Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, 1842-1885; “Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Just look at him! Was there ever such a portrait of easeful upper class twittery?  The vague smile, the languid self drapery, the unfocussed eyes, the half-forgotten cigarette, the mirror polished but virtually useless cuirass on the floor, the opera buffa hat on the second couch, the man’s complete obliviousness to himself and his surroundings.  The subject could have stepped straight of a Wodehouse novel, if Wodehouse had ever written about soldiers.

Once again, it’s a case for not making snap judgements.

The fellow Tissot has painted here was in fact a remarkably brave and resourceful soldier in the British Empire’s 19th century small wars of peace.  The ease is not affected, the books lying next to him were probably read and well digested (he may have written them), the map superfluous because engraved in his memory.  The subject is Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Horse Guards.

Son of a cleric and product of Harrow, he joined the army at age seventeen and could lick any man in his regiment. The picture does suggest a genial man and reports are that he was all of that.  And not, images of the Ugly Englishman notwithstanding,  just to fellow Anglophones.  He could chat you up in any of seven languages, among them Turkish and Russian.

At six foot four, he was not a man to mess with.  He was one of those men who like Alexander III, could twist pokers and horse shoes with his bare hands.  When jokey comrades brought a pair of ponies into his room, Burnaby carried the animals back downstairs – one under each arm “as if they had been cats”.

That’s good for party tricks and not demanding of much enterprise or courage.  Burnaby also walked the walk.   A chance reading of a news account that the Russians were not allowing foreigner behind the early iron curtain was to him a challenge.  This at the time of the Great Game, so worrying the Russians was attractive sport.

So in 1875 he decided to travel by horseback to Khiva in Central Russia.  In winter.  Why?  Possibly because the Russians had dropped one of their periodic No Trespassing signs across the border.  Catnip to a man like Burnaby and of course he succeeded in his quest.  He wrote the whole thing up in A Ride to Khiva, describing his many desperate encounters with  exotic foreigners who talk and dress funny.  And who save his fingers from frostbite.   The books was a best seller.

Now an established writer and celebrity,  Burnaby signed on with the Times to cover the Carlist forces in the Third Carlist War in Spain.   Not much color by the time he got there, and nothing to interest an English public, so it was off to Africa to cover General Gordon and the expedition to the Sudan.  Sitting in a Khartoum cafe, he chanced upon an old newspaper with an account of a British subject who had been thrown out of Russia.  There was nothing for it, he would have to show up his side.

Naturally it would require a second foray into Mother Russia.  Coincidentally,  the Russo-Turkish war broke out this same year (1877).  None of Britain’s business, but good enough for Burnaby.  Just to get into the country, he had to elude Russian agents who had distributed pictures of him to bounty hunters in the alleys and souks of Constantinople.

What for? Intelligence was the given excuse, the Red Cross his given employer, but really, who cares?  It was all a grand adventure, all guns and horses and – desperate encounters with exotic foreigners who talk and dress funny. The whole strange business was the subject of his next book,  “On Horseback Through Asia Minor”.

Like many a hero, he made a stab at politics. He had married by now and perhaps thought it right to settle down.  It didn’t work.  He failed in 1880 to persuade Birmingham voters of the Tory Democrat excellence, though he is said to have put on a good campaign stop.

Faced with two hecklers, he gently but firmly grabbed them by the collars, hoisted them on the stage, and had them sit quietly while he went on explaining his position to the crowds.

Among his more pedestrian accomplishments was his crossing the English channel in a hot air balloon (relatively late – 1882 – but someone had to do it). A trivial matter, but good enough for another short book, at any rate. It almost seemed that he could  buck the odds and live a long life surrounded by faded glory and rapt grandchildren.

It was not to be.  In 1884 and off the record, he appeared in the Sudan and offered his services as an intelligence officer.  Not the sort of offer any general worth his salt would turn down, and General Valentine Baker (Pasha Baker) did not.  Burnaby, armed with a decidedly non-regulation double barreled shotgun, fought bravely and was wounded at the battle of El Teb.

He recovered and returned home a controversial hero.  The next year came news that  General Gordon was having a spot of trouble in the Sudan.  Forces of Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi, self proclaimed leader of Islam who was to drive the infidel from Africa and conquor the world for Allah. He had thousands of fanatical acolytes and was heading toward Gordon in Khartoum. Burnaby was determined that he should not succeed. Again, it was off the books and against orders, but he was not one to ignore a challenge or a fellow soldier in need.

He didn’t make it.

Details are scarce, but you can imagine the scene.  Certainly the tabloids did – Sudanese tribesmen doing their best to expel the foreigners with little more than antique rifles, long spears, and fanatical courage.  Burnaby was cut down in hand-to-hand fighting at the battle of Abu Klea, a spear through his throat, and is now remembered chiefly for Tissot’s magnificent portrait,  an Eminent Victorian on canvas, properly honored elsewhere with the inevitable stone monument.

It is said that Burnaby is the inspiration for Henry Newbolt‘s too readily mocked classic, Vitai Lampada.

Myself, I prefer the portrait. Given what he had gone through, it’s no wonder the man needed a calming cigarette.


His books are well worth reading, real G.A.Henty stuff, and full of incident and anecdote.  We seem to live in a duller age by contrast.

Michael Alexander, The True Blue: The Life and Adventures of Colonel Fred Burnaby, 1842-85
Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Kodansha Globe)
Frederick Gustavus Burnaby,  A Ride to Khiva
Frederick Gustavus Burnaby,  On Horseback through Asia Minor
Frederick Gustavus Burnaby,  A Ride Across the Channel: And Other Adventures in the Air



3 thoughts on “Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, 1842-1885; “Play up! play up! and play the game!”

  1. Pingback: Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed, 1860-1934: Our Lady of the Alps | A History Blog by Bruce Ware Allen

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