Captain Burton's Greatest Adventure

Richard Francis Burton
In a life full of great adventures, Richard Francis Burton’s greatest feat was recorded in the Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah which describes his 1853 pilgrimage to Islamic shrines in Arabia. I recently read the sections of the first volume dealing with Egypt, since Burton’s meeting with Albert Rawson and Helena Blavatsky in that country foreshadow their Theosophical collaboration a quarter century later. Synchronistically, Christopher Gibson’s lead article in the current Quarterly emphasizes an adventurous spirit, and I have been thinking of Burton as in some ways the greatest exemplar of that type. In the preface to the Third Edition, he wrote of his disguise as a Sufi: “why rage so furiously against `the disguise of a wandering Darwaysh?’…Is the Darwaysh anything but an Oriental Freemason, and are Freemasons less Christians because they pray with Moslems and profess their belief in simple unitarianism?”(p. xxiii) Burton’s disguise also included the aspect of “Indian doctor” and his narrative includes many examples in which he was called upon for medical care. He explained in the first chapter of tne Narrative that even though still young, he had prepared himself for this alter ego:

But the reader must not be led to suppose that I acted “Carabin” or “Sangrado” without any knowledge of my trade. From youth I have always been a dabbler in medical and mystical study. Moreover, the practice of physic is comparatively easy amongst dwellers in warm latitudes…I therefore considered myself as well qualified for the work as if I had taken out a buono per l’estero diploma at Padua, and not more likely to do active harm than most of the regularly graduated young surgeons….A reverend man, whose name I do not care to quote, some time ago initiated me into his order, the Kadriyah, under the high-sounding name of Bismillah-Shah, and after a due period of probation, he graciously elevated me to the proud position of a Murshid, or Master in the mystic craft. I was therefore sufficiently well acquainted with the tenets and practices of these Oriental Freemasons.(pp. 13-14)

“Oriental Freemasonry” becomes a template adopted by Theosophy as well as the Shriners, significant in light of Albert Rawson’s acquaintance with both Burton and Blavatsky and his later influence on the Shrine rituals.