A Victorian Spy In The Boy Brothels Of Karachi

Before he was a world-famous spy and translator, Richard F. Burton was sent into the boy brothels of Karachi so the British could conquer all of India.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

After the atrocity at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last summer, as questions of homophobia and Islam dominated the headlines, I pulled off the shelf my copy of the excellent three-volume Heritage Press edition of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainment Made and Annotated by Richard F. Burton.

It’s the annotations even more than the tales that have fascinated readers for, now, more than 130 years.

Burton was one of the most famous explorers, libertines and spies of the 19th century, a larger than life character limned in many biographies and sagas, including Fawn Brodie’s The Devil Drives, Alan Moorehead’s The White Nile, and the Bob Rafelson movie, “Mountains of the Moon,” in which he was played by Patrick Bergin opposite Iain Glen (now best known as Ser Jorah in “Game of Thrones”). Glen’s role was as Burton’s upper-crust companion and eventual nemesis John Hanning Speke, who went with him on the search for the sources of the Nile.

A more devoted and unabashed Orientalist than Burton would be hard to find, with many of the attendant evils of racism and condescension so well documented by the late Edward Saïd. But, as even Saïd conceded on occasion, there were things to be learned from such observers of Arab, Muslim and Asian cultures.

Burton’s “Terminal Essay” to the Arabian Nights about sex and gender in The East, including and especially the Muslim world, remains one of the most unabashed and provocative essays ever written on the subject.

As I cracked open Volume 3, I discovered the part of the essay dealing with pederasty and homosexuality was marked with an old 10,000-rial note from Iran, which I must have left there during a visit to the Islamic Republic in the 1990s. I am sure the scowling Ayatollah on the face of that bill would not approve.

Burton begins the part of the essay dealing with “pederasty” with a brief account of what was supposed to have been a secret report on the boy brothels of Karachi that his commander had ordered him to make in 1845.

He was only 24 at the time, but already recognized as a phenomenally talented linguist, able to travel and work in disguise among the locals of South Asia despite his Irish and English antecedents.

In fact, Burton much preferred the company of Persian munshis (translators, secretaries and fixers) who worked with the British, rather than his fellow British officers. One of his best friends was a smooth operator named Mirza Ali Akhbar, who was an accomplished spy already in the service of General Charles Napier, known as “Brother of the Devil.”


Napier was in his sixties when he agreed to serve the British East India Company, the commercial enterprise that ran most of South Asia before the British government took direct control in the late 1850s. He had been hardened in battle against Napoleon’s armies as a young officer, and once was left for dead amid the carnage in Spain.

Napier, with a large family to support, needed the salary paid by the Company, but he had no respect for its directors: “a parcel of shopkeepers” and “the shopocracy,” he called them. As Napier saw it, the British ministers who supported them “protected those who committed atrocities,” and the conquest of India over the years was a moral outrage: “The English were the aggressors,” he said. “Our object in conquering India, the object of all our cruelties, was money” and “every shilling of this has been picked out of blood, wiped and put in the murderers’ pockets.” Nothing could take that stain away, he said.

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And yet, few generals up to that time had fought such ferocious battles in India, or were rewarded as handsomely. Rather like America’s William Tecumseh Sherman two decades later, Napier knew the hell that war is, and was determined to wage it with enough ferocity to end it quickly.

In fact, Napier had not been sent to Sindh to conquer it, only to secure what was then the tiny port of Karachi and the banks of the Indus River, a vital supply line for the long and disastrous war the British were waging in Afghanistan at the time.

Previous administrators had participated in the elaborate intrigues among the princes of the region, playing one against the other to serve British needs. Napier, instead, vastly exceeded his authority and spoiled for a fight. “We have no right to seize Sindh, yet we shall do so,” he wrote, “and a very advantageous, useful and humane piece of rascality it will be.”

In February and March of 1843 Napier triumphed over local emirs whose armies were ten times larger than his own, which seemed a truly extraordinary feat of arms. But the victories owed at least as much to the work of clandestine agents as to British guns. At critical moments, the commander of the emirs’ artillery had fired high, and the ranking officer of the Sindhi cavalry had turned and fled the field, demoralizing other troops.

“When the day shall come to publish details concerning disbursement of ‘Secret service money in India,’” Burton wrote, “the pubic shall learn strange things.”

Indeed, as William Rice notes in his epically subtitled biography, 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, the artillery commander and the traitorous cavalry officer who threw the battle had been bribed by Burton’s friend Ali Akhbar. Napier himself later remarked to Burton that Akhbar “did as much towards the conquest of [Sindh] as a thousand men.”

In 1845, when Burton was assigned there he not only spent a lot of time hanging out with Ali Akhbar and another murshi named Mirza Mohammed Hosayn (a brother of the Aga Khan), he eventually moved into a house with them. He also took a local mistress—a dancer named Núr Ján, who was called by some “the Venus of Balochistan.”

By then, Napier had imposed a brutal but thorough peace on the region. (How brutal? He blew convicted Muslim murderers out of cannons so their relatives wouldn’t have enough of a corpse left for a religious burial.)

While Burton soaked up the local language and culture, the general, notes Fawn Brodie, felt “a burning obligation to change, improve and above all to Anglicize.”

When Napier heard that Karachi, a miserable little town of a few thousand people, had three brothels “in which not women, but boys and eunuchs… lay for hire” he was appalled. And not the least of his concerns was that some of his English soldiers might be frequenting them.

So Burton, by his own account, was “asked indirectly to investigate.” But he later claimed he made it clear that he did not want whatever he reported to be transmitted to the East India Company headquarters in Bombay where even the hint of such scandalous activities could be used against Napier and against him.

In disguise as a merchant from Bushehr and accompanied by his friend Mohammed Hosayn of Shiraz, Burton “passed many an evening in the townlet,” as he called little Karachi, visiting all the brothels and obtaining “the fullest details,” which he then reported back to Napier.

As Mary Lovell writes in A Rage to Live, her biography of Burton and Isabel Arundell, the extraordinarily strong-willed woman he eventually married, the young officer’s “account of what he saw in these establishments was perhaps more enthusiastically detailed than was required. He had been asked to ‘make a few enquiries and report back.’ His own sexual curiosity, his desire to examine sexual matters ‘scientifically,’ coupled with a natural fascination with the erotic, his knack of acute observation and the desire to record minutely everything he observed, got the better of his judgment. Napier was, apparently, particularly arrested by Richard’s explanation that a boy prostitute commanded double the price of a eunuch because ‘the scrotum of the unmutilated boy could be used as a kind of bridle for directing [his] movements.’”

No copy of the report has ever been found, and it would have been unusual for Burton to write it down. Most if not all his reports on spying activities were given to Napier verbally. Yet when the old general left India shortly afterward, some version of Burton’s investigation did land on the desks of the Company in Bombay, and the air of scandal around it helped to kill his career as a soldier.


In the years and decades that followed, Burton became one of Britain’s most famous explorers and adventurers, whether making his way to the forbidden Muslim cities of Harar and Mecca, searching East Africa for the sources of the Nile, or traveling across the United States on the eve of the American Civil War to visit Brigham Young in Utah and write a book about Mormons called The City of the Saints.

And through it all he continued to “examine sexual matters,” as he saw it “scientifically.” He also worked on and off on translations of the voluminous and very ribald original stories of The Thousand Nights and a Night, culminating in the multi-volume set published in 1885, four decades after his adventures in Sindh.

In his essay on homosexuality at the end, he came to a number of curious, sometimes ludicrous conclusions, several of which would be offensive to the modern reader. He writes, for instance, of what he calls “The Sotadic Zone,” a pretty vast, largely tropical portion of the world’s geography where the vice of pederasty (men and boys or “youths”) is “held at worst to be a mere peccadillo.” And he devotes several pages to its history, embracing many cultures and religions.

Burton notes, for instance, “Socrates declared that ‘a most valiant army might be composed of boys and their lovers; for that of all men they would be most ashamed to desert one another.’”

But it’s Burton’s appreciation for Islamic culture that gives his essay special interest today as the fight for LGBT rights clashes repeatedly with the fundamentalist and often hypocritical enforcement of Sharia-based law in Muslim countries.

As Burton writes, “pederasty is forbidden by the Quran.” And today in Iran, in Saudi Arabia, and in ISIS-land, among other places, homosexuality is punishable by death, often in truly cruel and too-usual ways. The so-called Islamic State, as we know, throws gays from the tops of buildings. In July 2016 a 19-year-old boy was hanged in Iran for anal “rape,” but as Amnesty International pointed out, the legal vagaries of Iranian law are such that the “passive” partner has to claim he was raped or face the death penalty himself.

Burton demonstrates just how commonplace homosexuality and pederasty are in the history of some of those same countries that now make it a capital crime, including Afghanistan, Persia and Mali.

The great explorer generally admires Islam, and one suspects his conversion (which included circumcision) for his travel to Mecca was not entirely mission specific. The Prophet Mohammed, he wrote, “did much to exalt human nature. He passed over the ‘Fall’ with a light hand; he made man superior to the angels; he encouraged his fellow creatures to be great and good by dwelling upon their nobler not their meaner side.”

The Islamic empire conquered more territory in 80 years than the Romans did in 800, Burton wrote, because it could adapt itself to the needs of the people who profess it and “the spirit of the age.”

The decay and destruction of such an empire comes when it ceases or refuses to adapt, or when, as is the case with many Salafi Muslims today, nostalgia for a supposed golden age blinds them to the spirit of the present and the future.

Burton shrewdly deconstructs one of the central texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam used to condemn homosexuality. Citing passages in the Quran, he retells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah with a more than cynical eye.

For those who haven’t reread the holy texts recently, the original story of the Old Testament is repeated in the Quran with a few bits of color added. Essentially, three angels visit the prophet Lot in the guise of beautiful young men. A crowd of not-so-attractive Sodomites gathers outside lusting after them. Things get ugly and the angels destroy the “cities of the plain,” which Burton rightly suggests were more likely peasant villages.

“These circumstantial unfacts”—wonderful phrase!—“are repeated at full length… rather as an instance of Allah’s power than as a warning against pederasty, which Mohammed seems to have regarded with philosophic indifference.”

Burton then takes us on a devilish tour of the “Sotadic” Middle East, noting in passing that “the great and glorious Saladin was a habitual pederast.”

He concludes by telling us, not without some admiration, it would seem, “the Arab enjoys the startling and lively contrast of extreme virtue and horrible vice placed in juxtaposition.”

One might have said the same of many men in Victorian England, as Burton well knew.

Part of this essay appeared originally on The Shadowland Journal, Christopher Dickeys personal blog.