Richard Burton, Shakespeare, and the search for the source of the Nile

Shakespeare in SwahililandOn their travels into the interior of the African continent, European explorers like Richard Burton brought Shakespeare with them.

This excerpt from Shakespeare in Swahililand, by Edward Wilson-Lee, relates the story of the search for the source of the Nile, during which the expedition leaders, Burton and John Hanning Speke, “read Shakespeare intensively and repeatedly”.


“The expedition which finally succeeded in locating the source of the Nile left the coast of modern-day Tanzania in 1857 and was led by Captain Richard Francis Burton. Burton was not yet forty, but he was already the Victorian traveller par excellence; most notably, he had undertaken the pilgrimage to Mecca – the Hajj – with a shaven head and in disguise, and his account of the feat had made him celebrated for both his daring and his phenomenal linguistic skills. In later life Burton would lead further expeditions throughout Africa and the Americas, while also finding time to translate the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra as well as writing learned treatises on Etruscan history, medieval literature and fencing. Even a bibliophile like Burton, however, could not afford to take much reading with him when heading into the African interior. The tsetse fly reliably killed off horses and pack-mules before they were a hundred miles inland, and the brigades of native porters also dwindled with terrifying speed as the journeys progressed. Some of them deserted early on while the coast was still in reach, undeterred by the loss of pay and the threat of execution by the expedition leader as he (often hysterical with fever and fear) struggled desperately to hold on to the remainder of his men. The rest of the native contingent was decimated by disease, starvation and punitive raids from the tribes whose land they were crossing. Available porterage was reserved, then, for ammunition, medicine and materials for trade with the locals, primarily American calico (called merikani) and copper wire, which was sold en route to tribes who wore it decoratively.

Burton did, however, find a little space for one or two volumes:

The few books – Shakespeare, Euclid – which composed my scanty library, we read together again and again …

The volume of Shakespeare Burton took with him is lost, most likely destroyed in a warehouse fire which burned many of his possessions in 1861. (His edition of the Sonnets, which does survive in the Huntington Library in California, amusingly contains pencil corrections to Shakespeare’s lines where Burton felt he could do better.) But the extensive quotation from the works in the expeditionary account he published on his return suggests how intimately he knew them and how constantly he read them on that expedition. The Lake Regions of Central Africa was, like most of these narratives, written at great speed on the steamer voyage home in order to avoid being beaten to the punch by competing accounts from fellow expedition members, and Burton seems to have followed his (also lost) expedition diary closely in writing it, taking the Shakespeare-heavy description of the interior direct from the diary pages where he reflected on each day’s events and reading.

The competing account of the expedition, in this instance, was to come from the other European who accompanied him, John Hanning Speke, with whom Burton read Shakespeare intensively and repeatedly as the pair crossed the savannah scrubland. Their pages were undoubtedly marked, as mine were as I read my own Complete Works travelling through East Africa in their tracks, by sweat from the daytime and at night by winged insects drawn to the lamplight and trapped between the pages as they turned. There would have been periods, especially when their travel on foot was impeded by heavy rains which turned the dry land to bog, when reading would have been a welcome distraction from the frustrations of enforced indolence. It was important for expedition leaders to be close – they were, after all, heavily dependent on one another during long periods of malarial delirium – and their reading of Shakespeare seems to have been a central part of this: they read (as Burton says) ‘together’, and the way Burton quotes odd lines suggests this meant reading plays side by side and not simply passing the book back and forth to declaim famous speeches.

As the mention of Shakespeare alongside Euclid’s geometrical treatise (the Elements) suggests, however, Burton had no room for books which were not useful as well as beautiful, and Shakespeare’s lines are repeatedly called into service in The Lake Regions to provide English equivalents to local phrases and customs. In one instance, a Kinyamwezi saying (‘He sits in hut hatching egg’) is ‘their proverbial phrase to express one more eloquent – “Home keeping youths have ever homely wits”’. The line is taken from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a not entirely successful comedy about friendship and betrayal that is thought to be one of Shakespeare’s earliest works. The frequency with which this play crops up in Burton’s Lake Regions is rather surprising, given how minor a work it is usually thought to be. This might be explained in part by the fact that it was printed as the second play after The Tempest in Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623 and in almost every edition after that until the twentieth century; one is tempted to think that the Two Gentlemen was the beneficiary of many determined attempts to read the Worksfrom cover to cover that foundered in the early pages.

Shakespeare’s story of the noble Valentine betrayed by his treacherous friend Proteus seems, however, to have struck a deeper chord after the friendship turned sour, in large part because Speke had the unforgivable good fortune to discover the major source of the Nile – which he named Lake Victoria Nyanza – on a side expedition of his own. Burton may well in that moment have recalled Valentine’s raw words at the betrayal of Proteus:

I must never trust thee more,
But count the world a stranger for thy sake!
The private wound is deepest. […]
(V.iv.70–72)

In the first volley of a spat that was to continue for many years, Burton attempted in the Lake Regions to discredit Speke by rather ungenerously arguing that his discovery had been down to luck and not skill. In this he compares him not to The Two Gentlemen of Verona’s treacherous fair-weather friend Proteus, but (even more gallingly) to a maidservant in the play:

The fortunate discoverer’s conviction was strong; his reasons were weak – were of the category alluded to by the damsel Lucetta, when justifying her penchant in favour of the ‘lovely gentleman’ Sir Proteus:

I have no other but a woman’s reason.
I think him so because I think him so.

The pettiness of Burton’s sentiment might almost distract us from the exquisite strangeness of the whole situation: that a man ravaged by physical hardship and fever, surrounded by danger in an inhospitable land, racked by wounded pride and doubtless the feeling that he was both betraying his friend and being betrayed by him, should reach angrily for lines written for Elizabethan Londoners several hundred years earlier.”


Excerpted from SHAKESPEARE IN SWAHILILAND: In Search of a Global Poet by Edward Wilson-Lee. Published in September 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Edward Wilson-Lee. All rights reserved.

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