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Richard Francis Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton (March 19, 1821 - October 19, 1890), British consul, explorer, translator, and Orientalist, was born at Barham House, Hertfordshire, England.

He travelled alone and in disguise to Mecca, translated The Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra, journeyed with John Henning Speke to discover the great lakes of Africa and the sources of the Nile, visited with Brigham Young in Salt Lake City, Utah, traveled far and wide, and wrote much. He later served as British Consul in Trieste, Damascus, and Fernando Po. He was knighted in 1866.

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Early Life and Education

During his childhood Burton was much among the Romany people (then known as Gypsies) and many felt his wild, resentful, and vagabond character reflected these early associations. He was much loved by the Romany, who considered him one of them. Later, still a boy, he travelled much in France and Italy learning much about languages and peoples and little about discipline.

He was ill-fitted for Oxford University, whence he was expelled for challenging a fellow undergraduate to a duel for mocking his military mustache. He joined the Army of the British East India Company not to be a soldier, but to study Oriental life and languages. He had begun Arabic on his own at Oxford and formally studied Hindustani in London. Once in India, he gained astonishingly rapid proficiency in Gujarati, Marathi, and Hindustani, as well as Persian and Arabic. According to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian, and African languages and countless dialects.

First Explorations and Journey to Mecca

He was appointed to the Sind survey, which enabled him to mix with the people, and he frequently passed as a native in the bazaars and deceived his own native language teacher as well as his colonel and messmates. His wanderings in Sind were the apprenticeship for the pilgrimage to Mecca, and his seven years in India laid the foundations of his unparalleled familiarity with Eastern life and customs, especially among the lower classes. His investigations of Indian prostitution, both male and female, were shocking to his countrymen.

The pilgrimage to Mecca in 1853 made Burton famous. He had planned it whilst mixing disguised among the Muslims of Sind, and had laboriously prepared for the ordeal by study and practice. No doubt the primary motive was the love of adventure, which was his strongest passion, but it was an explorer's passion, and Burton's journey was approved by the Royal Geographical Society[?]. Although he intended to fill in a blank on the map, the area was at war, and his journey went no farther than Medina and Mecca.

The exploit of accompanying the Muslim hadji (pilgrims) to the holy cities was not unique, nor so dangerous as has been imagined. Several Europeans accomplished it before and since Burton. Nonetheless, he did it with great skill. He was the first Englishman to take the trip. He disguised himself as a Pathan to account for any oddities in speech, but he still had to demonstrate an understanding of intricate Islamic ritual, and a familiarity with the minutiae of Eastern manners and etiquette. And when he stumbled, he needed presence of mind and cool courage. The actual journey was less remarkable than the book in which it was recorded, The Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855). As the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica put it,

"Its vivid descriptions, pungent style, and intensely personal 'note' distinguish it from books of its class; its insight into Semitic modes of thought and its picture of Arab manners give it the value of an historical document; its grim humour, keen observation and reckless insobriety of opinion; expressed in a peculiar, uncouth but vigorous language make it a curiosity of literature."

Exploration of the Somali Country

Burton's next journey was to explore the interior of the Somali Country[?] (modern Somalia), as British authorities wanted to protect the Red Sea trade. He was was assisted by Capt. John Hanning Speke and two other young officers, but accomplished the most difficult part of the trip alone, a journey to Harrar, the Somali capital, which no European had entered. Burton vanished into the desert, and was not heard of for four months. When he reappeared he had not only been to Harrar, but had talked with the king, stayed ten days there in deadly peril, and ridden back across the desert, almost without food and water, running the gauntlet of the Somali spears all the way.

Undeterred by this experience he set out again, but his party had a skirmish with the tribes, in which one of his young officers was killed. Speke was wounded in eleven places, and Burton had a javelin thrust through his jaws. His book First Footsteps in East Africa (1856), describing these adventures, is considered one of his most exciting and most characteristic books, full of learning, observation and humour.

He returned to the army, but saw no action in the Crimean War, serving on the staff of a corps of Bashi-bazouks, local fighters under British command, in the Dardanelles.

Sources of the Nile

In 1856, he returned to Africa, sent by the Foreign Office under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society[?] to search for the unknown sources of the Nile river. He was again accompanied by Speke and together they explored the lake regions of equatorial Africa. They found Lake Tanganyika in February 1858. Burton was ill and Speke continued exploring along lines indicated by Burton, eventually found the great Lake Victoria, or Victoria Nyanza. Speke's claims to a separate discovery of Lake Victoria led to a bitter dispute, but the discovery of the lakes under Burton's direction led to further explorations by Speke and James Augustus Grant[?], Sir Samuel Baker[?], and David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley. As the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica states, Burton's reports to the Royal Geographical Society, and his book Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa (1860), are "the true parents of the multitudinous literature of 'darkest Africa'" and coupled with further explorations in East Africa led directly to British colonial domination of most of the continent.

Diplomatic Service and Scholarship

In 1861, he formally entered the foreign service as consul at Fernando Po, the modern island of Bioko in Equatorial Guinea, and later served in Santos, Brazil, Damascus, and Trieste. He wrote books on all these locations. His service in Damascus led to his Unexplored Syria (1872), and would have seemed an ideal post, except that his quarrelsome nature led to a transfer to Trieste.

His numerous books of this period are filled with facts and sardonic asides aimed at his enemies, but had little popular success. As the Britannica put it, "Burton had not the charm of style or imagination which gives immortality to a book of travel."

In 1863 Burton co-founded the Anthropological Society of London with Dr. James Hunt. In Burton's own words, the main aim of the society (through the publication of the periodical Anthropologia) was "to supply travelers with an organ that would rescue their observations from the outer darkness of manuscript and print their curious information on social and sexual matters".

By far the most celebrated of all his books is his translation of the Arabian Nights under his title of The Thousand Nights and a Night in 16 volumes, (1885-1888). As a monument to his Arabic learning and his encyclopaedic knowledge of Eastern life this translation was his greatest achievement. His scholarship and translation have been criticized, but the work reveals a profound acquaintance with the vocabulary and customs of the Muslims, not only the classical idiom but the vulgarest slang, not only their philosophy, but their secret sexual lives as well. Burton's "anthropological notes", both earlier in India, and in the Arabian Nights, were considered pornography at the time they were published. His translation of The Perfumed Garden was burned by his widow, Isabel Arundel Gordon, because she believed it would be harmful to his reputation.

Other works of note included Vikram and the Vampire, Hindu Tales (1870) and his uncompleted history of swordsmanship[?], The Book of the Sword (1884). He also translated The Lusiads, the Portuguese national epic by Luis de Camoens, in 1880 and wrote a sympathetic biography of the poet and adventurer the next year. The book "The Jew, the Gipsy and el Islam" published in 1898 contains many anti-semitic myths.

His widow wrote a biography of her husband which is the record of a lifetime of devotion. Another monument is the Arab tent of stone and marble which she built for his tomb at Mortlake in southwest London.


  • "He was, as has been well said, an Elizabethan born out of time; in the days of Drake his very faults might have counted to his credit." Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition.
  • "Before middle age, he compressed into his life more of study, more of hardship, and more of successful enterprise and adventurer, than would have sufficed to fill up the existence of half a dozen ordinary men." Lord Derby, 19th century parliamentarian.

A fictionalized version of Burton is one of the main characters in Philip José Farmer's Riverworld novels.

External links

e-texts of some of Sir Richard Francis Burton's works:

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