Sir Richard Francis Burton, typical colonialist?

I was first introduced to Wilfred Scawen Blunt (1840-1922) through selected, in-class primary source readings. He was a former British diplomat who traveled in the Middle East and India during the 1870s, settled with his wife in Egypt in 1880 and became involved in Egyptian politics and ran a horse farm. Most notably, Blunt was a critic of imperialism, and it seems some of the more notable entries of his diaries relate his arguments with British military men.

Blunt himself.

On January 9th 1896 he wrote, “We have now managed in the last six months to quarrel violently with China, Turkey, Belgium, Ashanti, France, Venezuela, America, and Germany.” This “record performance,” he hoped, would result in the breaking up of the British Empire, regarded by him as “the greatest engine of evil for the weak races.” There is something that will always make me uncomfortable in discussions of history or politics where biological race enters as a causal factor, but fortunately I think what he means by “weak race” is the same thing as what he means when he says the following: “The gangrene of colonial rowdyism is infecting us, and the habit of repressing liberty in weak nations is endangering our own.” There is, nonetheless, a strong condescension in the labeling of other countries as the “weak” ones, or as he does in the introduction to his own edited volume of his diaries starting in 1888, “the backward nations of the world.”

The entry from October 17 1898 tells us that he has “had it out with George [Wyndham (1863-1913), parliamentary undersecretary in the War Office] about Fashoda [a dispute with France following British occupation of Sudan in 1898].” [Bracketed notes in Clancy-Smith and Smith.] Here, I think, is the big reason why I could never really be a modernist, especially one focusing on the Middle East. The “English case” stated by Wyndham with “brutal frankness” gives a great deal of insight into the utterly reprehensible facts of colonial efforts. Blunt discusses Wyndham’s stances using ‘we’s and ‘our’s to intimate the “British” perspective he does not share:

“‘The day of talking,’ he says, ‘about legality in Africa is over, all the international law there is consists of interest and understandings.’ It is generally agreed by all the powers that the end of African operations is to ‘civilize’ it in the interests of Europe, and that to gain that end all means are good. The only difference between England and France is which of them is to do it in which particular districts. England intends to do it on the Nile, and it makes no difference what the precise legal position is. We may put forward the Khedive’s rights if it is convenient or we may put forward a right of conquest, or a right of simply declaring our intentions. One is as good as another to get our end, which is the railway from Cairo to the Cape [South Africa]. We don’t care whether the Nile is called English or Egyptian or what it is called, but we mean to have it and we don’t mean the French to hate it. The Khedive may be kept on for some years as a sort of Indian maharajah, but it will end in a partition of the Ottoman Empire between England, Germany, and Russia. France will be allowed North-western Africa. It is not worth while drawing distinctions of right and wrong in the matter, it is merely a matter of interest.”

It’s probably improper to simply say that as concerns imperialism, Blunt’s is a modern perspective. It would be childish and say little to nothing about his criticism of imperialism. It’s really not even right to have said that this provides any insight into the case for imperialism. What it does provide insight into is Blunt’s criticism of imperialism, and if we agree we might be persuaded to take Blunt’s words too seriously.

IMPERIALISM CARTOON, 1882. 'The Devilfish in Egyptian Waters.' An American cartoon from 1882 depicting John Bull (England) as the octopus of imperialism grabbing land on every continent.

At the same time, I think a few things are almost undeniable when considering this section:

    • That the implicit criticism is valid. These assertions strip away the bizarre dual veneer of morality and law which imperialism attempts to draw over itself only when convenient, leaving only national interest as a serious motivating force.
      • Accordingly, the so-called “civilizing” of Africa is acknowledged but considered only as an aside. In other words, that excuse is acknowledged but the lack of real consideration implies the absurdity of the notion.
  • That the end of all imperial endeavors is an expansion of the sphere of influence. The Fashoda incident is itself an example of competition for this: the French hoped to cut the British off from the Sudan following their occupation. The incomplete railway from Cairo to Cape Town in South Africa is another. The division of the Ottoman Empire is purely a cooperative action in imperialism which expanded the sphere of influence of multiple nations.
  • If the current apologists for imperialism are to be successful in their unfortunate pastime, they must satisfactorily approach the reality of imperialism instead of relying on the old cliches of justification which fall apart in Blunt’s portrayal.
    • Incidentally, apologists for imperialism are a fucking disgrace. Or at least, the apologists I’ve read and heard are.

The selection ends with his statement that it is not worth it to talk about which of two nations is right in a dispute over the conquests of a third nation. It probably went without saying that both were wrong.

On the 22nd and 31st of December, 1900, Blunt is of course in a reflective mood. The British Empire, he says, is “playing the devil in it [the ‘old century’] as never an empire before on so large a scale.” He laments the decimation of China (whose cities, he says, are being pillaged “as outrageously as in the Middle Ages”), the “fifty millions [sic]” spent by the Americans yearly on “slaughtering the Filipinos,” and the brutalization of blacks in the Congo by the Belgians. The French and Italians, he says, “are playing a less prominent part in the slaughter, but their inactivity grieves them.” And as the Emperor of Germany commands slaughter, he tells us the Pope looks on approvingly, the Queen and two houses of Parliament thank God with their bishops. “The whole white race is reveling openly in violence, as though it had never pretended to be Christian. God’s equal curse be on them all!”

All discomfort with the emphasis on race aside, I do think he says it well in that first entry. His second, on the 31st, begins like this: “I bid good-bye to the old century, may it rest in peace as it has lived in war.” He gives a prophecy for the new century, the fall of the British Empire. Maybe it’s more accurate to say this was his hope. (As it turns out, the sun never sets on the British Empire.) There is bitterness in his admission that worse empires might rise in its place, but relief in his feeling that he would not live to see it.

At this point, the most pertinent question is what the hell does this all have to do with Sir Richard Francis Burton? Well, way back when I read these entries for the first time, we got to discussing them as a class and eventually we got onto the subject of colonialism/imperialism and his life in Egypt. Some of the class argued that because he went to Egypt and settled he was a colonist/imperialist. I disagreed fairly strongly: he left the British diplomatic service and hardly occupied a position of influence or power, never sought to participate in the economic exploitation of the region, and never participated in the reconfiguration of native modes of thinking and seeing. As a friend of mine would now say, he was ” not a revolutionary” and his actual utility as a foreign intervener was both limited and suspect, but to implicate him in colonialism/imperialism would be unfair and evince a simple conception of those forces.

Just before the subject switched over to something else, I began to think about Richard Francis Burton. Now, he has been a favorite historical figure for a while and I don’t see that changing any time soon. The parallels between the two men run deep: both were travelers, both were lovers of Islamic culture, both were critics of colonialism to the extent of damaging their careers and personal lives. There is, however, a world of difference between the two. There is in Burton’s fascinations with other cultures a sort of condescension. His pilgrimage to Mecca was done in secret, but carried back to Britain in the form of a book, an obnoxious proclamation of his accomplishment–one which was attained through the deceit of actual Muslim pilgrims, at the expense of the dignity of actual pilgrims. Furthermore, Burton was himself a member of the British army. One might wonder why exactly a critic of colonial policy might be a colonialist, but then I think his objections are to the management of foreign populations anyways. I think he was, unlike Blunt, a proponent on some level of the noxious idea of the “White Man’s Burden.” Of course, Burton was pretty fucking racist too. To be honest, at the time I had been getting pretty deep into materials on Burton and knew more about him than I do at the moment I’m writing this months later.

When you begin to compare the two, I remarked in plainer terms than I’m about to use, the outline of the individual colonizer begins to form and we find that Blunt does not fit the mold.

As yet, these comparisons are only a suspicion, I suppose. The idea is for me to blog my way through Blunt’s diaries as well as through some of Burton’s works, in pursuit of arriving at a more expanded and complete consideration of this interesting comparison.

[Some of Scawen Blunt’s diary entries can be found in the documentary anthology from Clancy-Smith and Smith, The Modern Middle East and North Africa: a history in documents, or the periods from 1888-1914 can be found on or Google Books. Also, I lifted the description of Devilfish in Egyptian Waters from the Granger site here.]


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