The marriage and kidnapping of Walter Burton Harris

Certainly the most fascinating individual to have ever lived in Tangier was Walter Burton Harris who arrived in 1886 only a few months after the departure of the Richard Burtons. Harris came as a member of William Kirby Green's mission to the sultan, Green being Drummond Hay's replacement. Harris, a short, slightly-built young man, mustached and goateed and irresistibly charming, was the second son of one of the wealthy owners of London's Harris-Dixon Shipping Line.

Walter Burton Harris, marriage and kidnapping

At both Harrow and Cambridge he'd enjoyed the excellent education and lofty privileges of his high social rank, and had sailed around the world before he was 18. Tangier bowled him over at first sight. Putting up at the third-class New York Hotel for $1.20 a day, including meals, he at once looked around for a suitable place to live. He found it in 21 acres close to Tangier Bay and just across a little stream known as the Wad el Halk some three miles east of the city walls. Covering this estate with rare flowers, shrubs, bushes under a forest of green trees, Harris built a splendid mansion replete with the finest tiles from Fez and ceilings of cedar wood from the Rif. The Villa Harris would remain his beloved homo for half a century.

Walter Harris, his wealth giving him instant entree into Tangier's high society, joined the pig-sticking set enthusiastically, thrilled to the chase either near his villa at Cape Spartel, or southward on the other side of Tangier down at the Diplomatic Forest. What could surpass the dinner around a campfire under the stars afterwards, and the fun of storytelling? He soon learned acceptable Arabic yet found that much of Moorish culture eluded him.

Harris liked to hang out at what is now the Cafe Central in the Soco Chico but was then, in the 1880's, a vaulted cave of a bar run by a fat Cypriot named Antonio Sotiry. He had an old piano, and when his European habitues were not drinking Spanish red wine by the light of paraffin lamps while immersed in gossip and intellectual discussions, some among them could be counted upon to pep up the party by playing the latest tunes from London, Paris, Berlin and Rome.

You could meet almost anybody at Sotiry's, surely the most Bohemian bar in Morocco, and Harris enjoyed some excellent discussions there with such stars as the French novelist, Pierre Loti, and Monsieur Levy, conductor of the Munich Opera's orchestra. Loti didn't like Tangier — not because of the dirty, savage medina, but because it was too civilized.

Most of Tangier's Europeans at this time were Spanish, the majority either escaped criminals or social dregs. The minority was composed of three factions, "those who will know each other, those who will not know each other, and those who must know each other and don't want to." Yet all of them could be kind and hospitable when it suited them, and there were frequent riding parties, afternoon teas, picnics — sometimes with champagne, and held at such novel sites as the Grottoes of Hercules, a series of sea-sculpted caverns a few miles south of the city — and "cheery little dinners." People rode everywhere, usually at 4 or 5 of an afternoon. There were no bridges over the local streams, and though these were shallow, you had to be wary of quicksands of which there were many treacherously shifting pools.

The Tanjawis fascinated Harris. He found the Jews mostly difficult and unpleasant, the Moors more pagan than Muslim. Little boys were circumcised between the ages of 3 and 5, followed by public parading and feast. Brides were selected for them at any age from 12 to 16, the boy's family paying a dowry to cover a trousseau, a series of feasts and solace to soften the alleged grief of the bride's family to lose her. Theoretically Muslims could have four wives, as well as concubines without number, but of course only the richest could afford such wholesale involvement. For in addition to keeping these women and their children each wife could demand her own house and servants.

Harris marries Lady Mary Saville

If anybody ever lived a charmed life, Walter Harris certainly did... But there was nothing subtle about Harris's surprising marriage to Lady Mary Saville, daughter of the 4th Earl of Mexborough, in 1898. Tangier society raised its collective eyebrows even higher over this event since it was common knowledge that Harris preferred the intímate companionship of handsome young Moors. Indeed, the marriage was said to have lasted only a few hours, Lady Mary having discovered Harris's predilection only after the ceremony. Thus the affair ended in utter tragedy, Lady Mary returned to England within days, so upset, it was reported in Tangier, that she lost her reason.

Coincidentally, Harris had been entertaining Kathleen, the wife of the social big-wig, Colonel Mansell-Pleydell, and her two young children, to tea, when the sudden decision to ride to Zinat was made. The Pleydell's had only just arrived at the Villa Harris, and on the spot decided to join the Zinat quest. According to Kathleen's memoirs of Tangier, published as Sketches of Life in Morocco, in 1907, Harris was riding somewhat ahead of the others when, abruptly surrounded by tribesmen, he yelled at the others, "Ride for your lives!" At that, Kathleen, her children and the groom turned and sped madly back to the city. Though admitting that she was extremely worried about Harris, the lady passed through Tangier, rode all the way to her home on the Mountain in the woods next to Perdicaris's Idonia, changed her clothes, and only then rode back into town to alert the British Legation.

Harris kidnapped by Raisuli's men

Walter Harris after his release by El Raissuni
But not everybody in Tangier approved of the writer, and more than a few Tangerinos would always believe that Harris and Raisuli together fabricated the whole incident, Harris thus adding to his flamboyant reputation — and splitting with Raisuli an alleged ransom secretly paid by Her Majesty's Government. After all, what was Harris doing anywhere near Zinat when for years both the sultan and the British had broadcast that they couldn't be responsible for anybody caught and held by tribesmen?

During the summer of 1888, Harris had become intrigued by the danger of visiting Chaouen — and getting back alive — and irritated by the fact that Frenchman Charles de Foucauld, an army officer turned ascetic, had been the first European ever to do it five years before. Chaouen perched in a niche of the Rif above the valley of the Beni Hassan some 40 miles southeast of Tangier, and now Harris determined to be only the second European to make it there and back. And so on a July morning at the dead hour of 3 a.m., dressed as a Moor and carrying his tooth brush, a pencil and paper, 50 cigarettes, a blanket and a revolver with 25 rounds, he set out on muleback. He also took Selim, his young servant, which was cheating in a way since Selim was a native of Chaouen.

In the event, they took ten hours to get to Tetuan, about half way, at the foot of the Rif range. Most Europeans were impressed with this little city because of its beauty, rich Moors fleeing from Spain several hundred years ago having chosen to live there. At this period it was considered to be the finest city in Morocco, impressive with many palaces replete with patios, orange and palm trees, and splashing fountains. Leaving Tetuan and plodding up the valley, they were suddenly stopped by tribesmen demanding to know who they were.

Walter Harries suffers stroke in 1933 and dies

Tangier was stunned to learn that Walter Harris had suddenly become paralyzed, had been taken off the ship bound for the Orient and had been put into George V. Hospital on Malta. On April 4, 1933, he died, his body being shipped back to Tangier. After services in St. Andrew's Church, just downhill from the Hotel Villa de France, he was buried in the churchyard at the conclusion of the largest funeral in the city's history.

Excerpts from
Stars in the Formament. Tangier characters 1660-1960
David Woolman
Passegiata Press, 1998.

1 comentario:

  1. me gusta pasar por estos escritos y leer historias pasadas de una ciudad especial en la que tuve la suerte de nacer y crecer...hay tanto que aprender en estas páginas...gracias por recopilar tantos datos, muchisimos de los cuales confirman mi ignorancia....