And Isabel, Lady Burton.
“Honour, not honours.” … This was Richard’s favourite and self-composed motto, and Chinese Gordon quoted it in every letter he wrote him to the last day of his life, with a word of congratulation as to its happy choice.
— Isabel Burton, The Life of Captain Sir Richard Burton, Vol. 1, p. 303.
Did Richard Francis Burton and General Charles “Chinese” Gordon ever meet? I went through biographies of both men, and at first it appeared that they corresponded for nine years but never met in person. Gordon and Isabel Burton (with whom he also exchanged letters for years) met twice, once in Suez in April 1878 and again in London in April 1880. Finally, in a review of Gordon’s Khartoum journals that Burton wrote after Gordon’s death, I found certain proof they had met: Burton said so. “We did not meet until 1879 at Cairo, and I was astonished to find how unlike were all his portraits.” In Isabel’s biography of Burton she says they also met in late 1882 (when Burton was on his way to the Sinai Peninsula), and that all three used to talk (where or when is unstated) while the two men sat on the rug in front of the fire. What is below pieces together everything I’ve found that connects the two men.
Not much of their correspondence has been published. All the biographies quote letters from The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton, and Mary Lovell also briefly quotes a couple of letters in Isabel’s papers at the Wiltshire Country Records Office that were only recently discovered. I typed in all the letters I could find, and then, since that didn’t make a clear picture, added what I could find about the relationship between the Burtons and Gordon. The Burtons and Gordon were three of the most fascinating people of the Victorian age.
Mentions of when Burton and Gordon met are underlined, below.
(Updated April 2006 with quotes from Isabel’s biography of Burton. Tidied and reformatted in January 2022.)
- The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton, Fawn Brodie (W.W. Norton, 1967).
- Review of The Journals of Major-General G.C. Gordon, C.B., at Khartoum, Sir Richard Francis Burton, in The Academy no. 688, 11 July 1885, pp. 19–20.
- The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, K.C.M.G., F.R.G.S., Isabel Burton (Chapman and Hall, 1893).
- The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton, Isabel Burton and W.H. Wilkins (Dodd Mead and Co., 1908). First published 1897. Isabel died before finishing, and Wilkins completed it.
- Burton, Byron Farwell (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964)
- A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton, Mary S. Lovell (W.W. Norton, 1998).
- Sir Richard Francis Burton, Thomas Wright (Everett, 1906).
Two biographies of Gordon that I checked, H.E. Wortham’s Gordon: An Intimate Portrait (1933) and Roy MacGregor-Hastie’s Never to Be Taken Alive: A Biography of General Gordon (1985) don’t mention Burton at all. Gordon doesn’t mention Burton in any of the letters collected in Colonel Gordon in Central Africa: 1874-1879, except twice in reference to Burton’s previous travel in the area.
I’ve pieced together excerpts in chronological order with some explanation. Even so, it will be confusing if you don’t know Gordon and Burton well or have biographies handy. F.O. is the Foreign Office; D.V. is Deo volente (Latin for “God willing”); H.H. is His Highness, the Khedive of Egypt. At the time of the letters, the Sudan was under the control of Egypt, which was part of the Ottoman Empire, but Britain had a hand in things. Burton lived 19 March 1821–20 October 1890, Isabel 20 March 1831–22 March 1896, Gordon 28 January 1833–26 January 1885. Comments in [square brackets] are mine.
Please e-mail me if you see any errors or have any further information about Gordon’s friendship with the Burtons.
Burton in The Academy, 11 July 1885
Shortly after Gordon was appointed to the Sudan in 1874 he consulted me about an Eastern harbour of export. I suggested one north of the equator, which should separate Egypt from Zanzibar: my advice was disregarded and poor Admiral McKillop brought upon himself much trouble.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 645–646)
Their acquaintance, which ripened into a strong liking and friendship, may be said to have existed over a period of ten years (from 1875 to 1885), from the time when Gordon wrote to ask Burton for information concerning Victoria Nyanza and the regions round about, to the day when he went to his death at Kartoum. Long before they met in the flesh, Gordon and Burton knew each other in the spirit, and Gordon thought he saw in Burton a man after his own heart. In many respects he was right. The two men were curiously alike in their independence of thought and action, in their chivalrous devotion to honour and duty, in their absolute contempt for the world’s opinion, in their love of adventure, in their indifference to danger, in their curious mysticism and fatalism, and in the neglect to which each suffered from the Government until it was too late. They were both born leaders of men, and for that reason indifferent followers, incapable of running quietly in the official harness. Least of all could they have worked together, for they were too like one another in some things, and too unlike in others. Burton saw this from the first, and later Gordon came to see that his view was the right one. But it never prevented either of them from appreciating the great qualities in the other.
The correspondence between Gordon and the Burtons was voluminous. Lady Burton kept all Gordon’s letters, intending to publish them some day. I am only carrying out her wishes in publishing them here. Both Gordon and Burton were in the habit of writing quite freely on men and things, and therefore it has been found necessary to suppress some of the letters; but those given will, I think, be found of general interest.
Sir Richard Francis Burton
From section 87: Colonel Gordon 1877.
In July 1875, Burton heard from Colonel (afterwards General) Gordon, who wanted some information about the country south of the Victoria Nyanza; and the friendship which then commenced between these brilliant men was terminated only by death. In every letter Gordon quoted Burton’s motto, “Honour, not honours,” [not true, as you can see below] and in one he congratulated his friend on its happy choice. For several years Gordon had been occupied under the auspices of the Khedive, in continuing the work of administering the Soudan, which had been begun by Sir Samuel Baker. He had established posts along the Nile, placed steamers on the Albert Nyanza, and he nursed the hope of being able to put an end to the horrid slave trade.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 646–650)
[Gordon to Burton, who received it while staying with Isabel’s cousin Lord Talbot of Malahide at Malahide Castle in Ireland.]
Bedden, South of Gondokoro 23 miles
July 17, 1875
My Dear Captain Burton,
Though I have not had the honour of meeting you, I hope you will not object to give me certain information which I imagine you are most capable of doing. I will first relate to you my proposed movements. At this moment I am just starting from this station for the South. You are aware that hitherto the Nile from about eighteen miles south of Gondokoro to the junction of it with the Unyame Hor (Apuddo, Hiameye, Dufte, or Mahadé, as different people call it) has been considered impassable and a torrential stream. Being very much bothered with the difficulties of the land route for this distance, I thought I would establish ports along the river, hoping to find it in steps with portions which might be navigable, instead of what it was supposed to be—viz. a continuous rapid. Happily I came on the river at the commencement of its rise at the end of March, and found it navigable as far as Kerri, which is forty-six miles south of Gondokoro, and about forty miles north of the point where the Nile is navigable to the lake. As far south as one can see from Kerri the river looks good, for the highlands do not approach one another. I have already a station at Mahadé, and one at Kerri, and there remains for me to make another midway between Kerri and Mahadé, to complete my communication with the lake. I go very slowly, and make my stations as I proceed. I cannot reconnoitre between Kerri and Mahadé, but am obliged, when I once move, to move for a permanent object. If I reconnoitred, it would cost me as much time as if I was going to establish myself permanently, and also would alarm the natives, who hitherto have been quiet enough. I do not think that there are any so-called cataracts between Kerri and the lake. There may be bad rapids, but as the bed of the river is so narrow there will be enough water for my boats, and if the banks are not precipices I count on being able to haul my boats through. We have hauled them through a gap sixty-five yards wide at Kerri, where the Nile has a tremendous current. Now Kerri is below the junction of the Nile and the Asua; while Mahadé, where all agree the other rapids are, is above the junction; so that I may hope at Mahadé to have a less violent current to contend with, and to have the Asua waters in some degree cushioning up that current. I have little doubt of being able to take my steamer (the one constructed by Baker’s engineers at Gondokoro) up to Kerri, for I have already there boats of as great a draught or water. From Mahadé it is some one hundred and thirty miles to Magungo. About seventy miles south of Mahadé a split takes place in the river: one branch flows from the east, another from the west. I imagine that to the north of the lake a large accumulation of aquatic vegetation has taken place, and eventually has formed this isle. Through the vegetation the Victoria Nile has cut a passage to the east, and the lake waters have done this to the west. Baker passed through a narrow passage from the lake to the Victoria Nile channel. From Magungo the Victoria Nile is said to be a torrent to within eighteen miles of Karuma Falls. Perhaps it is also in steps. Karuma Falls may be passable or not. And then we have Isamba and Ripon Falls. If they are downright cataracts, nothing remains but to make stations at them, and to have an upper and a lower flotilla. If they are rapids, there must be depth of water in such a river in the rainy season to allow of the passage of boats, if you have the power to stem the current.
I now come to the Victoria Nyanza; and about this I want to ask you some questions—viz. What is the north frontier of Zanzibar? And have we any British interests which would be interfered with by a debouch of the Egyptians on the sea? Another query is, If the coast north of Equator does not belong to Zanzibar, in whose hands is it? Are the Arabs there refugees from the Wahhabees of Arabia?—for if so, they would be deadly hostile to Egypt. To what limit inland are the people acquainted with partial civilization, or in trade with the coast, and accordingly supplied with firearms? Could I count on virgin native tribes from Lake Baringo or Ngo to Mount Kenia—tribes not in close communication with the coast Arabs?
My idea is, that till the core of Africa is pierced from the coast but little progress will take place among the hordes of natives in the interior. Personally I would wish a route to sea, for the present route is more or less hampered by other governors of provinces. By the sea route I should be free. The idea is entirely my own; and I would ask you not to mention it, as (though you are a consul and I have also been one) you must know that nothing would delight the Zanzibar Consul better then to have the thwarting of such a scheme, inasmuch as it would bring him into notice and give him opportunity to write to F.O. I do not myself wish to go farther east than Lake Baringo or Ngo. But whether Egypt is allowed a port or not on the coast, at any rate I may be allowed to pass my caravans through to Zanzibar and to get supplies thence.
When I contrast the comparative comfort of my work with the miseries you and other travellers have gone through, I have reason to be thankful. Dr. Kraft talks of the River Dana—debouching into sea under the name of river—as navigable from Mount Kenia. If so—and rivers are considered highways and free to all flags—I would far sooner have my frontier at Mount Kenia than descend to the lower lands.
Believe me, with many excuses for troubling you,
Burton (p. 332)
This letter had hit the right tone by speaking slightingly of Burton’s old enemy [General Christopher Palmer] Rigby [the British Consul in Zanzibar].
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (p. 650)
Burton, who possessed great and personal knowledge of the Nile Basin and the tribes inhabiting it, cordially answered Gordon’s letter, giving him full information and many valuable hints. Henceforward the two men frequently corresponded, and got to know one another very well on paper. The next letter of Gordon’s which I am permitted to give was written the following year.
A Rage to Live (p. 623)
[On 18 June 1876 Burton and Isabel returned to Trieste from a trip to India.]
They arrived back to a mountain of interesting mail. Charles Gordon had written from Central Africa, “these lakes and rivers are very trying to a man, you can never get to the end of the tangle.”
[No source is given for this.]
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 650–652)
[Gordon to Burton]
Lardo, October 12, 1876
My Dear Captain Burton,
Thank you for your letter July 13, which I received proceeding from the Lake Albert to this place. I came down from Magungo here in eight days, and could have done it in six days. This is a great comfort to me, and I am proud of my road and of the herds of cattle the natives pasture along either side of it without fear. I have been up the Victoria Nile from Mrooli to near Urmdogani, and seen Long’s lake—viz. Lake Messanga. It is a vast lake, but of still shallow water. The river seems to lose itself entirely in it. A narrow passage, scarcely nine feet wide, joins the north end of the Victoria Nile near Mrooli; and judging from the Murchison Falls—which are rapids, not falls—I should say Victoria Lake and Victoria Nile contribute very little to the true Nile. The branch Piaggia saw is very doubtful. I could not find it, and the boatmen seem very hazy as to its existence. As for Gessi’s branch north of Albert Lake, I could not find that either. And, entre nous, I believe in neither of the two branches. The R.G.S. will have my maps of the whole Nile from Berber to Urmdogani on a large scale, and they will show the nature of the river. I go home on leave (D.V.) in January for six months, and then come out again to finish off. You would learn my address from Cox & Co., Craig’s Court. I would be glad to meet you; for I believe you are not one of those men who bother people, and who pump you in order that they, by writing, might keep themselves before the world. If it was not such a deadly climate, you would find much to interest you in these parts; but it is very deadly. An Arab at Mtesa’s knows you very well. He gave the Doctor a letter for you. His name is either Ahmed bin Hishim or Ahmed bin Habíb. I have had, entre nous, a deal of trouble, not yet over, with Mtesa, who, as they will find out, is a regular native. I cannot write this, but will tell you. Stanley knows it, I expect, by this time. The Mission will stay there (Mtesa’s) about three months: that will settle them, I think.
Believe me, with kinds regards,
In December 1876 Gordon decided to resign and return to England. He went to Cairo to say so, but the Khedive talked him into agreeing to come back. Burton wrote to suggest that when Gordon returned from England he come via Trieste and visit.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 652–653)
On board ‘Sumatra,’ December 17, 1876
My Dear Captain Burton,
I received your kind note as I was leaving for Brindisi. I am sorry I cannot manage the Trieste route. I am not sure what will be my fate. Personally, the whole of the future exploration, or rather opening, of the Victoria Lake to Egypt has not a promising future to me, and I do not a bit like the idea of returning. I have been humbugged into saying I would do so, and I suppose I must keep my word. I, however, have an instinctive feeling that something may turn up ere I go back, and so feel pretty comfortable about it. I gave Gessi a letter to you. He is a zealous and energetic, sharp fellow. I shall not, however, take him back with me, even if I go. I do not like having a man with a family hanging on one.
Burton wrote to Gordon saying Gordon should write a book about his time in Africa, and asking about his intentions. Gordon replied and made the first of many requests for Burton to come join him.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 653–654)
7, Cecil Street, Strand, January 12, 1877
My Dear Captain Burton,
Thank you for your kind note. Gessi wrote to me from Trieste, dating his letter only “Trieste,” and I replied to that address, so I suppose the post-office know him. Yes; I am back, but I have escaped persecution. Wilson I have heard nothing of. I have not the least intention of publishing anything. My life and work there was a very humdrum one; and, unlike you, I have no store of knowledge to draw on. (I may tell you your book was thought by us all out in Africa as by far the best ever written.) I am not going back to H.H. It is a great pang to me, I assure you; but it is hopeless, hopeless work. Why do you not take up the work? You may not be so sensitive as I am.
Good-bye, and believe me,
Yours very truly,
Sir Richard Francis Burton
In January 1877, he [Gordon] was appointed by the Khedive Governor of the entire Soudan. There were to be three governors under him, and he wrote to Burton offering him the governor-generalship of Darfur, with £1,600 a year. Said Gordon, “You will soon have the telegraph in your capital, El Fasher. … You will do a mint of good, and benefit those poor people. … Now is the time for you to make your indelible mark in the world and in these countries.”³⁰¹
Had such an offer arrived eight years earlier, Burton might have accepted it, but he was fifty-seven, and his post at Trieste, though not an agreeable one, was a “lasting thing,” which the governor-generalship of Darfur seemed unlikely to be. So the offer was declined.
³⁰¹ Romance of Isabel Lady Burton, ii., 656.
The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton (Vol I, pp. 42–43)
One of our most intimate friends was General Charles Gordon—“Chinese Gordon” of Khartoum sad memory. The likeness between these two men, Richard Burton and Charles Gordon, was immense. The two men stood out in this nineteenth century as a sort of pendant, and the sad fate of both is equal, as far as Government goes. One abandoned and forgotten in the desert, the other in a small foreign seaport; both men equally honoured by their country, and standing on pedestals that will never be thrown down—uncrowned kings both. This difference there was between them—Charles Gordon spoke out all that Richard laboured to conceal.Gordon had the habit of saying, “There are only two men in the world who could do such or such a thing; I am one, and you are the other.” After he became Governor of the Soudan, he wrote to my husband as follows:—
“You and I are the only two men fit to govern the Soudan; if one dies, the other will be left. I will keep the Soudan, you take Darfur; and I will give you £5000 a year if you will throw up Trieste.”
Richard wrote back:—
“My dear Gordon,
“You and I are too much alike. I could not serve under you, nor you under me. I do not look upon the Soudan as a lasting thing. I have nothing to depend on but my salary, and I have a wife, and you have not.”
I have got all Gordon’s and his correspondence, and I will give specimens of them in the coming work, which I shall call “The Labours and Wisdom of Richard Burton,” as in this book there is no room to dilate upon his works for his country, nor to quote his letters. The subject is so extensive that it would never be read in one work.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 654–656)
Oomchanga, Darfur, June 21, 1877
My Dear Captain Burton,
You now, I see, have £600 a year, a good climate, quiet life, good food, etc., and are engaged in literary enquiries, etc., etc. I have no doubt that you are very comfortable, but I cannot think entirely satisfied with your present small sphere. I have therefore written to the Khedive to ask him to give you Darfur as Governor-General, with £1,6000 a year, and a couple of secretaries at £300 a year each. Darfur is l’enfer. The country is a vast sand plain, with but little water; the heat is very great; there is little shooting. The people consist of huge Bedawin tribes, and of a settled population in the larger villages. Their previous history under the Sultans would show them as fanatical. I have not found them in the least so; in fact I think them even less so than the Arabs of Cairo. If you got two years’ leave from H.M.’s Government, you would lose nothing. You know the position of Darfur; its frontier through Wadi is only fifteen days from Lake Tchad. On the other side of Lake Tchad you come on another sultanate, that of Bowmon, and you then near the Gulf of Guinea. Darfur is healthy. You will (D.V.) soon have the telegraph to your capital, El Tascher. If the Khedive asks you, accept the post, and you will do a mint of good, and benefit these poor people. You will also see working out curious problems; you will see these huge tribes of Bedawins, to whom the Bedawin tribes of Arabia are as naught; you will trace their history, etc.; and you will open relations with Wadai, Baginni, etc. I know that you have much important work at the Consulate, with the ship captains, etc., and of course it would not be easy to replace you; but it is not every day you use your knowledge of Asiatics or of Arabia. Now is the time for you to make your indelible mark in the world and in these countries. You will be remembered in the literary world, but I would sooner be remembered in Egypt as having made Darfur. I hope, if His Highness write to you, you will ask for two years’ leave and take the post as Governor-General. You are Commandant of Civil and Military and Finance, and have but very little to do with me beyond demanding what you may want.
A Rage to Live (p. 632)
Had this offer come from the Foreign Office, Richard almost certainly would have accepted it. But he turned down Gordon’s proposal which, on the face of it, appeared to offer a well-paid opportunity for travel and further exploration. Primarily he felt the Midian gold project offered a more rewarding and independent future.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (p. 656)
[Burton to Gordon, after 21 June 1877.]
My Dear Gordon,
You and I are too much alike. I could not serve under you, nor you under me. I do not look upon the Soudan as a lasting thing. I have nothing to depend upon but my salary; and I have a wife, and you have not.
Burton in The Academy, 11 July 1885
In 1876 my correspondent [Gordon] offered me command of the Eastern Sudan with £1,500 per annum [Burton misstates both the year and the amount of money]; but as I asked £2,000 he was nettled, and wrote that he hardly expected so much devotion to £. s. d. My answer was that every farthing (and something more) would be spent in this country; but the amount to spend would represent the measure of my power and influence. This satisfied him; and yet I could not accept the offer. We were at once too like and too unlike to act together without jarring.
Sir Richard Francis Burton
So the offer was declined. Gordon’s next letter (27th June 1877) [note that Gordon hadn’t yet received the reply] contains a passage that brings the man before us in very vivid colours. “I dare say,” he observed, “you wonder how I can get on without an interpreter and not knowing Arabic. I do not believe in man’s free will; and therefore believe all things are from God and pre-ordained. Such being the case, the judgements or decisions I give are fixed to be thus or thus, whether I have exactly hit off all the circumstances or not. This is my raft, and on it I manage to float along, thanks to God, more or less successfully.”³⁰²
On another occasion Gordon wrote, “It is a delightful thing to be a fatalist”—meaning, commented Burton, “that the Divine direction and pre-ordination of all things saved him so much trouble of forethought and afterthought. In this tenet he was not only a Calvinist but also a Moslem.”³⁰³
³⁰² Romance of Isabel Lady Burton.
³⁰³ Burton’s A.N., Suppl., ii., 61. Lib. Ed. ix., p. 286, note.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 656–657)
[Gordon to Burton, before receiving Burton’s reply.]
Oomchanga, Darfur, June 27, 1877
My Dear Burton,
Thanks for your letter May 9, received today. I have answered…. *Would you be bothered with him?** I feel certain you would not. What is the use of such men in these countries; they are, as Speke was to you, infinitely more bother than use. Then why do you put him on me? I have had enough trouble with them already.
You will have my letter about Darfur. I must say your task will not be pleasant; but you talk Arabic, which I do not; and you will have much to interest you, for most of the old Darfur families are of Mohammed’s family.
I dare say you wonder how I can get on without an interpreter and not knowing Arabic. I do not believe in man’s free-will, and therefore believe all things are from God and preordained. Such being the case, the judgements and decisions I give are fixed to be thus or thus, whether I have exactly hit off all the circumstances or not. This is my raft, and on it I manage to float along, thanks to God, more or less successfully. I do not pretend my belief could commend itself to any wisdom or science, or in fact anything, but as I have said elsewhere, a bag of rice jolting along these roads could, if it had the gift of speech, and if it were God’s will, do as well as I do. You may not agree with me. Keep your own belief. I get my elixir from mine—viz. that with these views I am comfortable, whether I am a failure or not, and can disregard the world’s summary of what I do, or of what I do not do.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 657–658)
[Gordon to Burton, again before receiving Burton’s reply.]
Dara, July 18, 1877
My Dear Burton,
I have got round to Dara vià Toashia, and hope in four or five days to get to Tascher. The soi-disant Sultan Haroun is said to have left Tamée. The people are very good. They have been driven into this revolt. Most of the tribes have given in their subscription. The Fors, or original natives of the land, are the only people partially in revolt. Dar For is the land of Fors, as Dar Fertit is the land of the Fertits. You would find much to interest you here, for the Ulemas are well-read people, and know the old history. I found a lot of chain armour here, just like the armour of Saladin’s people, time of the Crusades, with old helmets, some embossed with gold. They were taken from the Sultan Ibrahim’s bodyguard when he was killed. The sheep are wonderful; some with a regular mane. The people would delight in the interest you would take in them. When the Egyptians took the country here, they seized an ancient mosque for a mug. I have given it back and endowed it. There was a great ceremony, and the people are delighted. It is curious how these Arab tribes came up here. It appears those of Biernan and Bagerini came from Tripoli; the others came up the Nile. The Dar Fertit lies between these semi-Mussulman lands and the Negro lands proper. On the border are the Niam-Niam, who circumcise. I suppose they took it up from these Arab tribes. I only hope you will come up. You will (D.V.) find no great trouble here by that time, and none of the misery I have had.
A Rage to Live (p. 633)
When Gordon’s offer was echoed by the Khedive on 16 September , Richard replied that while the development of Africa would always be close to his heart, he was more interested in conducting another mining expedition to the Midian to open up the gold fields for Egypt.
Gordon eventually received Burton’s reply, and responded.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 659–661)
En route to Berber, October 19, 1877
My Dear Captain Burton,
£1,600, or indeed £16,000, would never compensate a man for a year spent actively in Darfur. But I considered you, from your independence, one of Nature’s nobility, who did not serve it for money. Excuse the mistake—if such it is.
I am now going to Dongola and Assouan, and thence to Massowah to see Johannis, and then to Berberah vis-à-vis Aden, near your old friends the Somalis. (Now there is a government which might suit you, and which you might develop, paying off old scores by the way for having thwarted you; it is too far off for me to hope to do anything). I then return to Kartoum, and then go to Darfur and return to Kartoum, and then go to the Lakes. Why do people die in these countries? Do not you, who are a philosopher, think it is due to the moral prostration more than to the climate? I think so, and have done so for a long time. My assistant, Prout, has been lingering on the grave’s brink for a long, and I doubt if he will go up again. I have no fear of dying in any climate. “Men now seek honours, not honour.” You put that in one of your books. Do you remember it? How true it is! I have often pirated it, and not acknowledged the author, though I believe you stole it [from Camoens]. I see Wilson is now Sir Andrew. Is it on account of his father’s decease? How is he? He wanted to come out, but he could not bear the fatigue. All these experiments of the King of the Belgians will come to grief, in spite of the money they have; the different nationalities doom them. Kaba Rega, now that we have two steamers on Lake Albert (which, by the way, is, according to Mason, one hundred and twenty miles longer than Gessi made it), asks for peace, which I am delighted at; he never was to blame, and you will see that, if you read how Baker treated him and his ambassadors. Baker certainly gave me a nice job in raising him against the Government so unnecessarily, even on his own showing (vidé his book Ismaïlia). Judge justly. Little by little we creep on to our goal—viz. the two lakes; and nothing can stop us, I think. Mtesa is very good friends, and agrees much more with us than with your missionaries. You know the hopelessness of such a task, till you find a St. Paul or a St. John. Their representatives nowadays want so much a year and a contract. It is all nonsense; no one will stay four years out there. I would like to hear you hold forth on the idol “Livingstone,” etc., and on the slave-trade. Setting aside the end to be gained, I think that Slave Convention is a very just one in many ways towards the people; but we are not an over-just nation towards the weak. I suppose you know that old creature Grant, who for seventeen or eighteen years has traded on his wonderful walk. I am grateful to say he does not trouble me now. I would also like to discuss with you the wonderful journey of Cameron, but we are too far apart; though when you are at Akata or For, I shall be at Berenice or Suakin. It was very kind of you offering me Faulkner. Do you remember his uncle in R.N.? Stanley will give them some bother; they cannot bear him, and in my belief rather wished he had not come through safe. He will give them a dose for their hard speeches. He is to blame for writing what he did (as Baker was). These things may be done, but not advertised. I shall now conclude with kind regards,
The province of Darfur was given to Rudolf Slatin, and fell to the Dervishes under the Mahdi. Slatin spent fourteen years as personal slave to the Mahdi and his successor, eventually escaped, helped the British Army reconquer the Sudan, and headed the Austrian Red Cross in World War I.
On 19 October 1877 Burton left Trieste for another expedition to search for gold in Midian. It lasted from 19 December 1877 to 20 April 1878.
Sir Richard Francis Burton
[March - April 1878]
In the meantime, Mrs. Burton had left Trieste, in order to join her husband. She stayed a week at Cairo, where she met General Gordon, who listened smilingly to her anticipations respecting the result of the expedition, and then she went on to Suez.
The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton (Vol. II, p. 130)
He was certainly very eccentric, but very charming. I say eccentric, until you got to know and understand him.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 661–662)
When Lady Burton was alone at Suez in the March of the following year (1878), waiting to meet her husband on his return from the expedition to Midian, Gordon arrived there. He of course hastened to make the acquaintance of Burton’s wife. He stayed a week at Suez, and during that time Isabel and he saw one another every day. She found him “very eccentric, but very charming. I say eccentric, until you got to know and understand him.” A warm friendship sprang up between the two, for they had much to talk about and much in common. They were both Christian mystics (I use the term in the highest sense); and though they differed on many points of faith (for Isabel held that Catholicism was the highest form of Christian mysticism, and in this Gordon did not agree with her), they were at one in regarding religion as a vital principle and a guiding rule of life and action. They were at one too in their love of probing
Things more deep and true
Than we mortals know
With regard to more mundane matters, Gordon did not scruple to pour cold water on the Burton’s golden dream of wealth from the Mines of Midian, and frankly told Isabel that the “Midian Myth” was worth very little, and that Burton would do much better to throw his lot in with him. Isabel, however, did not see things in the same light, and she was confident of the future of Midian, and had no desire to go to Darfour. When Burton returned from Midian in April, and he and his wife went to Cairo at the request of the Khedive, they saw a good deal of Gordon again. [This is contradicted by Burton’s letter, below, where he says he’s never met Gordon.] He and Burton discussed affairs thoroughly—especially Egyptian affairs—and Gordon again expressed his regret that Burton did not see his way to joining him.
Burton (p. 338)
In Cairo, she met Gordon, who told her [Isabel] he did not believe in the “Midian myth” and, through her, offered Burton £3,000 if he would join him in the Sudan. Isabel may have had her own doubts about Midian, but she loyally told Gordon that her husband would need that much money just to buy gloves once he had obtained the gold he was seeking. [See Gordon’s letter to Burton on 31 August 1879, below.]
A Rage to Live (pp.635–636)
On her return from Cairo Isabel made the acquaintance of Charles Gordon who, having heard of her presence in Suez, went there especially to meet her. In the week that followed, the two became firm friends and Gordon became one of Isabel’s greatest admirers…. At last, on 20 April , a week after Gordon’s departure, she received a note from Richard who was in sight of the port. She hurried to meet him, finding him ill and tired, and immensely disappointed to have missed meeting Gordon.
Sir Richard Francis Burton
Returned to Trieste, Burton once more settled down to his old dull life. The most interesting letter of this period that has come to our hands is one written to Sir Henry Gordon,³¹⁰ brother of Colonel, afterwards General Gordon.
It runs: “Dear Sir, I am truly grateful to you for your kind note of June 30th and for the obliging expressions which it contains. Your highly distinguished brother, who met my wife at Suez, has also written me a long and interesting account of Harar. As you may imagine, the subject concerns me very nearly, and the more so as I have yet hopes of revisiting that part of Africa. It is not a little curious that although I have been in communication with Colonel Gordon for years, we have never yet managed to meet. Last spring the event seemed inevitable, and yet when I reached Suez, he had steamed south. However, he writes to me regularly, scolding me a little at times, but that is no matter. I hope to be luckier next winter. I expect to leave Trieste in a few days³¹¹ and to make Liverpool via long sea. Both Mrs. Burton and I want a medicine of rest and roast beef as opposed to rosbif. Nothing would please me more than to meet you and talk over your brother’s plans. My direction is Athenaeum Club, and Woolwich is not so difficult to explore as Harar was. Are we likely to meet at the British Association?”
³¹⁰ Kindly copied for me by Miss Gordon, his daughter.
³¹¹ They left on July 6th (1878) and touched at Venice, Brindisi, Palermo and Gibraltar.
Burton and his wife reached London on July 27th (1878). Presently we hear of them in Ireland, where they are the guests of Lord Talbot of Malahide, and later he lectured at various places on “Midian” and “Ogham Runes.” Again Gordon tried to draw him to Africa, this time with the offer of £5,000 a year, but the answer was the same as before.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 663–664)
[Gordon to Burton who received it in Dublin; Lovell says “… (unidentified source due to lost research note). The original is either at the Huntington [Huntington Library, San Marino, CA] or the RGS [Royal Geographic Society]. It is largely reproduced in The Romance, p. 663.”]
Kartoum, August 8, 1878
My Dear Burton,
Please date, or rather put address on your letters. Thanks for yours of July 4, received today. I am very sorry Mrs. Burton is not well, but hope England has enabled her to regain her health. My arrangement is letter for letter. If you write, I will answer. I wish you could undertake the Government of Zeyla, Hara, and Berberah, and free me of the bother. Why cannot you get two years’ leave from F.O., then write (saying it is my suggestion) to H.H., and offer it? I could give, say, £5,000 a year from London to your Government. Do do something to help me, and do it without further reference to me; you would lift a burthen [sic] off my shoulders. I have now to stay at Kartoum for the finances. I am in a deplorable state. I have a nasty revolt of Slandralus at Bahr Gazelle, which will cost me some trouble; I mean not to fight them, but to blockade them into submission. I am now hard at work against the slave caravans; we have caught fifteen in two months, and I hope by a few judicious hangings to stop their work. I hanged a man the other day for making a eunuch without asking H.H.’s leave. Emin Effendi, now Governor of Equator Province, is Dr. Sneitzer; but he is furious if you mention it, and denies that is his name to me; he declares he is a Turk. There is something queer about him which I do not understand; he is a queer fellow, very cringing in general, but sometimes bursts out into his natural form. He came up here in a friendless state. He is perhaps the only riddle I have met with in life. He is the man Amspldt spoke to you about. Amspldt was a useless fellow, and he has no reason to complain of the Emin Effendi. I have sent Gessi up to see after the slave-dealers’ outbreak. He was humble enough. Good-bye! Kind regards to Mrs. Burton.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (p. 664)
Burton again refused, giving the same reasons as before, and reiterating his opinion that the existing state of affairs in the Soudan could not last. Gordon, seeing his decision was not to be shaken, acquiesced, and did not ask him again. Moreover he was losing faith in the Soudan himself.
A Rage to Live (p. 638)
Richard was still convinced that his discoveries in the Midian would make them rich; therefore he refused, saying that his reasons had not changed and that he felt the existing state of affairs in the Sudan “could not last.”
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 664–665)
Kartoum, November 20, 1878
My Dear Burton,
Thanks for your letter of October 6, received to-day. I have not forgotten the manuscript from Hara, nor the coins.
I wish much I could get a European to go to Berberah, Zeyla, and Hara, at £1,200 or £1,500, a really good man. They keep howling for troops, and give me a deal of trouble. Our finances take up all my time; I find it best to look after them myself, and so I am kept close at work. We owe £300,000 floating debt, but not to Europeans, and our present expenditure exceeds revenue by £97,000.
Rossit, who took your place in Darfur, died the other day there, after three and a half months’ residence; he is a serious loss to me, for the son of Zebahr with his slave-dealers is still in revolt. Cairo and Nubia never take any notice of me, nor do they answer my questions.
I have scotched the slave-trade, and Wyld of Jeddah says that scarcely any slaves pass over, and that the people of Jeddah are disgusted. It is, however, only scotched. I am blockading all roads to the slave districts, and I expect to make the slave-dealers now in revolt give in, for they must be nearly out of stores. I have indeed a very heavy task, for I have to do everything myself. Kind regards to Mrs. Burton and yourself.
P.S.—Personally I am very weary and tired of the inaction at Kartoum, with its semi-state, a thing which bores me greatly.
In 1879 Ismail Khedive abdicated in Egypt and his son Tewfik came to power. Gordon resigned, but Tewfik asked him to go on a mission to Abyssinia. En route, he wrote to Burton.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 666–667)
En route to Massowah, Red Sea, August 31, 1879
My Dear Burton,
Thanks for several little notes from you, and one from Mrs. Burton, and also for the papers you sent me. I have been on my travels, and had not time to write. An Italian has egged on Johannis to be hostile, and so I have to go to Massowah to settle the affair if I can. I then hope to go home for good, for the slave-hunters (thanks to Gessi) have collapsed, and it will take a long time to rebuild again, even if fostered by my successor. I like the new Khedive immensely; but I warn you that all Midian guiles will be wasted on him, and Mrs. Burton ought to have taken the £3,000 I offered her at Suez, and which she scoffed at, saying, “You would want that for gloves.” Do you wear those skin coverings to your paws? I do not! No, the days of Arabian Nights are over, and stern economy now rules. Tewfik seeks “honour, not honours.” I do not know what he will do the Soudan; he is glad, I think (indeed feel sure), I am going. I was becoming a too powerful Satrap. The general report at Cairo was that I meditated rebellion even under Ismail the “incurable,” and now they cannot believe why I am so well received by the new Khedive.
Burton in The Academy, 11 July 1885
, and I was astonished to find how unlike were all his portraits. No photograph had represented those calm benevolent blue eyes and that modest reserved and even shy expression, blent with simple dignity, which, where he was intimate, changed to the sympathetic frankness of a child’s face.
In January 1880, Burton went back to Egypt, again after gold. Tewfik Khedive and Riaz Pasha gave no help to Burton. Isabel was ill and had returned to London for medical treatment (she was found to have a non-malignant ovarian tumour). She tried to help from there but had no success. She wrote Gordon with questions about Egypt. Lovell says, “Most of these letters survive, scattered among a number of collections. But they are printed virtually in full in The Romance, pp. 645–676. My comparisons of the printed letters with the surviving manuscripts show that they are accurately transcribed” (p. 870).
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 667–668)
U.S. Club, Pall Mall, 4.2.80 [4 February 1880]
My Dear Mrs. Burton,
You write an orb which is setting, or rather is set. I have no power to aid your husband in any way. I went to F.O. to-day, and, as you know, Lord —— is very ill. Well! the people there were afraid of me, for I have written hard things to them; and though they knew all, they would say naught. I said, “Who is the personification of Foreign Office?” They said, “X is.” I saw “X”; but he tried to evade my question—i.e. Would F.O. do anything to prevent the Soudan falling into chaos? It was no use. I cornered him, and he then said, “I am merely a clerk to register letters coming in and going out.” So then I gave up, and marvelled. I must say I was surprised to see such a thing; a great Government like ours governed by men who dare not call their souls their own. Lord —— rules them with a rod of iron. If your husband would understand that F.O. at present is Lord —— (and he is ill) he would see that I can do nothing. I have written letters to F.O. that would raise a corpse; it is no good. I have threatened to go to the French Government about the Soudan; it is no good. In fact, my dear Mrs. Burton, I have done for myself with this Government, and you may count me a feather, for I am worth no more. Will you send this on to your husband? He is a first-rate fellow, and I wish I had seen him long ago (scratch this out, for he will fear I am going to borrow money); and believe me, my dear Mrs. Burton (pardon me about Suez),
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 668–670)
[Gordon to Isabel Burton.]
Hôtel Taucan, Lausanne, 12.3.80 [12 March 1880]
Excuse my not answering your kind note of 5.3.80 before, but to be quiet I have come abroad, and did not have a decided address, so I only got your letter to-day. I will come and see you when I (D.V.) come home; but that is undecided. Of course your husband failed with Tewfik. I scent carrion a long way off, and felt that the hour of my departure had come, so I left quietly. Instead of A (Ismail), who was a good man, you have B (Tewfik), who may be good or bad, as events will allow him. B is the true son of A; but has the inexperience of youth, and may be smarter. The problem working out in the small brains of Tewfik is this: “My father lost his throne because he scented the creditors. The Government only cared for the creditors; they did not care for good government. So if I look after the creditors, I may govern the country as I like.” No doubt Tewfik is mistaken; but those are his views, backed up by a ring of pashas. Now look at his Ministry. Are they not aliens to Egypt? They are all slaves or of low origin. Put their price down:
Riaz Pasha, a dancing-boy of Abbas Pasha, value . . . 350 A slave, Osman, Minister of War, turned out by me . . . 350 Etc., etc., etc., each--five [*] 350 1,750 ------ 2,450
So that the value of the Ministry (which we think an enlightened one) is £490. What do they care for the country? Not a jot. We ought to sweep all this lot out, and the corresponding lot at Stamboul. It is hopeless and madness to think that with such material you can do anything. Good-bye. Kind regards to your husband.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 670–671)
Paris, 2.4.80 [2 April 1880]
My Dear Mrs. Burton,
Thanks for your telegram and your letter. Excuse half-sheet (economy). No, I will not write to Cairo, and your letters are all torn up. I am going to Brussels in a few days, and after a stay there I come over to England. I do not like or believe in Nubar. He is my horror; for he led the old ex-Khedive to his fall, though Nubar owed him everything. When Ismail became Khedive, Nubar had £3 a month; he now owns £1,000,000. Things will not and cannot go straight in Egypt, and I would say, “Let them glide.” Before long time elapses things will come to a crisis. The best way is to let all minor affairs rest, and to consider quietly how the ruin is to fall. It must fall ere long. United Bulgaria, Syria France, and Egypt England. France would then have as much interest in repelling Russia as we have. Supposing you got out Riaz, why, you would have Riaz’s brother; and if you got rid of the latter, you would have Riaz’s nephew. Le plus on change, le plus c’est la même chose. We may, by stimulants, keep the life in them; but as long as the body of the people are unaffected, so long will it be corruption in high places, varying in form, not in matter. Egypt is usurped by the family of the Sandjeh of Salonique, and (by our folly) we have added a ring of Circassian pashas. The whole lot should go; they are as much strangers as we would be. Before we began muddling we had only to deal with the Salonique family, now we have added the ring, who say, “We are Egypt.” We have made Cairo a second Stamboul. So much the better. Let these locusts fall together. As well expect any reform, any good sentiment, from these people as water from a stone; the extract you wish to get does not and cannot exist in them. Remember I do not say this of the Turkish peasantry or of the Egyptian-born poor families. It is written, Egypt shall be the prey of nations, and so she has been; she is the servant; in fact Egypt does not really exist. It is a nest of usurpers.
Right after the letter of 2 April 1880, Gordon returned to London and several times visited Isabel.
The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton (Vol. II, p. 177)
I remember on the 15th of April, 1880, he asked me if I knew the origin of the “Union Jack,” and he sat down on my hearth-rug before the fire, cross-legged, with a bit of paper and a pair of scissors, and he made me three or four Union Jacks, of which I pasted one into my journal of that day; and I never saw him again—that is thirteen years ago. The flag foundation was azure; on top of that comes St. George’s cross gules, then St. Andrew’s cross saltire blanc, St. Patrick’s cross saltire gules.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 671–672)
A day or two after the date of this last letter Gordon returned to London, and went several times to see Isabel, who was very ill in lodgings in Upper Montagu Street, and very anxious about her husband and the Midian Mines. Gordon’s prospects too were far from rosy at this time, so that they were companions in misfortune. They discussed Egypt and many things. Isabel writes [in The Life of Sir Richard Burton]: “I remember on April 15, 1880, he asked me if I knew the origin of the Union Jack, and he sat down on my hearth-rug before the fire, cross-legged, with a bit of paper and a pair of scissors, and he made me three of four Union Jacks, of which I pasted one in my journal of that day; and I never saw him again.” She also wrote, “I shall never forget how kind and sympathetic he was; but he always said, ‘As God has willed it, so it will be.’ That was the burden of his talk: “As God has willed it, so it will be.’”
… Gordon went to many places—India, China, the Cape—and played many parts during the next three years [1880–1883]; but he still continued to correspond with Isabel and her husband at intervals, though his correspondence referred mainly to private matters, and was of no public interest.
In late 1882, Burton was asked by the Foreign Office to go to the Sinai Peninsula to look for Edward Palmer.
The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton (Vol. II, p. 242)
Gordon was a devout Christian and spent some time in Palestine doing research. Burton’s health was weakening, he had gout, and he wasn’t travelling much from Trieste.
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 672–675)
[Gordon to Burton in Trieste.]
Jerusalem, June 3, 1883
My Dear Burton,
I have a favour to ask, which I will begin with, and then go on to other subjects. In 1878 (I think) I sent you a manuscript in Arabic, copy of the manuscript you discovered in Harar. I want you to lend it to me for a month or so, and will ask you sending it to register it. This is the favour I want from you. I have time and means to get it fairly translated, and I will do this for you. I will send you the translation and the original back; and if it is worth it, you will publish it. I hope you and Mrs. Burton are well. Sorry that £.s.d. keep you away from the East, for there is much to interest here in every way, and you would be useful to me as an encyclopædia of oriental lore; as it is, Greek is looked on by me as hieroglyphics.
Here is the result of my studies: The whole of the writers on Jerusalem, with few exceptions, fight for Zion on the Western Hill, and put the whole Jerusalem in tribe Benjamin! I have worked this out, and to me it is thus: The whole question turns on the position of En-shemesh, which is generally placed, for no reason I know of, at Ain Hand. I find Kubat el Sama, which corresponds to Bæthsamys of the Septuagint, at the north of Jerusalem, and I split Jerusalem by the Tyropœan Valley (alias the Gibeon of Eden, of which more another time).
Anyway one can scarcely cut Judah out of Jerusalem altogether; yet that is always done, except by a few. If the juncture is as I have drawn it, it brings Gibeon, Nob and Mizpah all down too close to Jerusalem on the Western Hills. This is part of my studies. Here is the Skull Hill north of the City (traced for map, ordinance of 1864), which I think is the Golgotha; for the victims were to be slain on north of altar, not west, as the Latin Holy Sepulchre. This hill is close to the old church of St. Stephen, and I believe that eventually near here will be found the Constantine churches.
I have been, and still am, much interested in these parts, and as it is cheap I shall stop here. I live at Ain Kari, five miles from Jerusalem. There are few there who care for antiquities. Schink, and old German, is the only one who is not a bigot. Have you ever written on Palestine? I wondered you never followed up your visit to Harar; that is a place of great interest. My idea is that the Pison is the Blue Nile, and that the sons of Joktan were at Harar, Abyssinia, Godjam; but it is not well supported.
The Rock of Harar was the platform Adam was moulded on out of clay from the Potter’s Field. He was then put in Seychelles (Eden), and after Fall brought back to Mount Moriah to till the ground in the place he was taken from. Noah built the Ark twelve miles from Jaffa, at Ain Judeh; the Flood began; the Ark floated up and rested on Mount Baris, afterwards Antonia; he sacrificed on the Rock (Adam was buried on the Skull Hill, hence the skull under the cross). It was only 776 A.D. that Mount Ararat of Armenia became the site of the Ark’s descent. Korán says Al Judi (Ararat) is holy land. After Flood the remnants went east to Plain of Shimar. Had they gone east from the Al Judi, neat Mosul, or from Armenian Ararat, they could never have reached Shimar. Shem was Melchizedek, etc.
With kind regards to Mrs. Burton and you, and the hope you will send me the manuscript,
P.S.—Did you ever get the £1,000 I offered you on part of ex-Khedive for the Mines of Midian?
In 1884 Gordon went back to the Sudan to deal with the Mahdi, a messianic leader of the Dervishes, Muslim fanatics. He ended up trapped in Khartoum, and spent months waiting for relief, with food and supplies dwindling to nothing and his people dying. He was killed when the city finally fell on 26 January 1885.
The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton (Vol. II, pp. 279–280)
But when Friday, the 13th , came, we heard of poor Gordon’s death, which had taken place Monday, January the 26th, and they had been keeping it from us. We both collapsed altogether, were ill all day, and profoundly melancholy. I remembered, too, that at the time that Gordon had been sent out, it was a toss up whether Richard or Gordon should go. Richard had just begun to break up (he was fifty-five), and I knew that if he was sent he would get up out of his sick bed to go, and think himself perfectly capable of undertaking the expedition; and I remember writing privately to the Foreign Office, to let them know how ill he was. Richard at that time expressed a hope that they would not send Gordon without five hundred soldiers to back him, and the neglect of this, whether from economy, or whether Gordon refused it, was the sole cause of the failure. Richard could talk of nothing else, and he fretted a great deal about it. In one of the illustrated papers there was a picture of Gordon lying deserted in the desert, his Bible in one hand, his revolver in the other, and the vultures sitting around. When Richard saw it he said with great emotion, “Take it away! I can’t bear to look at it. I have had to feel that myself; I know what it is.” But the more the news came in, the less he believed in Gordon’s death, and he died believing that Gordon (disgusted at the cruel treatment of being abandoned to his fate) had escaped by the missing boat, and would come out Congo-wards, but that he would never let himself be rediscovered, nor reappear in England—and Gordon was quite the man to do it.
I quote this prematurely, because it concerns the present subject:—
“IS GORDON DEAD?
“Trieste, April 29, 1887
“I have just received a note from the Rev. Mr. Robert W. Felkin, dated Edinburgh, April 2nd. Under the supposition that I am proceeding with an expedition to the Soudan in order to discover General Charles Gordon, he encloses me a note from a youth whom he educated in England for some years, and whom he has now placed at the American Mission School at Assiout. It dates from as far back as November 28, 1886.
“The following is an extract:—
“`There was a man came from Khartoum and said that he was one of General Gordon’s soldiers; he came into class (school) and the master asked him many questions, and he said that General Gordon had a steamboat and went down to South, and there was a Turkish soldier whose face was like his, and they killed him and said it was General Gordon.
“`He said a great many things about Gordon’s soldiers, that they were not able to use their guns because they were so weakened with hunger.
(Signed) “`Sulayman Kabsun.’
“I see with pleasure that Mr. Felkin never thought that the evidence proved Gordon’s death, and conceives many ways to explains his escape.
“Richard F. Burton.”
London Figaro, September 26th, 1887.
“I am not surprised,” says a correspondent, “to hear that Sir Richard Burton has from the first maintained that Gordon is not dead. He Gordon’s intimate friend, and, being of the same stamp, having lived the same kind of glorious life, and had to same experience of his country’s neglect, is more likely to know than other what Gordon, in disgust at the treatment he received from the Government, could and might do. Moreover, as Sir Richard Burton says, no two of the several accounts of Gordon’s death are alike. He is sure to have had a picked lot of attached followers, who, as well as one steamer, are missing.”
A correspondent wrote: “A friend called in the other day to see Sir Richard Burton, and remarked, ‘Why, Burton, if Gordon turns up, the Government will begin to believe in your knowledge. You will be a made man.’ Burton replied with his usual quiet ‘Ye—es,’ stroking his chin thoughtfully; ‘for God’s sake, my dear fellow, don’t say anything about it. The Foreign Office will only say what a damned beast I was to know it when they never even suspected it!’”
Sir Richard Francis Burton
On October 1st 1884, Burton wrote to thank Mr. Payne for a splendid and complete set (specially bound) of his edition of the Nights. He says, “I am delighted with it, especially with dedication.⁴¹⁷ … To my horror Quaritch sent me a loose of his last catalogue with a notice beginning, ‘The only true translation of the [Arabian Nights], &c.’ My wife to him and followed with a letter ordering it not to be printed. All in vain. I notice this only to let you know that the impertinence is wholly against my will. Life in Trieste is not propitious to work as in the Baths; yet I get on tolerably. Egypt is becoming a comedy.” Then follows the amazing remark: “I expect to see Gordon (who is doubtless hand in hand with the Mahdi) sent down to offer to guide Wolseley up to Khartum.”
⁴¹⁷ It is dedicated to Burton.
Burton little dreamt that the days of the heroic Englishman were numbered. Sent by the English Government to the Soudan, Gordon had been at Khartum hardly a month before it was invested by the Mahdi. The relief expedition arrived just two days too late. Gordon was slain! This was in January 1885. The shock to Burton was comparable only to that which he received by the death of Speke. In one of the illustrated papers there was a picture of Gordon lying in the desert with vultures hovering around. “Take it away!” said Burton. “I can’t bear to look at it. I have had to feel like that myself.”
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (pp. 675–676)
Some six months after the date of this letter [3 June 1883, above] Gordon left England for the Soudan, and later went to Kartoum, with what result all the world knows. Burton said, when the Government sent Gordon to Kartoum, they failed because they sent him alone. Had they sent him with five hundred soldiers there would have been no war. It was just possible at the time that Burton might have been sent instead of Gordon; and Isabel, dreading this, wrote privately to the Foreign Office, unknown to her husband, to let them know how ill he then was.
The Burtons were profoundly moved at the death of Gordon; they both felt it with a keen sense of personal loss. Isabel relates that in one of the illustrated papers there was a picture of Gordon lying in the desert, his Bible in one hand, his revolved in the other, and the vultures hovering around. Burton said, “Take it away! I can’t bear to look at it. I have had to feel that myself; I know what it is.” But upon reflection Burton grew to disbelieve in Gordon’s death, and he died believing that he had escaped into the desert, but disgusted at his betrayal and abandonment he would never let himself be discovered or show himself in England again. In this conviction Burton was of course mistaken; but he had formed it on his knowledge of Gordon’s character.
A Rage to Live (p. 683)
“We are feeling perfectly miserable about the war publicly and privately,” Isabel told Albert Tootal before the news of the tragedy broke. “Gordon is a great friend of ours.”
The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton (p. 644)
When the morning dawned, they heard of the death of one of their greatest friends, General Gordon, which had taken place on January 26 at Kartoum; but the news had been kept from them. At this sad event Isabel writes, “We both collapsed together, were ill all day, and profoundly melancholy.’
The Devil Drives (pp. 284–285)
Burton was incredulous at the news of Gordon’s death, and refused for a long time to believe it, insisting that he had escaped. Later, when Gordon’s journals were published, he wrote a perceptive review, praising the general’s truthfulness, integrity and phenomenal unselfishness, but also pointing out what he called the “hallucinations … to which all African travellers after a time become subject” [Academy, July 11, 1885, p. 19]. Since Gordon knew no Arabic, Burton was inclined to believe that he could have managed better in his place. “Arabic is my native tongue,” he said to Frank Harris, “I know it as well as I know English. I know the Arab nature. The Mahdi business could have been settled without striking a blow. If Gordon had known Arabic well, he would have won the Mahdi to friendship” [Frank Harris, Contemporary Portraits].
Burton in The Academy, 11 July 1885
I have lately been asked, Are you sure of his death? and I answer, No. All accounts of his being killed are so discrepant, so louche, that I should not be surprised to hear of him somewhere in the direction of the Congo slowly making his way south. Of course, every week without intelligence dims out hopes; but I cannot yet persuade myself to despair of shaking hands once more with Chinese Gordon, and of congratulating upon another quasi-miraculous escape the man I have ever looked upon as the Soul of Honour.
The British public (and Queen Victoria) was appalled that Gordon hadn’t been rescued—a relief mission that could have been sent out months earlier arrived two days late—and Gladstone’s government fell. In 1898 the British Army returned (Winston Churchill was there and wrote The River War about it) and reconquered the Sudan.
Richard Francis Burton died on 20 October 1890, aged 69; Isabel Burton died 22 March 1896, two days after her 65th birthday.