Ride to Khiva

A simple book that tells the story of a daring adventure made by one of the Household Cavalry’s best-loved figures.

This month, we look at one of the artefacts in our collection: a copy of “A Ride to Khiva”. This book may not seem like much, but in fact, it details the adventures of one of the great heroes of the Household Cavalry; Frederick G. Burnaby, Commanding Officer of the Blues, Burnaby always had a thirst for adventure, and his curiousity was piqued when he heard rumours that travel to the city of Khiva, in what is modern day Uzbekistan, at the time under the control of Tsarist Russia like much of central Asia, was off-limits to foreign travellers.

Burnaby took it upon himself to travel out there, at his own expense and great personal risk, recording the things he saw on his journey in meticulous detail. Upon his return to Britain in 1876 and the book’s publication, the tale of Burnaby’s journey became a best-seller; it was the sort of derring-do adventure that went over extremely well with the Victorians, and Burnaby, already a hugely beloved figure in London high society, became even more feted for his daring exploits in the wilderness of Central Asia.

“Copy of ‘A Ride To Khiva” by Frederick G. Burnaby. Image belongs to L. Courtney 2017

Later this month, ‘A Ride to Khiva’ will be republished, allowing present-day readers to also follow Burnaby on his adventures across hostile territory and read about the things he saw and did on this daring trek from the streets of London to the sands of Uzbekistan.

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by James Jacques Tissot, oil on panel, 1870

Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby was one of the Household’s Cavalry’s most beloved and certainly most colourful heroes. A veritable giant of a man, standing at 6ft 4in tall and weighing 20 stone, Burnaby was exceptionally strong and frequently worked out in a London gym, much to the bemusement of his fellow officers (one of the many stories about him is that when a few younger officers locked a couple of ponies in his quarters for a practical joke, the next morning he carried the animals down to the mess room, one under each arm!)

Burnaby’s adventurous spirit, pioneering achievements, and swashbuckling courage earned him quite an affection in the minds of Victorian imperial idealists. As well as travelling across Europe and Central Asia, he mastered the art of ballooning, spoke a number of foreign languages fluently, stood for Parliament twice, published several books, made numerous contributions to the Times and other publications, and was admired and feted by the women of London High Society. His popularity was legendary, appearing in a number of stories and tales of empire. Even after his time as commanding officer of the Blues came to an end, he remained close to and retained a place in his heart for his former regiment; after being denied the chance to officially accompany his regiment by the War Office, he accompanied the Blues to Sudan in a civilian capacity, where he was ultimately to die fighting alongside his former regiment, killed at the Battle of Abu Klea on 17th January 1885 during the ultimately thwarted expedition to save General Charles Gordon at Khartoum, while trying to rescue a wounded comrade.

The Household Cavalry Museum has a number of artefacts, besides the copy of “A Ride to Khiva”, that belonged to Burnaby, including a winter dress frock coat worn by him during his time as Colonel of the Blues that demonstrates his proportions, as well as the boots Burnaby wore when he met his end at Abu Klea.

Some of the artefacts belonging to Colonel Burnaby, on display at the Household Cavalry Museum. Image belongs to L.Courtne,y 2017