The Empire may have been built by men and women trying to escape Britain’s terrible weather — or even, as Cecil Rhodes once said, to avoid the lamentable cuisine — but it was kept fully staffed by refugees from the conservative sexual code. Accounts of life in colonial Bombay, for example, read as if the entire subcontinent was managed as a sleazy gentleman’s club, with enterprising local agents procuring a series of “native wives” and “colored sisters” to warm the bed of every newly-arrived heterosexual army officer and bureaucrat. Gay men, meanwhile, quickly became addicted to the freedom in the colonies, which lured writers such as E. M. Forster and Somerset Maugham.
These impulses were certainly not just British. In French slang, faire passer son brevet colonial — “to give a man the test for his colonial diploma” — meant to initiate him into sodomy. The peculiar opus The Art of Love in the Colonies, written in 1893 by someone calling himself Dr Jacobus X, describes under the guise of an academic anthropological handbook the erotic pleasures to be found by Gauguin-esque Frenchmen in different corners of the tropics, from the coast of South America to Pago Pago.
But it was the British who had most success with their libertines. A key figure was Captain Sir Richard Burton (1821-90), explorer, secret agent, soldier, scientist, translator (he spoke 29 languages), opium addict, and insatiable sexual adventurer. Himself an aficionado of the brothels of India, he was sent at the age of 24 on an undercover mission in Karachi to expose a trio of houses that peddled boys and eunuchs to British soldiers. Burton reported back to his superiors with what many felt was an excessive wealth of detail on the practices, probably indicating first-hand experience. But most of Burton’s carnal energies were spent on women, who seemed to both fascinate and terrify him. For the rest of his life, between becoming the first white man to visit the holy city of Harar and making an undercover pilgrimage to Mecca, Burton wrote without inhibition on all manner of erotic practices. Convinced that all English people were hopeless at sex, he decided to translate the most salacious Eastern texts as a social service, starting with the Kama Sutra, to which he added own detailed and kinky annotations on aphrodisiacs, circumcision, infibulation, polygamy, masturbation, and sado-masochism. Victorian readers who opened its staid-looking volume were astonished to read, for example, about Indian women pleasuring themselves with “bulbs, roots, and fruits having the form of the lingam.” Burton had almost finished his masterwork, a translation of the scholarly The Perfumed Garden of Shakyk Nefzawi from Arabic — which described a series of obscure sexual positions including “frog fashion,” “the screw of Archimides,” “the tail of the ostrich,” “fitting on the sock” and “the one who stops in the house” — when he suddenly died of unspecified causes.
The true depth of Burton’s obsessions will never be known. In 1860, he had married Isabel Arundell, a virginal, blond, blue-eyed English girl, and upon his death she burned all of her husband’s manuscripts and most of his possessions in a giant bonfire. •
| Look at you, George Gordon!
Footnote: Colonial Boy Toys
The pantheon of British Imperial heroes is filled with men who are now claimed as pillars of the gay movement. Among them…
General George Gordon (1833-85), hero of the Boxer Rebellion in China, governor of Sudan, martyr of Khartoum. Aides report he became obsessed with poor orphan boys of the Sudan — invites them home, mends their clothes, bathes them personally. Life-long bachelor declares “I could make no woman happy.”
Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), diamond magnate, creator of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), designer of scholarship that brings young Americans to Britain. Had a fondness for Aryan-featured young men, whom he nicknamed his “apostles” and “lambs.” A vocal racist and misogynist, develops a passionate relationship with a young secretary named Pickering in his De Beers company. The pair share a small tin shed together in what one top official confirms was “an absolute lover-like relationship.” When Pickering is tragically injured in a riding accident, Rhodes nurses him, refusing to answer crucial telegrams and losing a £3-million lease. Weeps hysterically at the funeral.
Henry Mortan Stanley (1841-1904), of Dr-Livingstone-I-presume fame, happily admits that he “never was an admirer of women.” In 1873, writes a panting novel about two African Apollos in love, My Kalulu: Prince, King and Slave, based on two bearers he took on his famous Central African expedition. Still winds up in a marriage of convenience.
General Sir Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941), Boer War hero, founder of the Boy Scouts movement. Married at age of 55 despite life-long hostility towards women, including regular denunciations of the female figure. “A clean young man in his prime of health and strength is the finest creature God has made in the world,” he declares. Enjoys a passionate friendship with Kenneth McLaren, whom he nickname “the Boy;” favorite pastime is watching and photographing his young scouts swim naked.
Field Marshall Horatio Kitchener (1850-1916) — In a long military career, avenges Gordon’s death in Khartoum, wins the Boer War by inventing concentration camps, sends millions to their deaths in the trenches in World War I. Another vocal misogynist; a Reuters reporter in China notes that Kitchener has “a taste for buggery.” (Less convincingly, some biographers decide that his neatness and taste for fine porcelain is evidence of gay leanings). Dies when his ship hits a mine in the North Sea, with his consort of nine years, the handsome young aide Oswald Fitzgerald.
T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia (1888-1935), masochist hero of Palestinian campaign in First World War, subject of David Lean epic. Dedicates his memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom to young Bedouin donkey boy, and writes enigmatic passages about “friends quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace.” Admits to being repelled by women’s physiques, “but men’s bodies, in repose or in movement… appeal to me directly and very generally.” Says he is raped by Turkish soldiers when captured in disguise in 1917, although the details are hazy and possibly fabricated; after the war, routinely hires men to beat him viciously across buttocks. • 10 August 2010
SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Rice, Edward, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra and Brought the Arabian Nights to the West (New York, 2003); McLynn, Frank, Burton: Snow Upon the Desert (London, 1990).Aldrich, Robert, Colonialism and Homosexuality, (London, 2003). Richardson, Frank M., Mars Without Venus: A Study of Some Homosexual Generals (Edinburgh, 1981).