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Burton, Sir Richard

Burton, Sir Richard (1821–90). Traveller, Arabist, and great Victorian outsider, Burton joined the Indian army in 1842. In India he learned numerous languages and much obscure lore, not least about Islam. Hence he was credible when he travelled to Mecca disguised as an Arab in 1853. Now famous, he led an expedition to Harar in north-east Africa before being chosen by the Royal Geographical Society to lead their great east African expedition of 1856. Burton discovered Lake Tanganyika in 1858. He was led by increasingly acrimonious arguments with his companion Speke to insist for a time that Tanganyika was the source of the Nile. Burton was in fact happier as a traveller than as a strictly scientific explorer and his best monuments are more than 50 books with their masses of cultural information. He had tended to see Africans through the eyes of Arab traders, disliked the missionary approach to Africa, and favoured the racist outlook of the Anthropological Society. Later travels, sometimes as a British consul, took him to the Gold Coast, Mount Cameroon, Dahomey, Brazil, and the American West. He published translations of the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra. This and other exploits shocked many Victorians, including his wife, who destroyed most of his papers.

Roy C. Bridges

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