Richard Francis Burton (1821 - 1890)
Burton was raised in France and Italy and his talent for languages meant
that he was fluent in four languages and two dialects before he was
twenty: he would eventually learn 25 languages and another 15 dialects.
Expelled from Oxford
in 1842, he became an officer in the Bombay Native Infantry. Working
in intelligence, he was asked to investigate homosexual brothels in
Karachi; his explicit study resulted in their closure and also killed
his army career. Now intent on exploration, in 1855 Burton planned an
expedition with three others, including John Speke, to discover the
source of the Nile. They intended to push across Somaliland, but were
attacked and were forced to return to England.
The two returned
to Africa in 1857-58, travelling inland from Zanzibar. It was a difficult
trip; when they arrived at Lake Tanganyika, Speke was almost blind and
Burton could hardly walk. Speke pushed on alone and discovered Lake
Victoria, which he was convinced was the true source of the Nile. Burton
disagreed with him, the two became badly estranged and, in September
1864, a debate between the two ended in tragedy when Speke was killed
Burton's next move
was to the Foreign Office, which appointed him consul in Fernando Po,
a Spanish island off the coast of West Africa. During his three years
there, he gathered enough material for five books that described tribal
rituals - including ritual murder, cannibalism and sexual practices
- in explicit detail.
He spent four unhappy
years in Brazil before being appointed consul in Damascus. His initial
success was undermined by Muslim intrigue and his Catholic wife's evangelising
and he was dismissed in 1871. The next year he moved to Trieste, a place
he eventually came to regard as home. He continued writing, covering
subjects from Iceland to Ghana and translating Classical and Renaissance
literature. What excited him most, however, was Eastern erotica. He
translated and printed the Kama Sutra (1883) and The Perfumed Garden
(1886) and published a complete edition of the Arabian Nights (1885
- 88), which still stands unchallenged. Knighted in 1886, Burton died
in Trieste four years later.
of Sir Richard Burton
Burton was born near Elstree, Hertfordshire, on March 19, 1821, the
son of an army colonel. As a boy he accompanied his parents on their
frequent travels about the European continent. Burton and his brother
were first wild children -- at ten years of age, Burton stole his father's
rifle and shot out stained-glass church windows -- and, later, wilder
adolescents. They frequented the taverns, gambling dens, fencing salles,
and gypsy camps and brothels of France and Italy; they terrorized their
tutors. Burton later attended Oxford University, where he was known
as "Ruffian Dick" for his long moustaches and penchant for
challenging students to duels; he was eventually expelled for attending
horse races. He was overjoyed at leaving Oxford; he found the dons and
fellow students notably dull, and exited with a flair: he drove his
horses and carriage over the flower beds while blowing a trumpet.
At 21 Burton joined
the army of the East India Company and was posted to the Sindh, where
he lived with the Muslims and learned several Eastern languages and
dialects, including Iranian, Hindustani, and Arabic. (He mastered Arabic
and Hindi and, during his eight-year stay, became proficient also in
Marathi, Sindhi, Punjabi, Telugu, Pashto, and Multani. In his travels
in Asia, Africa, and South America, he learned 25 languages, with dialects
that brought the number to 40.
As an intelligence
officer assigned to go undercover in the souks and bazaars of the Sindh,
Burton [image] perfected his language ability and disguises and brought
information back to his commanding officer, the renowned Sir Charles
Napier. One assignment required him to investigate male brothels, where
he reported that many of the customers were British officers. His report
was hushed up and he came under close scrutiny after Napier was dispatched
from India. Ill with cholera and under the cloud of his report, he returned
home, at the age of 29.
After those seven
years in India he returned to recuperate with his mother and sister
in France, where he wrote four books on India in the next three years
and planned his next adventure: entering Mecca disguised as a Muslim
hajj. This feat, which if he were discovered would have resulted in
his summary execution by beheading or crucifixion, was not the first
time that a non-Muslim had breached the holy city. But Burton wrote
about his trip, where he posed as an Afghani physician [image], (Pilgrimage
to El Medinah and Mecca, 1855-56) as more than a travel narrative or
tale of adventure.
His work captured
the customs and morals of the Muslim peoples he encountered, in a manner
that modern anthropologists call "ethnology". When the Muslims
eventually found that he had secretly sketched the ka'aba while others
prayed and lived to write about it dispassionately, and that Burton
had expressed often his admiration for Muslim customs and beliefs, and
that he spoke Arabic so fluently, they ignored the insult saying that
he really was an Arab.
in triumph to England, Burton set out to to enter the forbidden Muslim
city of Harar, ostensibly to establish horse trading routes. All non-believers
who had entered this Somalian city before Burton had been executed,
and in this Burton became the first white man to enter and leave alive.
He wrote about this as First Footsteps in East Africa.
On leave again in
1854, Burton went again to Somaliland in eastern Africa with John Speke
to find the source of the Nile. Their party was attacked by Somali tribesmen;
Speke was seriously injured and Burton's jaw was pierced by a spear.
He returned to England to recuperate, when the Crimean War broke out.
After his recovery, in July 1855, he went to the Crimea to volunteer
in the war against Russia. Burton trained Turkish irregulars at the
front in the Dardanelles, but saw no action himself.
The war over, on
a second expedition in Africa with Speke (1857-58), Burton discovered
Lake Tanganyika in 1858. Speke -- correctly-- believed Victoria to be
the source of the Nile. He returned to England to become famous as the
discoverer of the Nile, but the dispute over the source led to a bitter
feud between them that ended only when Speke accidentally shot himself
on a hunting trip.
In 1860 Burton made
an overland trip to Utah to visit the Mormons and their leader. This
meeting with Brigham Young and extensive reporting on polygamy was reported
in The City of the Saints (1861). Shortly after his return from the
United States, in January 1861, he secretly married the aristocrat Isabel
Arundell [image], the daughter of an aristocratic (and Catholic) family.
Burton joined the
British Foreign Office as a consul to Fernando Po, a Spnaish island
off the coast of West Africa. From there he travelled to the African
continent often, resulting in five books that were popular for his description
of tribal rituals, cannibalism, and what were to the British reading
public, bizarre sexual customs. His preoccupation with all facets of
African cultures led the British home office to be wary of him.
He was posted next
as consul to Santos, Brazil. As usual, he wrote books about the area
(The Highlands of Brazil) and began his extensive translation of Camoens,
the Portuguese poet, and of Hindu folk-tales. But Burton loathed Brazil
and began drinking heavily, whereupon his wife petitioned the home office
to transfer him to the Middle East, to Damascus.
In Damascus Burton
was successful and happy for a time, but as usual, discontent set in,
which Burton always found difficult to suppress. His wife [image] created
additional troubles by her religious proselytizing that, coupled with
Arab intrigue, led to his dismissal.
In 1872 Burton [image]
was assigned to Trieste as consul. He wrote extensively there: travel
(Iceland, India, and Africa), archaeology (Italy), his own poetry (The
Kasidah), and translations of Italian, Roman, Persian poetry, and six
volumes of Camoens. He brought the erotica of the East in an unexpurgated
form (The Perfumed Garden,The Ananga Ranga, and The Kama Sutra of Vatsayana)
to the staid Victorian world, shocking and outraging them. Burton received
some measure of acclaim in his later years. Queen Victoria awarded him
the honor of Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George for his
service to England.
Burton died in Trieste
on October 20, 1890. Immediately following his death, his wife burned
his diaries and current manuscripts, and followed that up with her own
whitewashed version of his life, depicting him as a good Catholic, faithful
husband, and wronged and misunderstood adventurer. Rebuffed as unfit
to be buried in Westminster Abbey with Livingstone, Burton was later
buried at Mortlake in London.