A Gallop (Or Two) Through Asia Minor

On Horseback through Asia Minor Volume 1 by Fred BurnabyThe tradition of the lone European setting off on horseback to explore unknown and uncivilised territory is a familiar one: consider ‘Galloping’ Francis Bond Head’s Rough Notes Taken during some Rapid Journeys across the Pampas and among the Andes (published in 1826), of which Darwin wrote from the Beagle: ‘Do you know Head’s book? it gives an excellent account of the manners of this country.’ Or Alexander von Humboldt, with his own South American and Central Asian travels, researching everything from botany to the native peoples. Or indeed Darwin himself, meeting gauchos on the pampas and riding through the Andes.

By coincidence, we are about to publish two accounts of horseback travel in the Ottoman empire in the 1870s, undertaken by two English travellers with rather different motives. Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1842–85) is immortalised by the artist James Tissot in a portrait of 1870 – the cavalry officer at ease in a rather chintzy boudoir, his shiny body armour and helmet propped around, cigarette in one languid hand, pile of books on the sofa beside him, map of the world on the wall, and the moustache, waxed and pointed beyond the wildest dreams of Hercule Poirot. In fact, according to the ODNB, Fred (as he was universally known) was a bit of a slob: ‘Perhaps there is no man in the Service who off parade looks less like a British cavalry officer.’

Fred was the son of a parson, but of a good, old-fashioned Tory hunting parson who was also chaplain to the duke of Cambridge (no, not THAT one obviously, but Adolphus, one of George III’s many sons). The family was wealthy, and when he passed the army ‘entrance exam’ at the age of sixteen, a post as cornet in the Royal Horse Guards was purchased for him at the cost of £1,200. (His subsequent promotions to lieutenant and captain were also by purchase.) Very tall, and very strong, he excelled on all the ‘manly arts’, but clearly also had an aptitude for languages – as well as all the ‘usual’ European languages, he could also speak Russian, and some Turkish and Arabic.

There was plentiful leave for cavalry officers, and Fred took full advantage of it to travel: he sent reports back to periodicals and to The Times (though his journalistic dabblings were not approved of by the army high command). In 1875, he decided to travel to Khiva in Central Asia, largely, as he recounts in the introduction to his book, because while sitting around in Khartoum, he lit upon a British newspaper article to the effect that the Russian government had given an order that no foreigner was to be allowed to travel in Russian Asia. Having ‘what my old nurse used to call a most “contradictorious” spirit’, he determined to go, motivated both by ordinary curiosity, and by a sense that if the Russians were keeping foreigners out of this recently conquered backwater, it must be because they had something to hide – possibly the beginnings of a build-up to the invasion of India?

Fred’s account of his journey, A Ride to Khiva is great fun: he had to go at the worst possible time of year for the journey, because his leave extended only (!) from 1 December to 14 April, so once past the end of the railway line (at Sizeran (now Syzran), of which the splendid-looking white-and-turquoise railway station was built in 1874), he had to resort to sleighs, with consequent delays and comic interludes with irascible or incompetent drivers (all referred to as Jehu, in a biblical reference (2 Kings 9) more familiar perhaps to his contemporary readers than to us). But the dangers of such travel were severe: Fred is frequently lost in the snow, and there is a revolting description of incipient frostbite and its cure. Things look up when he reaches Orenburg, the fortress town which had formerly marked the border of the Russian empire, and acquires a Tartar guide called Nazar, who makes up in zeal what he lacks in height: they subsequently get to Khiva, and back to European Russia again, though not without many adventures, narrated with great verve.

The publication of A Ride to Khiva in 1876 made Fred famous: he dined with Queen Victoria at Windsor, and the book was frequently reprinted, and translated. By the time his next winter leave was due, he had decided to journey through the Ottoman empire, to see for himself the truth (or otherwise) of reports of Turkish atrocities against their subject peoples, from the Bulgarians to the Armenians, and to assess the likelihood of Turkey being able to prevail in the war with Russia which was widely regarded as inevitable (and did indeed break out in April 1877, a few weeks after Fred had returned from his 2,000-mile journey). His two-volume account, On Horseback Through Asia Minor, published later that year, and filled with the same kind of intriguing detail as A Ride to Khiva, comes down firmly on the side of the Turks: though fully aware of the profound failings of the Ottoman government, his distrust of Russian expansionism makes him believe that the western European powers should side with Turkey to bar Russian access both to the Mediterranean and to India, and he matches accounts of Turkish atrocities with others committed by the Russians.

Burnaby’s view was a popular one in Britain at the time, which in fact gave us the word ‘jingoism’, from a contemporary music-hall song:

‘We don’t want to fight, but, by Jingo, if we do,

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.

We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true,

The Russians shall not have Constantinople!

He was determined to see the fighting, and joined a friend who was a general in the Turkish army, enduring great hardship – including arsenic poisoning at the hands of a Bulgarian fanatic – during a fruitless winter campaign in the Balkans. Back in England in 1879, he married an Irish heiress; a pioneer balloonist, he crossed the Channel in the Eclipse in 1882, and wrote prescient articles about the possibilities of aerial warfare. He disapproved of the British government’s motives for war in Egypt, but wanted to serve in the campaign, and travelled privately to join Sir Garnet Wolseley in the Gordon Relief Expedition. He was killed in a skirmish with the Madhists on 17 January 1885: according to his wife, ‘he died as he would have wished, facing the foe’.

The other author was a rather different character: not much is known about Henry C. Barkley except that he published several books: about the Balkans and Asia Minor; about his own childhood; and about rat-catching, in a manual which he wrote for the benefit of public schoolboys. He was born in 1825 or thereabouts, and died in 1895 or thereabouts. In between, he was a civil engineer: he and his elder brother John Trevor Barkley were  ‘Barkley Brothers and Co.’, who (backed by British finance) planned and built a railway linking the Danube to the Black Sea port of Constanta (now in Romania), which opened in 1860.

Barkley’s A Ride Through Asia Minor and Armenia was published in 1891, but it is an account of a journey he undertook with his brother (known as G– in the narrative) in 1878, just after the Congress of Berlin, which reshaped eastern Europe after the Russo-Turkish War: one of his motives was to see the conflict’s consequences for the Ottoman empire, in which he had travelled extensively some years before. Their route took them from Bucharest to Istanbul, across Asia Minor to Armenia, and back to Trebizond, where they caught a steamer for home, having covered 1400 miles in 96 days.

He writes with less gusto and with less striving for comic effect than Burnaby, but his account is no less interesting. His engineering background can perhaps be seen in the greater attention he pays to his physical surroundings: he comments on the dilapidated state of buildings and roads, and the desperate need to improve irrigation in order to feed the starving population, as well as Turkey’s complete backwardness in terms of mechanical or industrial development. This he attributes largely to the incompetence and maladministration of the Ottoman government: but like Annie Brassey, he is also struck by the deterioration in all aspects of life since the war.

What Burnaby and Barkley have in common is a conviction that the decline of the Ottoman empire was both irreversible and gathering pace – with consequences which would be felt a long way beyond Asia Minor. The truism that Turkey was ‘the sick man of Europe’ is generally attributed to Tsar Nicholas I in 1853: that it became a commonplace in Britain in the years leading up to the First World War must have been due at least in part to accounts such as these.


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