Sir Richard Francis Burton: The Imperial Traveller

Richard Burton was an interesting character from the nineteenth century Victorian period to research. He was a remarkable explorer and traveller, journeying throughout Europe, India, the Middle East, Africa and South America. He was also an exceptional linguist who had a mastery of over 25 languages and dialects. Burton used his travelling experiences and linguistic mastery to write a large number of books. This is where my research focussed. I chose Burton’s book Goa, and the Blue Mountains (1851) to analyse. This book describes Burton’s travels through the Portuguese colony of Goa in India. It contains the travel experiences of Burton, the encounters he had with different people and cultures, his descriptions of the landscape he travelled through and his opinions and thoughts on a variety of topics and issues. Burton was travelling throughout Goa to experience its people and culture, with the aim of informing his audience back home in England and Europe. My analysis of this work examined how British colonial concerns and imperialism influenced Burton’s writing in Goa, and the Blue Mountains.

Authority and Superiority

The most obvious indicator of these influences was Burton’s attempt to display his authority and superiority over the Oriental world to his audience in England and Europe. This attempt is demonstrated in the rich language he uses to describe the landscape and places he visited. He organises, classifies and interprets his surroundings for the reader, displaying his own system of values which were heavily influenced by imperialism and British colonial concerns. Burton’s language while describing his encounters with different people was also used to display his authority and superiority over the Orient. It was particularly interesting seeing how Burton would criticise a native culture for their barbarous customs but at the same time praise them for being noble and unsophisticated. The best example of this was the Toda people. Burton believed that Europeans had morally ruined this culture but had also proved to be beneficial as they allowed the Toda to be a part of their empire. The final way Burton attempted to display his authority and superiority was by showing off his expertise on the Oriental world. He used native words and facts to do this, often demonstrated in his large number of footnotes, displaying his Oriental prowess. At the same time he also offered his own opinions and advice, often correcting other travellers, to bolster his authority. One fascinating subject that Burton offered advice on was whether the British should colonise India or just retain imperial control. He believed his opinion was valued because he was an expert on the Oriental world.

Cultural Arrogance

The influence of imperialism and colonial concerns was also demonstrated in the cultural arrogance and rigid racial stereotyping that Burton displayed in his writing. He reflected the prejudices and attitudes of the British empire and European society towards an Oriental world that was different and considered backward. He supported the imperialistic belief that the British were at the top of the world’s hierarchy while the Orient was at the bottom. This cultural arrogance is displayed in Burton’s racist descriptions of the cultures he encountered. He describes natives as half naked animals who chatter like baboons and who are offensive to all Europeans. Burton is this negative towards the majority of the cultures he encounters, Muslims being the only exception. He holds Muslims in high regard and you can follow his fascination with this culture and religion if you follow Burton’s travels throughout the Middle East and his many books and translations.

The Portuguese Experience

Burton’s analysis of the Portuguese experience was also very interesting. His analysis centred around what the British could do to avoid a similar fate to the Portuguese in India. The Portuguese colony in Goa was in decline and its power and splendour were decaying. Burton used his book as a platform to display and raise his own authority on these colonial concerns and on the imperial lessons to be learned. He attributes the intermarriage with natives to be the major fault of the Portuguese in India. He believes this is the main reason to their decline and argues that the British must avoid this if they wish to remain powerful in the Orient.

Conclusion

Richard Burton’s Goa, and the Blue Mountains was a fascinating book to study and analyse. It demonstrated how Burton’s writing was heavily influenced by imperialism and British colonial concerns. By analysing this influence I was able to observe and appreciate the deep racism and cultural arrogance that the British had for natives and other Europeans in the Orient. They believed that they were superior to all other cultures and Burton aligns with these beliefs. However, what makes Burton so interesting is the way that he paradoxically follows these beliefs but at the same time has an avid interest in the Oriental world that was totally different to the majority of his countrymen. He did not always believe that European intervention was a positive for native cultures but that it led to a loss of culture that should be mourned.

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2 comments on “Sir Richard Francis Burton: The Imperial Traveller

  1. mattyyiangou says:

    For a topic I know nothing about or would even normally have an interest in, you have presented your essay topic in an intriguing way. The fact Burton is a product of his British values and tries to go outside them is something that would have been fascinating to analyse.
    It must have taken quite an in depth study of his book, in order to go through his doings, interactions and overall thoughts and opinions on various matters throughout his trip.

  2. Imperialism at its best.
    The ideas that were intrinsic for the British who at that time were at there imperial height are displayed brilliantly throughout Sir Richard Francis Burton works and your analysis of his works concerning the Goa and the Blue Mountains. The conflict between the idea of supremacy that Burton would have been taught and the fascination of ‘lesser’ cultures must have been confronting for Burton. The ideas that he presents are still echoed in the post colonial world, of which the effects of colonialism can still be felt throughout Britain’s former Empire (probably not relevant but I always find the long term effects of ideas of superiority fascinating.)
    You present interesting ideas surrounding Burton’s work especially the fear of Britain suffering Portugal’s fate. Your argument highlights the fact that at its peak the sun never set in the British Empire.

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