Sir Richard Francis Burton

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Sir Richard Francis Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), English explorer, scholar, poet, translator, and diplomat, explored in Africa and Asia and studied Oriental literature and American religions.

Richard Burton was born on March 19, 1821, in the west of England into the family of a ne'er-do-well gentleman soldier and a putative descendant of an illegitimate son of Louis XIV. Soon the family moved to Tours, France, where Burton received a classical education. As a boy, he exhibited courage, derring-do, and a wavering self-control. When he was 10, Burton's family returned briefly to England. He went to school in Richmond, his days punctuated by fighting and wild escapades. Back in France and then in Italy, where Burton spent his adolescent years, his wildness was more characteristic than learning.

Burton attended Trinity College, Oxford, from 1840 to 1842, when he was dismissed for disobedience. Entering the Indian army, he spent the next 7 years studying 11 languages (passing examinations in most and publishing original grammars in 2), practicing his gifts for disguise, learning geodesy, and gathering the material for a book on Goa, two books on Sindh, a discourse on falconry, and a book on bayonet exercise which was ultimately adopted as a British army manual.

In 1852, having begun the courtship of Isabel Arundell which was to result in marriage in 1861, Burton concocted a scheme (he was then on sick leave from the Indian army) to learn the secrets of Mecca and Medina, the jealously guarded shrines of Islam. In April 1853 a bearded Burton stained himself with henna, called himself an Afghani doctor, and for many months sustained the disguise despite varied opportunities of detection. The result of this spectacular exploit was a readable and learned book of travel, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and El Medina (1855).

Explorations in Africa

The Arabian adventure whetted Burton's ambitions as an explorer. He turned his attention to the Horn of Africa and, in company with John Speke and others, Burton began an exploration of Somalia and eastern Ethiopia that, for him, culminated in a dangerous foray to the "forbidden" Moslem city-state of Harar, which he was the first white man to visit. Afterward, near Berbera, Burton and Speke had to flee the country after an attack by Somali which left them both wounded. The published account of this African escapade was contained in First Footsteps in East Africa; or An Exploration of Harar (1856).

After participating in the Crimean War, Burton persuaded the Royal Geographical Society in 1855 to appoint him leader of an expedition to ascertain the limits of the "Sea of Ujiji," which had been outlined by missionaries in East Africa, and to "determine the exportable produce of the interior and the enthnography of its tribes." He was urged to seek the source of the Nile and the location of the mountains of the Moon. First Burton visited Kilwa, Mombasa, and the Usambara mountains; these minor exploits formed the basis of Zanzibar: City, Island, and Coast (2 vols., 1872).

Then, in 1857, from Bagamoyo on the Indian Ocean, Burton, Speke, and African guides and porters followed the traditional route to Tabora, where they arrived 10 months later. Burton had begun to suffer intermittent bouts of fever, but he proceeded westward to the trading town of Ujiji, where, early in 1858, he became the first European in modern times to view Lake Tanganyika; what Burton saw was but one of the three components, Lakes Victoria and Nyasa being the others, of the Sea of Ujiji. This was the conclusion of Burton's greatest African performance, appropriately expressed in the lavishly written, intellectually expansive pages of The Lake Regions of Central Africa (2 vols., 1860). There are copious notes on the peoples with whom Burton had become acquainted, on the Arab and Indian traders of the interior, on the topography of what was to become Tanganyika, on its flora and fauna, and on a vast miscellany which Burton—a true encyclopedist—had recorded.

After returning to Britain and publishing his book, Burton, by way of diversion, crossed North America, particularly focusing upon the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons); The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (1861) is jammed with random but important information.

Consular Career and West African Explorations

Burton married Isabel in 1861 and, presumably because of his new responsibilities, decided to take a position in the British consular service. He wanted to go to Damascus but, instead, was offered the comparatively lowly post of consul to the Bights of Benin and Biafra, with a base on Fernando Po. This was known as the Foreign Office grave, but Burton used it to visit Abeokuta, the Egba Yoruba capital in western Nigeria; to climb Mt. Cameroons; to venture up the Gabon River in search of gorillas and to learn about a native people called the Pahouin or Fang; to explore the estuary of the Congo River; and to visit the Portuguese colony of Angola.

In 1864 he paid an official call upon Gelele, King of the Fon of Dahomey. The slave trade still flourished there, and the Foreign Office was determined to negotiate its conclusion. Burton, unhappily, failed to persuade the Fon to cease participating in the trade, but he did acquire a typically full and valuable knowledge of the kingdom, its religion, its culture, and even its Amazons. The published record of these West African years includes a two-volume account of Nigeria and the Cameroons (1863), reminiscences of his wanderings throughout the region (1863), A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome (2 vols., 1864), and a book on Gabon and the Congo (2 vols., 1876).

Burton spent the rest of his life far from Africa. He was a consul in Brazil, in Damascus, and finally in Trieste. And he wrote, translated, or edited 35 more books, not least of which were his famous translations The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (10 vols., 1885-1888) and The Kama Sutra (1883). He died in Trieste on Oct. 20, 1890.

Further Reading

The standard modern biographies of Burton are Byron Farwell, Burton (1963), and Fawn H. Brodie, The Devil Drives (1967). Among the older biographies, Georgiana M. Stisted, The True Life of Capt. Sir Richard F. Burton (1896), is valuable. The standard bibliography is Norman M. Penzer, An Annotated Bibliography of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1923). Sir Reginald Coupland, The Exploitation of East Africa, 1856-1890: The Slave Trade and the Scramble (1939; 2d ed. 1968), includes material on Burton.

Additional Sources

Rice, Edward, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: the secret agent who made the pilgrimage to Mecca, discovered the Kama Sutra, and brought the Arabian nights to the West, New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1991.

McLynn, F. J., Burton: snow upon the desert, London: John Murray, 1990.

Hastings, Michael, Sir Richard Burton: a biography, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978.

Farwell, Byron, Burton: a biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1988, 1963.

Dearden, Seton, Burton of Arabia: the life story of Sir Richard Francis Burton, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978, c1937.

Burton, Isabel, Lady, The life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, Boston: Longwood Press, 1977.

Brodie, Fawn McKay, The Devil drives: a life of Sir Richard Burton, New York: Norton, 1984. □

Sir Richard Francis Burton

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Sir Richard Francis Burton


British Explorer and Scholar

An adventurer with a gift for languages, Sir Richard Francis Burton was the first European to reach many of the once forbidden areas of the world, including many ancient Muslim cities, as well as Lake Tanganyika during his quest for the source of the Nile River. He wrote extensively of his travels, publishing 43 volumes and providing invaluable insight into the religion, lives, and customs of the people with whom he came in contact. In addition, he translated many texts of the East for Westerners, including the Kama Sutra and the definitive translation of Arabian Nights.

Born to a retired officer of the British army and his wealthy British wife, Burton was the oldest of three children. He and his brother and sister grew up in England, France, and Italy. By all accounts an unruly child, Burton nevertheless showed promise in his studies, including a great gift for languages. When he arrived at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1840, he was already fluent in Greek, Latin, Italian, and French. (He would eventually master 40 languages and dialects.)

He was expelled only two years later, however, due to disciplinary problems. He decided to join the English army, and Burton became an officer during Britain's campaigns in Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan. Having now mastered the Arabic and Hindi languages, he became an accomplished and valuable spy.

After his army service, Burton began his exploration of ancient Muslim cities. In 1853, disguised as an Afghanistani Muslim, he visited Cairo, Egypt, and the holy cities of Islam, Mecca, and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Though not the first non-Muslim to visit Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, Burton provided the most insightful and comprehensive information to date about the place and its people in his book, Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Mecca. In 1854, he led an expedition to Harar in what is now Ethiopia, and became the first European to enter that city. He wrote of this adventure in First Footsteps in East Africa.

Harar was Burton's first step toward his journey to find the source of the Nile, specifically the White Nile, which joins the Blue Nile to form the Nile River. British army officers, including John Hanning Speke (1827-1864), accompanied Burton in 1855, but their expedition was cut short by an attack by Somali natives, who seriously injured Burton and Speke. After returning to England to recover, Burton and Speke began a new expedition in East Africa in 1857. Both near death, they saw Lake Tanganyika on the border of what is now Zaire and Tanzania, the first Europeans ever to do so. Burton believed he had found the White Nile's source, but Speke pushed on, discovering Lake Victoria and claiming it as the source. Burton and Speke remained at odds over their discoveries, though Lake Victoria was eventually proven to be the true source of the White Nile.

In 1861, Burton married Isabel Arundell and began his career with the British Foreign Office, which included assignments in Brazil, Syria, and Italy. These posts allowed him time to continue his writing and his translations, including the erotic literature of the East, with which he became increasingly fascinated. He was determined to expose his repressed and conservative Victorian society to the views of these works, and to advocate the sexual liberation of women, as well as men. His controversial work continued with his translation of the Eastern sexual manual, the Kama Sutra, and culminated in the 16-volume translation of Arabian Nights, a collection of Persian-Indian-Arabian stories (including "Sinbad the Sailor"), which he annotated with essays and footnotes regarding customs and sexual practices.

Due to society's view of her husband's scandalous work, Burton's wife burned most of his diaries and journals after he died, attempting to protect her husband's reputation and place in history.


Burton, Sir Richard Francis

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Burton, Sir Richard Francis (1821–90) English explorer and scholar. In 1853 he travelled in disguise to Medina and Mecca, one of the first Europeans to visit the holy cities. On his second trip to e Africa, with John Speke in 1857, he discovered Lake Tanganyika. The author of many books, he was best known for his translation of the Arabian Nights (1885–88).

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