Thursday, 28 February 2013

Handgun diplomacy

Col Frederick Burnaby in civvies, 1876
Col Frederick Gustavus Burnaby was the sort of chap you want at your shoulder in a fight. He was six-foot-four; a first-class boxer; a skilled swordsman; reputedly the strongest man in Queen Victoria’s army.

He was also as brave as a lion, and mad to boot. So the prospect of a happy outcome looked slim when, in 1875, the big man ran into a spot of bother with some testy locals near a remote watering hole in Central Asia.

Fred, a celebrated traveller as well as a cavalry officer, was heading to the ancient city of Khiva, in modern Uzbekistan. Six roughnecks approached looking none too friendly. Matters didn’t improve when a greeting of “salaam alaikum” (peace be upon you) was ignored. Then one of the rogues turned to Fred’s guide and called the man an “unbeliever” for consorting with foreign infidel “dogs”.

“The insult was too great to be borne,” Fred writes. Abruptly the guide flew at his accuser, “smiting vigorous blows” on his astrakhan cap with a whip. The Khivan fought back, tearing the guide’s prized “crimson dressing-gown”. The other five ruffians reached for their knives. Fred drew his pistol.

And then a surprising and rather odd thing happened.

“My guide, who was very much out of breath, now blew his nose with his fingers as a sign of contempt for his adversary…” Fred writes. “His foe, not to be outdone, performed the same feat with his nasal organ.” The warring pair, no doubt encouraged by the sight of an Englishman’s revolver, then squatted before each other. And so began “a verbal battle, in which the reputations of their respective female relatives were much aspersed”.

This went on for about five minutes, by which time Fred was tired: “I walked up to them and said ‘Aman’ (peace); then taking hold of their wrists I forcibly made them shake hands.”

A grudging “salaam alaikum” was finally extracted from the guide. “Alaikum assalaam” (and peace be upon you) returned the Khivan, at last. Col Fred then lifted his giant frame onto his small, skeletal horse and was once more on his way.

This episode – subtitled “A Revolver is sometimes a Peace-maker” – appears in Frederick Burnaby’s 1876 best-seller, A Ride to Khiva: My Travels and Adventures in Central Asia


  1. So Simon, where are the great nutters of today? Are they all in show biz? Our modern Republican politicians have the nutter part down, but they are sadly lacking in greatness.

  2. Sir Ranulph Fiennes is keeping up the great tradition here in the UK, OG. Long may he last!

  3. I would love to know why Frederick Burnaby has a monument in Birmingham Cathedral Churchyard.