Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burnaby, Frederick Gustavus

936964Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 07 — Burnaby, Frederick Gustavus1886John Andrew Hamilton

BURNABY, FREDERICK GUSTAVUS (1842–1885), traveller and soldier, was born at Bedford on 3 March 1842, being the son of the Rev. Gustavus Andrew Burnaby of Somersby Hall, Leicestershire, and canon of Middleham in Yorkshire (who died on 15 July 1872), by Harriet, sister of Mr. Henry Villebois of Marham House, Norfolk (who died in 1883). He was educated at Bedford grammar school and Harrow, and afterwards privately in Germany. From Harrow he himself narrated that he was nearly expelled for sending a very lively article against 'fagging' to 'Punch,' but the Harrow authorities disclaim any knowledge of this incident, and the only article (Punch, 18 March 1854) which could be the one referred to must at any rate have been largely edited by Douglas Jerrold. At Harrow he was distinguished for aptitude in French, and in Germany he became master of French, German, and Italian. He had indeed a gift for languages, acquiring in later life a very good knowledge of Spanish and Russian, and a traveller's acquaintance with Turkish and Arabic. At the age of sixteen, being the youngest of 150 candidates, he passed his examination for the army, and was gazetted a cornet in the 3rd regiment of cavalry of the household brigade in 1859. He became successively lieutenant in 1861, captain in 1866, major in 1879, lieutenant-colonel in 1880, and received the command of the regiment in 1881, which he retained till his death. His strength and stature were enormous; he stood 6 ft. 4 in. in height, was 46 in. round the chest, and must have been, when young, one of the strongest men in Europe. Feats of his, such as using a dumbbell of 1½ cwt. and carrying a small pony under his arm, seem to be well authenticated. But in his passion for gymnastics he developed his muscular system at the expense of his vitality, and was compelled to travel for his health. Half the year being practically at his disposal as leave, he was enabled to gratify his strong taste for adventure by extensive and daring travel. He visited Central and South America early in his military life. In 1868 he went to southern Spain and Tangier, contributing letters to 'Vanity Fair' of a boyish kind. In 1870, while cholera was raging, he went to Odessa, via St. Petersburg, intending to thoroughly explore south-eastern Russia, but was recalled by news of his father's illness. In 1873, when General Kauffmann was beginning his invasion of Khiva, Burnaby intended to have gone to Central Asia, and started on his journey; but, falling ill of typhoid fever in Naples, went to Spain to restore his health, and there forced his way through the heart of the Carlist rebel lines by Vittoria into France. In the following year he went as correspondent of the 'Times' to the Carlist camp, where he began a lasting friendship with Don Carlos. His letters to the 'Times' begin 12 Aug. 1874, and go on till October at frequent intervals. At the end of the year he was despatched by the 'Times' to join Colonel Gordon in the Soudan, with whom he penetrated far up the Nile towards the equator, and acquired experience which afterwards proved of use during the English operations of 1884. His letters to the 'Times' are of dates 4 and 13 Jan. and 5 Feb. 1874. Accidentally learning in Khartoum that the Russian Government had refused entrance to Europeans into Central Asia, he at once decided to resume his former design of going thither; and, after spending some time in preparations and methodical study of the subject, started on 30 Nov. 1875. He travelled as usual with little baggage (only 86lbs.), and at great speed crossed the steppes unimpeded by the Russian officials. The winter was unusually severe, and he suffered much from intense cold and frost-bite, He succeeded in reaching; Khiva, fortunately going there without passing through the fort of Petro-Alexandrovsk; but before he could press on for Bokhara he received a summons from the commandant of the fort, and on going thither was handed a telegram from the commander-in-chief, the Duke of Cambridge, recalling him to England. The Russian government would probably have stopped him at the frontier had he endeavoured to reach Khiva from the south. In 1874 Captain C. M. McGregor was turned back on his way to Merv. They did not venture to stop an Englishman travelling through European Russia, but adopted the expedient of appealing to the English government. Burnaby accordingly returned, and wrote, in a rather extravagant style, his 'Ride to Khiva,' which at once became highly popular. In a year it reached its eleventh edition, which was published in 1877; it was translated into several foreign languages, and a new edition appeared in 1884. The 'ride,' however, was not remarkable for its dangers or difficulties of exploration, for by 1876 the Russians had effectually pacified the desert, and Messrs. Schuyler and McGahan gave Burnaby in St. Petersburg full information about routes. The real feat was the ride in an exceptionally hard winter across the three hundred miles of steppe, from Kazala to Khiva. Encouraged by his success he spent his winter leave in 1876 in a five months' tour in Asia Minor and Armenia, with the object of seeing the Turks, as they are, away from European influences. Having read up the subject he pursued a route from Scutari viâ Angora, Tokat, Sivas, Ersinjian, Erzeroum, Van, Khoi, Bayazid near Mount Ararat, Kara, and Ardahan to Batoum. The Russian government vwatched his movements to Constantinople, and there losing sight of him disseminated photographs of him along the frontier, and gave instructions that the original, 'un ennemi acharné' of Russia, who was expected to cross it, should he turned back. On his return he published his 'On Horseback through Asia Minor,' which passed through seven editions: 2,500l. was paid him as a first instalment for this book. It is a more important book than the 'Ride to Khiva,' with some useful military appendices, but is conversational in tone and defaced by extreme anti-Russia sentiments. Being anxious to see the Russo-Turkish war, he joined General Baker at Adrianople in November 1877, nominally as the agent of the Stafford House committee. Actually, however, he was frequently under fire, and at the fight of Tashkesan on 31 Dec. he commanded the fifth Turkish brigade. An attempt was made to poison him, General Baker, and Shakir Bey by a Bulgarian acolyte at the house of the Greek Archbishop of Gumurdjina, which failed. His great desire, which he did not accomplish, was to have crossed the Balkans and have slipped through the Russian lines into Plevna. On his return to England he took to politics in the same spirit of adventure as he had travelled, professing extreme conservative and philo-Turkish views, and advocating protection, purchase of commissions in the army, and military law for Ireland. He was invited on 5 June 1878 by the Birmingham Conservative Association to contest Birmingham, and after many stormy meetings and a controversy with Mr. Gladstone about the latter's use of phrases attributed to him by Burnaby, the election of 1880 resulted in his defeat, though he polled a large number of votes. He continued, however, to interest himself in politics, and on 23 July 1884, at the annual conference of the National Union of Conservative Associations, was elected third on the list of the council. He was now approaching the period of compulsory retirement from the army, and was severely attacked with heart and lung disease. In 1882 he was much disappointed that he did not receive the command of the detachment of the Blues which went to Egypt, However, on 10 Jan. 1884, he started without leave for Egypt as a volunteer, joined General Baker at Suakim, and commanded a detachment at Trinkitat. He served also with the intelligence department under General Graham, and on 21 Feb. was wounded at El Teb, where he did so much execution, 'clearing out a stone building with his double-barrelled shot-gun,' as to provoke an indignant interpellation in the House of Commons. For this service the Khedive gave him the Soudan medal and clasp and the Khedivial star. He was very anxious to join the Khartoum relief expedition, having designed, in case no expedition had gone out, to penetrate to Khartoum himself; but knowing that if his design became known he would be forbidden from headquarters, he gave out that he was going to Bechuanaland, and with great secrecy and despatch made his way to Korti, which be reached on 9 Jan. 1885. He was sent up in charge of a convoy to Gadkul, and joined the Intelligence department. On the 17th, at Abu Klea, he was in command of the left rear of the square, performing a brigadier-general's duty, and while rallying his men was killed by a spear-wound in the throat. It was said, but perhaps without foundation, that he was the cause of the great hazard in which at one time the square was placed, by incautiously and impetuously calling on the 'heavies' to charge. It was also said that Sir Herbert Stewart named him as first in command in the event of his own death, but this has not been confirmed.

Besides his travels Burnaby published a lecture on 'Practical Instruction of Staff Officers in Foreign Armies,' delivered on 8 July 1872, and was keenly interested in the development of military ballooning. He had made nineteen balloon ascents, often alone, and was a member of the council of the Aeronautical Society. His first ascent was with M. Godard in a Montgolfier balloon, in July 1864. He was once in a balloon of novel form, which burst in mid air, but acting as a parachute fortunately broke his descent; and prompted by the failure of Wright, the aeronaut, he attempted, on 23 March 1882, to cross the Channel alone in the balloon Eclipse from Dover, and succeeded after considerable perils and an ascent to the height of 10,000 feet. He landed at the Château de Montigny, Envermeu, Normandy. He published an account of this under the title 'A Ride across the Channel.' He also left the manuscript of a political novel after his death. Though after his quarrel in 1882 with General Owen Williams, which nearly led to a sensational libel suit, he lived much alone, he was very popular in London and Paris. He was a good disciplinarian and a humorous speaker; his voice was thin and piercing, his features Jewish and Italian, and his unEnglish appearance led him to resist attempts to procure portraits of him. He married, on 25 June 1879, Elizabeth, only daughter of Sir St. Vincent Hawkins Whitshed, bart., of Killoncarrick, county Wicklow, who has written 'The High Alps in Winter,' a plea from personal experience for Alpine mountaineering in winter, and by her had one son. He was lord of the manor of Somerby, Leicestershire. A window to his memory has been placed in St. Mary's Church, Bedford, and an obelisk with a medallion portrait in St. Philip's churchyard, Birmingham.

[Ware and Mann's Life and Times of Colonel Burnaby; Mann's Life of Burnaby, 1882; Life and Adventures of Burnaby, 1885; Morning Post, 21 Jan. 1885; Manchester Courier, 2 Nov. 1885.]

J. A. H.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.43
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line
380 ii 8 f.e. Burnaby, Frederick G.: for 1874 read 1875