Fred Burnaby by James Jacques Tissot, oil on panel, 1870
e was, by his own admission, a stubborn kind of fella.
“I have, unfortunately for my own interests, from my earlier childhood had what my old nurse used to call a most ‘contradictorious spirit’,” is how the man himself put it.
Without that spirit though, Fred Burnaby might not have had such an incredible life.
Elizabeth as a teenager
And ol’ Fred may not have had a great big chunk of Greystones named after him.
It was in 1879 that Fred married Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed – herself a force to be reckoned with – who, aged 11, had inherited her father’s lands in Greystones. The Hawkins-Whitshed estate would eventually changed its name to The Burnaby – which is okey-dokey with us, given that Fred Burnaby makes Hugh Glass look like Karl Pilkington.
Born on March 3rd, 1842, in Bedford, England to a clergyman father and a landed gentry mum, Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby soon proved himself a tad out of the ordinary. By his teenage years, young Fred stood at 6ft 4ins, weighed 15 stone and boasted a 47-inch chest. Picture a young Darragh Flynn.
Joining the army in 1859, at the age of 17, Fred quickly proved himself a first-rate boxer, swordsman, rider and runner, and was noted too for his party tricks – such as vaulting over billiard table or twisting pokers into knots using just his bare hands.
There was also that time he was reported to have carried two ponies – one under each arm – down the stairs at Windsor Castle.
Not that Fred was merely a great big hunk of muscle and party games. The man was noted for his jovial spirit, and his quick brain, with seven languages under his belt, and an insatiable appetite for travelling the world. It was the latter which sparked a series of best-selling books, all about his adventures abroad. He was also the first man to make a hot-air balloon trip from England to France, having set off from Dover gas works with some roast-beef sandwiches and a wide-eyed belief in just about anything being possible in this world. A belief cemented when he landed in a field in Normandy one day later.
It was the kind of belief that will make a man embark on a 1,000-mile journey into Central Asia, accompanied by a dwarf, named Nazar. And not even the Russian empire, who tried to block Burnaby’s trek, could stop him.
The Ruskies really should have known better. A member of the Royal House Guards, this elite regiment nicknamed The Blues would give their officers no less than five months leave every year. And rather than use those five months seducing women, leaping billiard tables and making ponies feel lightheaded, Fred would travel the world. First trip was a trek to Moscow, in winter. Second trip was war-torn Spain. Then Sudan during a heatwave. It was whilst in the latter, on a typically roasting February day, in a Khartoum café, that Fred noticed a newspaper article about the Russian government issuing an order that no foreigner should be allow to travel in Russian Asia.
The article was as good a slap across the face with a leather glove to Fred. This brazen new order was, to say the least, a Tsar too far.
And so it was that, on November 30th, 1875, Burnaby departed from London’s Victoria Station, heading straight to St Petersburg, then south-east to the frontier city of Orenburg, followed by a quick schlep over the steppes and deserts of Russian-controlled Central Asia before making it to Khiva, the small caravan city seized by the Tsar’s army two years earlier. That the Khan of Khiva hated foreigners of any kind, and had spilt buckets of foreign blood to prove it, had one of Burnaby’s friends warning him that his host there would “very likely order his executioner to gouge out your eyes“.
Burnaby’s subsequent account of his journey, A Ride To Khiva, became a sensation, and saw Queen Victoria inviting Fred to dinner. This was a journey, after all, that would challengeThe Revenantin the never-say-die stakes. A year later, it was a 1,000-mile journey from Constantinople into eastern Turkey, a volatile stretch of land where the Tsar and the Sultan shared a frontier. The resulting book, On Horseback Through Asia Minor, became another rollicking bestseller. The following year, it was the cross-Channel hot-air balloon ride, and another best-seller, A Ride Across The Channel. That all these incredible journeys were undertaken without permission from his Royal House Guards superiors only increased Burnaby’s growing reputation as a renegade. And a nutter.
Fred was also wide-eyed and mischievous enough to go up against Joseph Chamberlain as the Birmingham candidate for Parliament in 1880, fighting the good fight long after it was plain that his opponent was always going to win. At a rally in Wolverhampton, Burnaby showed off his strength of character, and his actual strength, when he picked up two hecklers from the stage and plonked them at the back of the platform, saying, “Sit there, little man. And you, little man, sit there”. He would have been so much better in Parliament than Chamberlain, the latter later resigning from the Gladstone’s Third Government in 1886 in opposition to Irish Home Rule.
Frederick Gustavus Burnaby died on January 17th, 1885, in battle, in the hot, emptiness of Sudan. Naturally, the man didn’t go down without one hell of a fight.
At the time, the fierce Muhammad Ahmad had declared holy war in the Sudan, setting out to drive the Egyptians and the British out of his country and convert the world to Islam. He was nicknamed the Mahdi, “the expected one”, and he’s regarded now as the 19th-century Osama bin Laden. In 1883, with God on their side, the Madhi’s army of desert tribesmen had seen off a 10,000-strong Egyptian force led by British officer, William Hicks. Just a few hundred of the latter survived whilst Hicks’ head was taken as a souvenir. A year later, Fred – who again was travelling without permission – joined the 4,000-plus British troops for a second round at El Teb, a brutal clash that saw the rebels being defeated. Fred was mentioned in the dispatches, and returned home a hero.
Not that the holy war was over. Refused permission to join another battle in the Sudan – having upset one too many superiors for disobeying orders – Burnaby disobeyed this order and, whilst on leave, sailed to Africa and joined British forces advancing to Khartoum. Welcomed by General Wolseley, Fred was quickly on the frontline, and it was at a dusty watering hole called Abu Klea that his luck finally ran out. The rebels charged, catching the British troops by surprise, leaving a few soldiers outside the army’s traditional fighting square. The Daily Telegraph‘s war correspondent, Mr Burleigh, recounts seeing Burnaby riding out, sword in hand, to help the handful of comrades caught out by the sudden charge. Fencing with a Mahdi rebel who had lunged at him with an 8ft spear, it was the jab of a second spearman from behind that distracted Fred long enough to get a javelin through the throat. Falling from his horse, according to Burleigh, Burnaby got to his feet and continued to fight as half a dozen Arabs surrounded him. Dying but not yet dead when the battle ended, according to a fellow officer, Lord Binning, Burnaby died in the arms of young private, who exclaimed, “Oh sir, here is the bravest man in England, dying, and no one to help him”.
What a life. Is it any wonder that all the men in The Burnaby are so frickin’ hard…?
With special thanks to Simon Bendle’s wonderful blog. Now go find out about Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed here.
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