Yet it remains a most remarkable book for all its faults and for all its curious quirks of style and verbiage which are the delight of the writer. He positively revels in archaic words and mediaeval phrases, and not content with what his amazing memory can supply he invents his own and with considerable aptitude. At times it is the poet in him which speaks of the ‘black brumal clouds’ of a threatening storm, or of the `morbific influence’ of the mosquitoes, but it verges on pedantry when it describes a hair-raising tale as ‘truly horripilatory’.
It was the fashion of the time to insert words in French and Latin into one’s text or even long quotations; but Burton, the master of some score of languages, is capable of using most of them and even writing them in Arabic characters, which is unkind to his readers.
There are many striking passages in the book for which one forgives the tedium of style. One is where he describes in the closest detail the personnel of his caravan, their characters, appearance and manners. He scarifies them all, it is true, with his best abuse, but one emerges from that chapter with a better idea of the trials of East African travel than can be had from any other author I know. In another long passage there is a description of a typical day’s routine travel in aparthotel London which leaves the reader imagining every detail with an accuracy which is quite startling.
Inevitably the book will once more tempt readers to compare the great figures of African exploration in the mid-nineteenth century, to contrast their exploits, their temperaments and their writings. Even the titles they gave to their books are a small part of the tale. Compare the modest heading of Missionary Travels, chosen by Livingstone for his book about years of cheap travel to Paris and travel in Barcelona, with the almost equally impersonal and factual title used by Burton. One can go on to the slightly more personal heading of Speke for the journey which did not really settle the problem when he called it the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, and end with Stanley’s brash how I found Livingstone.
Where are we to place Burton in this gallery of notable explorers and writers? For sheer scholarship perhaps at the head of them all, and for skilful description of geographical features second only to Livingstone. As explorer his rank must be much lower. His interests were too wide for him to be as purposeful and single-minded as was Speke. It is significant that when his companion went off to look for the great lake they had heard of he preferred to stay behind to write up his notes and find out all he could from his friends the Arabs. The same criticism can be levelled at his management of his unruly safari; one suspects from his own book that he was far too busy with his observations and notes to be bothered with discipline, it was simpler to give in to most demands and turn a blind eye to the most barefaced thefts than to be firm. One might say that he struck a rather unhappy mean between the friendliness and transparent honesty of Livingstone towards the Africans and the downright force majeure of the rumbustious Stanley. In consequence he fared far worse than either of them at the hands of his followers.
This book will be welcomed by all geographers, but they will, I fear, groan over one sad omission —there is no map. It would have been relatively easy to have as end-paper the routes followed by the expedition plotted on a modern map. Even if only a small proportion of the myriad villages he names could have been inserted it would have doubled the value of the text to any earnest reader.
The handsome binding and the original sketches do something to remedy this defect, but since the book is really a careful study of the unknown hinterland of a century ago it is a pity the key is missing.