Journal Volume 3 2000
A Brief Summary of the Life of Colonel Fred Burnaby
By Jim Brennan
FREDRICK GUSTAVUS BURNABY (1842-1885), traveller and soldier, was born at Bedford, Leicestershire on 3 March 1842, being the son of the Rev. Gustavus Andrew Burnaby of Somersby Hall, Leicestershire. He was educated at Bedford Grammar School and Harrow, and afterwards privately in Dresden, Germany.
At Harrow he was distinguished for aptitude in French, and in Germany he became fluent in 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 6ft 4in in height, was 45 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 one and a half 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 general well being and was compelled to travel for the good of 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 the Journal ‘Vanity Fair’. In 1870, while cholera was raging, he went to Odessa, via St. Petersburg, in Russia, but was recalled by news of his father’s illness. His father died on 15th July 1872. In 1874 he went as correspondent of the ‘Times’ to the Carlist camp, where he began a lasting friendship with Don Carlos, Pretender to the Spanish Throne, then engaged in civil war in Spain. His contributions to the ‘Times’ began 12 Aug. 1874, and continued 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 [Sudan], 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. 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 there; and after spending some time in preparation and methodical study of the subject, started on 30 Nov. 1875. He travelled as usual with little baggage (only 85 lbs.) 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 frostbite. He succeeded in reaching Khiva, which is situated east of the Aral Sea, but before he could press on further he received a summons from the commandant of the fort at Khiva, and on going there was then handed a telegram from the commander-in-chief of the British Army, 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.