"I have, unfortunately for my own interests, from my earlier childhood had what my old nurse used to call a most ‘contradictorious’ spirit” - Fred Burnaby
|Caricature of Col Fred, 1876|
In the Victorian age of larger-than-life heroes, the wildly eccentric colonel towered above the lot of them. He stood 6ft 4ins tall, weighed 15 stone, boasted a 47-inch chest - and had balls to match his enormous frame.
The son of a clergyman, Fred joined the army in 1859 – aged 17 – and quickly became recognised as the strongest man in its ranks. A first-rate boxer, swordsman, rider and runner, his party tricks included vaulting over billiard tables and twisting pokers into knots with his bare hands. He once carried two ponies downstairs at Windsor Castle for a prank, picking one up under each arm like they were cats.
You didn’t want to mess with Fred Burnaby, that was true. But he was more than just a meathead of mountainous proportions. Far more.
Fred was bright, friendly and jovial, always smiling by every account. He could speak seven languages, including Russian and Turkish. He was an insatiable traveller who wrote rip-roaring bestsellers about his adventures. And he was into hot-air ballooning – not exactly a normal hobby for a Victorian cavalry officer.
In 1882, our man packed some roast-beef sandwiches, climbed into his wicker basket at Dover gas works and flew off alone in the direction of the Channel. He landed in a field in Normandy later that day, terrifying some local chickens, and becoming the first person to make a hot-air balloon trip from England to France.
Fred was also into politics. An old-school Tory, he stood for Parliament in 1880 – pitching himself against Joseph Chamberlain in the latter’s Birmingham stronghold.
Chamberlain was one of the bigwigs of the day; Fred never really had a hope. But courage is when you know you’re beaten before you start and you throw yourself into it anyway. Fred was nothing if not courageous – courageous to the point of lunacy most of the time. He lost of course. But by God he gave Chamberlain a run for his money and no one who followed the campaigning in Birmingham that year ever forget Fred Burnaby.
At one meeting in Wolverhampton, for instance, Fred had his stewards bring two persistent hecklers up to the front. He went to the edge of the stage, leaned over and picked them both up by their collars, one in each hand. He then lifted them high for all to see and carried them at arm’s length to the back of the platform where he plonked them in two chairs.
“Sit there, little man. And you, little man, sit there,” he told them in his booming cavalry voice. The crowd was impressed. The heckling stopped. No one was left in any doubt that Colonel Burnaby was not an easy man to intimidate.
By this stage in his short life, Fred was already something of a popular hero in Britain, famous for a bizarre 1,000-mile journey he’d made into Central Asia several years earlier, accompanied by a dwarf. The mad trip was seen as a kind of one-man victory over the mighty Russian empire, which had tried to block his progress. And here’s how he did it.
Fred was attached to the Royal Horse Guards, the Blues, an elite regiment whose officers lived the life of riley and got no less than five months leave a year. Tempting though it must have been for Fred to spend that time carousing, leaping over pool tables and lugging ponies up and down the stairs, he had bigger ideas. Instead, he used those long holidays to travel the world and write about his adventures.
First he went to Moscow, in winter. Next he set off for war-torn Spain. Then it was Sudan, where on a roasting February day he found himself flicking through an old English newspaper in a Khartoum café, absently chatting to some mates about where they all fancied going next time their leave came around.
“At that moment my eye fell upon a paragraph in the paper,” Fred wrote later. “It was to the effect that the [Russian] government at St Petersburg had given an order that no foreigner was to be allowed to travel in Russian Asia, and that an Englishman who had recently attempted a journey in that direction had been turned back…”
As a stout-hearted patriot, Fred wasn’t at all keen on Russians at the best of times. For years the Tsarist empire had been expanding rapidly south, swallowing up vast areas of central Asia – today’s “Stan” lands: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. India lies just below the “Stans”, and Britain was getting twitchy. Was the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown next on Russia’s hit-list?
Now those pesky Russians were trying to ban Englishmen from travelling in the region, too. Englishmen! You can imagine what Burnaby of the Blues thought of that. You can see him working himself up into a Basil Fawlty-style fit. How dare they! What was that rotten Tsar up to? More importantly, who was going to stop him?
Before he’d finished his coffee, Fred’s mind was made up. He would ignore the ban, travel to the heart of central Asia (somehow), and find out for himself exactly what was going on there. He saw it as his personal duty to open Britain’s eyes to the menace of the Russian bear. And, you never know, he might get a bestseller out of it too.
Fred’s friends in the café told him he’d never make it, that he might as well try for the moon. But he returned home to England determined and began making plans for the greatest adventure of his life
By the time he left London’s Victoria Station on 30 November, 1875, he had a bold plan. He’d simply go straight to St Petersburg, travel south-east to frontier city of Orenburg, and from there strike out over the steppes and deserts of Russian-controlled Central Asia. His goal was the mysterious caravan city of Khiva, closed to all travellers since the Tsar’s army seized it two years earlier.
It wasn’t going to be easy of course. Apart from the possibility of being arrested, Fred’s army leave inconveniently fell during winter – so it would be blizzards, snowdrifts and killer temperatures every step of the way. If the Russians didn’t get him, frostbite or exposure probably would.
He wasn’t exactly guaranteed a warm welcome if he made it to Khiva either. The Khivans were a fierce and independent lot who had been fighting Russian invaders for centuries, slaughtering the men and enslaving the women in harems. Their leader, the Khan of Khiva, had a reputation for cruelty. He will “very likely order his executioner to gouge out your eyes”, a friendly Russian warned Fred. Not that that put him off of course.
Fred’s account of his wild journey – “A Ride to Khiva” – turned him into a celebrity. The novelist Henry James enjoyed the book, calling its author a “jovial and enterprising officer”. It sold out. Queen Victoria invited Fred to dinner on the strength of it. Even today it’s a smashing, swashbuckling read.
Wrapped up like the Michelin man in a smelly sheepskin suit, his military moustache frozen stiff on his face, Fred writes with boyish enthusiasm of how he pressed on through the frozen wastelands of Central Asia in the face of the most savage winter in living memory.
He hires a “faithful little Tartar” servant, Nazar, who stands less than five foot tall and sticks with Fred through thick and thin. Later, the Little and Large pair are joined by a third man, a local guide who wears an enormous black sheepskin hat, a bright yellow “dressing gown”, exotic boots with upturned toes, and a scimitar tucked into his belt.
At one remote settlement, the unlikely trio find all the horses have either died or are starving to death. This one-horse town is rapidly becoming a no-horse town. So they hire three gigantic, shaggy camels instead, harnessing the unruly beasts to their tiny sleigh and pushing on through the snowdrifts in bizarre fashion.
On another occasion, the motley team run into six armed Khivans who insult the exotically attired guide, abusing him for working for “dogs and unbelievers” from abroad (ie Fred). The guide lashes out with his whip; a Khivan hits back with a camel-stick. Knives are drawn; Fred pulls out his pistol.
Then something odd happens. The guide “blew his nose with his fingers as a sign of contempt for his adversary, and squatted on his haunches on the ground,” reports the bemused Englishman. “His foe, not to be outdone, performed the same feat with his nasal organ, and sat down opposite him. Then they began a verbal battle, in which the reputations of their respective female relatives were much aspersed.”
On one typically freezing day Fred forgets to put on his gloves and then falls asleep on the sleigh. Forty below and he forgets to put on his gloves - quite a feat in itself when you think about it. It was a mistake that almost cost him his hands.
“In a few minutes I awoke;” he writes, “a feeling of intense pain had seized my extremities. It seemed as if they had been plunged in some corrosive acid which was gradually eating the flesh from the bones.” He was frostbitten. And it was only thanks to the efforts of some rough and ready Cossacks, who rubbed a spirit on his limbs and plunged them into icy water, that circulation was restored and his fingers saved.
Yet despite these hardships, Fred’s pluck and bravery wins the day. He avoids the Russian soldiers and passport officials who would turn him back. And after two months of hard travelling he rocks up outside the ancient city walls of Khiva. First things first, he needs a shave. It simply won’t do for an English gentleman to be seen walking round town like a homeless. So he goes off to find a barber’s, attracting a crowd of three to four hundred fascinated onlookers in the process.
Staring through the window of the barber’s shop, the throng is further amazed when Fred asks for his beard to be removed - it’s heads, not chins, that are traditionally kept clean-shaven in these parts (men’s scalps, our man notes, are “as devoid of hair as a block of marble”). Everyone is then heartily amused when the nervous and bewildered barber accidentally takes a divot out of the Englishman’s face with his blunt razor.
With characteristic optimism, Fred had already sent a messenger ahead to request an audience with the mighty Khan of Khiva, old eye-gouger himself, enslaver of Russian woman, enemy of the Tsar. To his surprise, this is granted. So, after the spruce-up, Fred finds himself being led into the ruler’s palace under the gaze of 40 guards in long silk robes and a curious group of “good-looking boys of an effeminate appearance, with long hair streaming down their shoulders”.
A curtain is pulled back and Fred is face to face with a powerfully built guy in his late twenties, with irregular teeth and a coal-black beard and moustache: the Khan. The main man is seated on a handsome Persian carpet, propped up by cushions. He raises his hand to his forehead in greeting; Fred touches his cap.
And what does our dashing adventurer make of this most feared of Asian rulers? Well, he rather likes him. “[The Khan] had a pleasant, genial smile, and a merry twinkle in his eye…” writes Fred. “I must say I was greatly surprised… to find him such a cheery sort of fellow.”
Fred had gone to Khiva without the permission of his army superiors – there was no point even asking for it, refusal being a certainty. So when word reached Britain via telegraph of Burnaby’s daring one-man bid to upset the Russians, not to mention his jolly chat with the Khan of Khiva, he was immediately ordered home by his commander-in-chief, the Duke of Cambridge.
The intrepid cavalry man dutifully returned to his regiment and got cracking writing his book. But the following year, when leave came round once more, he was off again on another strictly unofficial do-or-die mission.
This time Fred rode 1,000 miles from Constantinople into eastern Turkey, a wild and unstable region where the Tsar and the Sultan shared a frontier. War between the two powers was imminent. Fred wanted to see for himself what the Russians were up to there and whether the Turks could hold their own if fighting started.
Again he travelled through a savage winter. Again Russian agents tried to stop him. Again he had a bestseller on his hands when he returned – “On Horseback Through Asia Minor” – not to mention an even greater reputation for extravagant heroics.
Fred’s hot-air balloon trip across the Channel came next and only served to raise his stock further. His superiors weren’t impressed of course – once again he’d left the country without permission. But Fred just couldn’t help himself. Despite his loyalty, he had an unruly streak that no amount of army discipline could contain.
“I have, unfortunately for my own interests, from my earlier childhood had what my old nurse used to call a most “contradictorious” spirit,” he writes in “A Ride to Khiva”. It was this “contradictorious” streak – this fierce independence - that led him to an early grave in the vast, hot, emptiness of Sudan.
One of the most extraordinary men Sudan has ever seen was on the rise at the time. Muhammad Ahmad had gathered around him an army of desert tribesmen and called out for holy war. He was a nineteenth-century Osama bin Laden. He wanted to drive the Egyptians and British out of his country and convert the world to Islam. They called him the Mahdi, “the expected one”. And he wasn’t a man to argue with.
The Mahdi’s followers were a fanatical and ferocious lot. They had God on their side and a terrifyingly impressive record of massacring their enemies. In 1883, a 10,000-strong Egyptian force led by a British officer, William Hicks, was sent against them. It was completely destroyed; just a few hundred men returned alive. Hicks’s head was cut off and taken to the Mahdi.
The following year, Fred – yet again travelling without permission - was among more than 4,000 British troops who had another crack at the rebels at the second battle of El Teb. It was a brutal clash fought at close quarters. And the mighty figure of Fred Burnaby was in the thick of it, doing dire work with a characteristically unorthodox weapon: a double-barrelled shotgun.
Fred used the butt as well both barrels to fearsome effect – a tactic that got his liberal opponents in a lather (killing Arabs with a shotgun: not the done thing at all, old chap). But this time the British won. Fred was mentioned in despatches. He returned home a hero, to most.
The Mahdi army wasn’t finished though. Far from it. Now General Gordon found himself besieged at Khartoum - and, after much dithering, the British government sent a relief expedition under General Wolseley to save him (too late, as things turned out).
Fred, naturally, wanted a piece of the action and Wolseley was happy to have him on board. But bad-boy Burnaby had by now upset so many people at the top his request to go back to the Sudan was turned down.
Who needs permission when you’re Fred Burnaby though? So, true to form, he simply waited for his leave to come around again. Then off he sailed, arriving in Africa against orders and catching up with the British force as it advanced towards Khartoum.
Welcomed by Wolseley, Fred immediately pushed up to the front. When a vanguard of 1,500 British troops ran into about 12,000 Sudanese a few weeks later, he was with them. And it was here, at a dusty desert watering hole called Abu Klea, that his luck finally ran out.
The rebels charged, unexpectedly and ferociously. The British formed into their usual fighting square and fired off a volley. But it failed to check the onslaught and the Mahdists kept coming at them.
The evening before Fred had told the Daily Telegraph’s war correspondent, a Mr Burleigh, he’d left his shotgun behind because of the fuss it’d created when he last used it in battle. Fuss or no fuss, it would have come in handy now.
The Sudanese smashed into the British, piercing their lines in a wild attack. A bloody free-for-all of hacking, slashing and shooting ensued. Burleigh reports seeing Fred riding out, sword in hand, to help a handful of comrades caught stranded outside the square by the sudden charge.
A Mahdi rebel lunged at him with an 8ft spear, but he saw it coming. “Burnaby fenced smartly… and there was a smile on his features as he drove off the man’s awkward points,” writes the Telegraph reporter.
As the struggle continued, a second spearman came up behind Fred and jabbed him in the shoulder. It wasn’t a serious wound but it made him glance back, just for a second. And in that brief moment, the first guy seized his chance and ran his javelin into Fred’s throat.
The force pushed the huge soldier out of his saddle and dumped him on the ground. Burleigh saw what happened next: “Half a dozen Arabs were now about him. With the blood gushing in streams from his gashed throat, the dauntless Guardsman leapt to his feet, sword in hand, and slashed at the ferocious group. They were the wild strokes of a proud, brave man dying hard and he was quickly overborne, and left helpless and dying.”
Dying, but not yet dead. The Mahdi army’s attack ended as swiftly as it started and Fred was still clinging to life when another officer, Lord Binning, found him lying on the ground, his head in the lap of a young private. The lad was crying. “Oh sir,” he said to Binning, “here is the bravest man in England, dying and no one to help him.”
Fred tried to speak but couldn’t. By now, he had a bullet wound in the forehead as well as the hole in his throat. Part of his head had also been cut away. Despite all this, the story goes that Fred died with his familiar smile on his face. Not sure if I believe it, mind. But I want to.
You can see a painting of Colonel Frederick Burnaby in the National Portrait Gallery in London. He’s not smiling in that. But he is looking relaxed and splendid in his cavalry uniform – cocksure even - his long legs stretched out in front of him, a map of Asia and east Africa on the wall behind, a pile of books at his side.
He’s holding a cigarette aloft in his left hand in a rather grand fashion. His gleaming helmet and breastplate are at his feet. That mighty moustache, once frozen solid on the steppes of central Asia, has been waxed at the tips.
There’s enough room on the settee beside Fred to sit down for a chat, perhaps about those dastardly Russians, his faithful Tartar friend Nazar, or the joys of hot-air ballooning. “Sit there, little man,” he looks like he could be saying to us, “and you, little man, sit there.”
* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post on this blog, but have started a new one called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow me on Twitter @historynuts or at facebook.com/historynuts. Thanks again!
Burnaby, Frederick Gustavus, A Ride to Khiva introduced by David Williams (London, 1972)
Burnaby, Frederick Gustavus, A Ride Across the Channel, and other adventures in the air (London, 1882)
Ware, J Redding & R K Mann, The Life and Times of Col Fred Burnaby (London, 1885)
Mann, R K, The Life, Adventures and Political Opinions of F G Burnaby (London, 1882)
Duff, Louis Blake, Burnaby (Welland, 1926)
Ferguson, Niall, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003)