“Going native” is usually the preserve of white travelers. In literature, it’s a genre study, one mastered by the British: Graham Greene, Bruce Chatwin, and Jan Morris wrote more than just potboiler anthropology in distant colonial latitudes. England’s fascination with other cultures led to a certain occupational hazard. For two hundred years, from William Hawkins, the East India Company’s first representative to the Mughal court of Jahangir, to the Indologists William Jones or Charles “Hindoo” Stuart, British men often forgot about conquest and commerce, preferring to sink into the warm bath of India’s manifold charms. In the mid-nineteenth century, the crown took over from the EIC, or John Company, and discouraged social intercourse precisely because it was bad for business. Evangelicals and mortified memsahibs petitioned the authorities and warned that past its jungles, where one could always nab tiger skins or indulge in the shade of the crocodile bark, India was a strange land of disfigured heathens. For some Englishmen, transformation was irreversible.
Sir Richard Francis Burton, the international spy, ethnographer, and professed “amateur barbarian,” came to Bombay with high expectations in 1842. At twenty-one, he’d been kicked out of Oxford, reduced to begging his father for a pricey commission in the Indian Army, which was granted under the condition that he go to any lengths to see combat. Burton spent four months at sea sparring with his boorish compatriots, a bunch of “yahoos” whose idea of fun amounted to firing their pistols into the black tide, until he detected that “faint spicy odor crossed with the aroma of drugs” that signaled Bombay. Read More