Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1821-1890

If Richard Francis Burton had never set foot in Africa, he would still be remembered as the most erudite adventurer of the Victorian Age. Today, he is as well known for translating the Arabian Nights (and adding “Aladdin and His Magic Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to its canon) and the Kama Sutra into English as for discovering the source of the Nile with his expedition partner John Hanning Speke. Burton’s accomplishments extend well beyond these, however, and the range of his interests, as reflected in the terms often used to describe him, is truly astonishing: explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, ethnologist, linguist, poet, hypnotist, fencer, diplomat. According to one count, he spoke twenty-nine European, Asian, and African languages, including Arabic, Greek, Hindustani, Icelandic, Swahili, and Turkish. During his life he published forty-three volumes on his explorations and almost thirty volumes of translations.

Undated photograph of Burton, from Men of Mark (London, 1876). Evident in his upper cheek is the scar from a spear point driven through his face during a skirmish with Somali tribesmen in 1854. [Rare Books Division]

Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Hope, one feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood. . . . A journey, in fact, appeals to the Imagination, to Memory, to Hope,—the three sister Graces of our moral being.

—Burton, Zanzibar (London, 1872), vol. 1, pp. 16-17

Born in Devon, England, to a British army officer and the heiress of a wealthy Hertfordshire squire, Burton spent his early life (1821-1841) in France and traveled in England, France, and Italy. He showed a gift for languages and began studying Arabic when he entered Trinity College, Oxford; but he was expelled in 1842 for violating college rules.

Burton enlisted in the army of the British East India Company and began the military phase of his life (1842-1849) in Gujurat, India. He eventually acquired the nickname “Ruffian Dick” for his ferocity as a fighter. During this period, Burton studied the Hindu culture, often “went native,” and learned to travel in disguise. As a member of a team surveying Sindh, a province in Pakistan, he learned to use scientific measuring instruments that would prove useful in his future explorations.

Taking a leave from the army to pursue more ambitious adventures, Burton spent some time preparing to make the Hajj, the annual holy pilgrimage to Mecca (and Medina), disguised as a Muslim. His success in 1853 on this dangerous undertaking—detection of a European unbeliever would have resulted in immediate death—earned him fame, the title of Hajji, and the right in the Arab world to wear a green turban. It demonstrated his knowledge of Islamic rituals and his proficiency in Eastern manners and etiquette. Next, on a journey with other East India Company officers, including John Hanning Speke, Burton took a side trip to the forbidden city of Harar in East Africa, where no European had ever entered [see map of expedition]. Assuming the role of a merchant called Haji Mirza Abdullah, he met the ruler, spent ten days, and returned safely to Berbera, where he rejoined the others. It was there on the coast of Somalia [see map] that Burton’s party was attacked: he got a spear through the face, and Speke was badly wounded . After recovering. Burton rejoined the army and sought active service in the Crimean War with a corps of local fighters, which was later disbanded.

In 1856, funded by the Royal Geographical Society, Burton and Speke teamed up to explore the uncharted lake regions of central Africa, hoping also to discover the source of the Nile. Leaving from Zanzibar in June 1857, they located Lake Tanganyika in February 1858. The expedition was fraught with problems with porters, much equipment was lost or stolen, and tropical diseases weakened both men for long periods. With Burton too sick to accompany him, Speke journeyed farther north and found Lake Victoria. No European had ever seen these lakes, but Speke lacked the supplies and equipment to undertake a proper survey. The explorers returned to England separately, Speke arriving first and claiming he had discovered the Nile’s source. Burton, who had kept detailed geographical and cultural notes, argued that Speke’s evidence was inconclusive and lacked accurate measurements. A long, public quarrel between the men ensued—and continued after Speke’s second expedition (1860-1863) to the lake region with James Augustus Grant. It ended on 16 September 1864. Just before the two men were scheduled to debate the Nile issue in front of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, word arrived that Speke had died in a freak hunting accident. Many believed it was a suicide.

Although he would undertake other expeditions in Africa and elsewhere, Burton turned to a diplomatic career and scholarship after he married Isabel Arundell in 1861. His first assignment in the Foreign Service was as consul at Fernando Póo (today’s Bioko), an island in the Bight of Biafra off the west coast of Africa. He was transferred to Santos in Brazil in 1865, and then became consul at Damascus in 1869. He was caught in a flare-up of tensions among the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim populations and made many enemies while there; to resolve the situation, the British government transferred him to Trieste (then part of Austria-Hungary) in 1871, which would be his final home.

In 1879 Burton began in earnest to translate the Arabian Nights, a project he had considered since his earliest days in India and the Middle East. Published in 1885 in ten volumes, with a supplement of six additional volumes (1886-1888), Burton’s version, with its poetry and copious scholarly notes, has always been considered the definitive edition. Queen Victoria awarded him a knighthood (KCMG) on 5 February 1885. After his death in 1890, his wife burned most of his papers, both extensive journals and unfinished manuscripts, to the shock of his family and followers and the detriment of history.

Considered both a hero and a scoundrel in his time, Burton attracted controversy wherever he went. His frankness concerning sexuality in his published writings offended many Victorians. However, his deep interest in the ethnology and languages of the non-European cultures he encountered in Asia, Africa, and North and South America contributed greatly to the 19th-century tradition of exploration, helping to raise it from adventure travel to scientific and anthropological investigation and the pursuit of knowledge, secular, religious, and arcane.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1821-1890