general breadth of the country, exclusive of the district of Wynad, is about twenty-five miles, and there is little level ground. The soil is admirably fertile; in the inland parts it is covered with clumps of bamboos, bananas, mangoes, jacktrees, and several species of palms. Substantial pagodas, and the prettiest possible little villages crown the gentle eminences that rise above the swampy rice lands, and the valleys are thickly strewed with isolated cottages and homesteads, whose thatched roofs, overgrown with creepers, peep out from the masses of luxuriant vegetation, the embankments and the neat fences of split bamboo interlaced with thorns, that conceal them…
Burton is well aware of the consequences to India of colonial rule, but also of centuries of domination by a variety of religious attitudes. The British come under his piercing scrutiny as do the Portuguese, Hindus, Moslems and others. Intolerant? Yes, but also razor sharp.