Sir Richard Burton’s Wanderings in West Africa is a rare book. There are not many narratives that deal with the West Africa of the 19th century, especially in so much detail. Written a few years after the famous journey Burton describes in Lake Regions of Central Africa, this book takes the reader on a port-by-port tour from Liverpool to Morocco and then as far south as Fernando Po (Equatorial Guinea). Like Burton’s other books, this one contains a wealth of information on subjects as varied as costume, language, agriculture, colonial administration, and local religions and rulers. There is certainly something in these volumes to interest any enthusiast of African history, or of colonial attitudes, as Burton is certainly free with his opinion on everything.
This narrative demonstrates Burton’s typical scorn for all the people he encounters. For example, he is able to simultaneously exhibit contempt for the customs of the Africans and the English, who both treat young women like show dogs:
When marriageable, [girls] are taken home, kept from work, highly fed, well dressed, and profusely ornamented. After many ceremonies, they are exhibited in the town by the advertisements of finery, dancing, and playing; thus it is pretty much the same in barbarous Medidsiasikpong (Africa) as in civilised England.
However, the darker his subjects’ skin, the more offensive Burton’s commentary becomes, and it is sometimes really shocking:
From humbly aspiring to be owned as a man, our black friend now boldly advances his claims to egalité and fraternité, as if there could be brotherhood between the crown and the clown! The being who `invents nothing originates nothing, improves nothing, who can only cook, nurse and fiddle;’ who has neither energy nor industry…the self-constituted thrall, that delights in subjection to and in imitation of the superior races.
The real interest in the book is its incredibly detailed descriptions of the things Burton sees as he wanders. He makes everything his business, from circumcision rites to dietary preferences. For example, his description of the kola nut is a wealth of sensory and cultural information:
The Shaykh then presented me with a handful of kola nuts, which…are the local `chaw’…The edible parts are the five or six beans, which are compared to Brazil nuts; they are covered with a pure white placenta, which must be removed with the finger-nails, and then appears the rosy pink skin…Travellers use it to quiet the sensation of hunger…In native courts eating kola nuts forms part of the ceremony of welcoming strangers, and the Yorubas have a proverb: ‘Anger draweth arrows from the quiver: good words draw kolas from the bag.’
Only Richard Burton could create such a combination of immediate experience, botanical knowledge, practical advice, and folklore in one paragraph. That is the kind of writer, and the kind of man he was — equally brilliant and opinionated in many different fields.