Friday, March 25, 2011

Unofficial sources

Express Staff Writer

I am working my way through a rare and insanely good book by Capt. Sir Richard Francis Burton, the translator of the Kama Sutra and "The Arabian Nights," Sufi dervish impersonator, African explorer and spy, and perhaps the greatest swordsman of his generation.

"The City of Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains" is an ethnographic travelogue written in 1860. It is based on Burton's journey by wagon from Missouri to a curious city that had sprung up beside the Great Salt Lake, inhabited by followers of prophet-historian Mormon, a member of a tribe of indigenous Americans known as the Nephites.

The book was bought in 1891 by one Henry Sage and donated to the Cornell University Library. I found it while researching a story about the Shoshone and Bannock tribes of Idaho, along with a small collection of letters written in 1890 by Alexander Ross, the first white man to reach Galena Summit north of Ketchum.

It turns out that Ross later married an Okanagan woman and settled in as sheriff of Red River, Manitoba.

I've always admired Burton. He traveled to Mecca disguised a Muslim, wrote about sexual practices in India, and was the first European to see Lake Tanganyika. He spoke 20 languages and was knighted by Queen Victoria, but abhorred politics and never rose above the rank of captain, and so was never a leading spokesman of his generation, never what you might call an "official source" of state information because he lacked political power.

Unbeknownst to me until last week, Burton also took a side trip to America and wrote a detailed 750-page diary of the experience. He knew the exact number of lodges of more than a dozen bands of the Shoshone, and gives a running account of many other tribes from Missouri to Idaho, often comparing them and their habits to the Bedouin of Africa or certain groups in the Sindh, a part of Pakistan. He draws quick comparisons between plains Indians attacking wagon trains on the Oregon Trail and Scottish Highlanders bedeviling the English. He derides the warlike and numerous Dakotah nation as being "below the mark," saying, "Like the Moroccans in their last war with Spain, they never attack when they should, and they never fail to attack when they should not."

I feel guilty knowing these things, for having found them out, not by interviewing scholars or scouring the shelves of the Bodleian Library in London (where I've recently found that many first editions of Burton's works are safely kept), but by clicking around with a mouse and keyboard on my laptop. Thanks to the Internet, I've become a free-range scholar of no renown, with millions of rare books from musty libraries at my fingertips. The scanned pages have been converted by character recognition software into searchable text, bringing free access to books old enough that they have been released into the realm of public domain.

Many "orphan books," volumes that are out of print and whose copyright-holding authors or publishers cannot be found, are also being scanned in this way.

Google has plans to create a universal library of free digital books on the Internet, but has run into antitrust laws in the process, as well as pushback from academics, libraries and Internet competitors like the Digital Archive.

I hope that once the dust settles, and the lawyers are all paid, the project continues. The treasure of historical knowledge pouring onto the World Wide Web serves a higher and longer-range purpose than making a buck. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "A well-informed populace is vital to the operation of a democracy," and democracies may soon be springing up all over the region that Burton explored as terra incognita in the 19th century, thanks to a free and unbridled exchange of information.

Tony Evans is a reporter for the Idaho Mountain Express.

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