Sir Richard Burton Early Life
Richard Francis Burton was born on March 19, 1821, in Torquay, Devonshire. He was the eldest son of Mary Baker and Colonel Joseph Netterton Burton, an Irish officer who retired from an undistinguished military career in 1821. His parents moved to Tours, France, where Burton acquired a fluency in European languages while accompanying his parents on their frequent travels on the Continent. After an inconsistent early education, including a brief stay at a private school in Richmond, Burton returned to the Continent, where his adolescence consisted of an unruly, undisciplined lifestyle. He attended Trinity College, Oxford, from 1840 to 1842, but he was dismissed for an ambivalent attitude and disobedience. Fellow students at Oxford called him “Ruffian Dick.”
Having developed an interest in Oriental languages while at Trinity College, Burton enlisted in 1842 as an officer in the East India Company Army. He was sent to Gujarat and then to the Sind, where he lived among the Moslems for seven years while learning several Eastern languages, including Hindi and Arabic. Burton served briefly as an intelligence officer under Sir Charles Napier, the British Commander during the Indian Wars (1842-1849). He often performed intelligence missions which entailed going to the native bazaars in disguise and bringing back reports, which were generally excellent. On Napier’s orders in 1845, Burton, with his usual thoroughness, undertook an investigation of the influence of homosexual brothels on British soldiers, and his detailed study led to their destruction. Unfortunately, a jealous officer later used the report in an effort to destroy Burton’s military career. Although exonerated, Burton, suffering from cholera, was sent back to England on extended sick leave in 1849.
Burton lived with his family in Boulogne for the next three years while writing three books about his Indian experiences. At the age of thirty, Burton was an imposing figure. Almost six feet tall, with piercing eyes and a dark complexion, he looked like an Arab. While in France, he continued his study of Oriental languages (during a lifetime of travel, he would eventually master more than forty languages and dialects) and completed plans for his first great adventure, a visit to Arabia.
Sir Richard Burton Life’s Work
Burton had always wanted to visit the Moslem shrines in Mecca. In 1853, the Royal Geographic Society helped him obtain a leave from the army, and Burton traveled by caravan from Cairo to the sacred city of Mecca disguised as an Afghan doctor. Using four languages and performing all the ceremonies and rituals of a devout Moslem, he penetrated the holiest shrines of Islam. Instead of returning to England to write of his experiences, Burton traveled to the equally forbidden Moslem city of Harar in Abyssinia. In 1854, he became the first European to visit Harar without being executed. He later wrote Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah (1855-1856), which was not only a great adventure story but also a commentary on Moslem culture, and First Footsteps in Africa (1856), which described his adventures in Harar.
While in Africa, Burton met John Hanning Speke, also an East India Company officer. After his visit to Harar, the two officers led an expedition into Somaliland. Their camp was unexpectedly attacked by Somali warriors near Berbera. One member of the expedition was killed, and Speke was seriously wounded. Burton suffered a spear-wound in the jaw and was forced to return to England to recover.
In July, 1855, Burton volunteered for the Crimean War and trained the Turkish Bashi-Bazouk Irregular Cavalry while serving as chief of staff to General William F. Beatson. Despite his efforts, Burton saw no action at the front, and when Beatson left the army, Burton also resigned and returned to England in October, 1855.
In London, Burton again met Speke, who had also served in the Crimea, and described his plan to form an expedition to find the source of the Nile River. Speke had for a long time shared this goal, and when Burton asked him to join the expedition, Speke readily agreed. Since Burton had secured a grant of a thousand pounds from the Foreign Office and had obtained the patronage of the Royal Geographic Society, he was the leader of the expedition, with Speke as second in command. Their charge was to ascertain the limits of the Sea of Ujiji, which had been described by East African missionaries, to determine the exportable goods of the interior and to study the ethnography of the tribes. They were also instructed to discover the source of the Nile and the location of the legendary, but nonexistent, Mountains of the Moon. Organizational ability was not one of Burton’s great talents, and they wasted nearly six months planning and exploring the coastal areas near Zanzibar before hurriedly recruiting porters and moving into the interior.
On July 1, 1857, Burton and Speke departed from Bagamoyo and followed the traditional trade route to Kazeh, the site of modern Tabora. They reached Kazeh on November 7 and spent nearly a month reorganizing the expedition. They set out for Ujiji on December 5 with the knowledge gained from Swahili-speaking merchants that the Sea of Ujiji was...
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Sir Richard Burton Biography
Sir Richard Francis Burton’s adventurousness, curiosity, linguistic skills, and writing talent make a summary of his contributions almost impossible to believe. He was a Renaissance man: soldier, diplomat, explorer, ethnologist, archaeologist, translator, and poet. He was also competent as a botanist, zoologist, geologist, swordsman, artist, and physician. His greatest claim to fame, however, was in the field of exploration. He possessed the same passion for geographical study that produced great British African explorers such as Speke, Stanley, David Livingstone, Samuel Baker, and others. Unlike his fellow explorers, Burton was a scholar, who described much more than his expeditions. In carefully footnoted and annotated books, he described tribes, customs, religions, climate, geography, and countless other topics. He wrote forty-three volumes on his explorations and travels, two volumes of poetry, and more than a hundred articles, and he translated twenty-eight volumes from other languages.
Burton’s translations of Oriental erotica, including the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana (1883), The Perfumed Garden of Cheikh Nefzaoui, and the unexpurgated “Arabian Nights” tales, earned for him greater literary fame and financial rewards than his heavily documented works on exploration, swordsmanship, falconry, religion, gorillas, and archaeological ruins.
In the field of human sexual behavior, Burton anticipated the psychological insights of Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis. Burton has been recognized by modern scholars as one of the pioneers in anthropology. Unfortunately, many of Burton’s scientific achievements were overshadowed by his adventures in Mecca and Harar, his expeditions to Africa, and his public anger over the cant and hypocrisy of Victorian prudery. He approached all challenges with enthusiasm, earnestness, dedicated scholarship, and courage. Burton’s adventurous life and difficult disposition dominated the books that he wrote, but he lived according to his personal creed that he preferred honor to honors.
Sir Richard Burton Bibliography
Assad, Thomas J. Three Victorian Travellers: Burton, Blunt, Doughty. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964. An interpretive character study. Concentrates almost exclusively on Burton’s preoccupation with Arabia and the Moslem world.
Brodie, Fawn M. The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1967. A highly respected psychoanalytic biography which argues that Burton was “devil-driven” as an explorer-adventurer.
Farwell, Byron. Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. The best biography of Burton. Objective, straightforward, and engagingly written.
Hastings, Michael. Sir...
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