Sir Richard Burton Biography

Start Your Free Trial

Download Sir Richard Burton Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Short Stories for Students)

Sir Richard F. Burton (1821–1890) was considered one of the most famous nineteenth-century Western adventurers and travel writers. His accounts of his journeys to India, Arabia, Africa, and North America gave him widespread fame in his lifetime, and his sixteen translations, including that of The Arabian Nights in 1885, brought him continued fame long after his death in Trieste, Italy.

Burton was born in Torquay, Devonshire to Joseph Netterville Burton, a British army officer, and Martha Baker. As a youth, Burton was exposed to many cultures, and upon entering Trinity College at Oxford at the age of nineteen, he had already mastered several languages and dialects.

After his expulsion from Oxford in 1842 for going to horse races, Burton took a commission in the army of the East India Company and moved to India; by the time he left India in 1849, he had already mastered several of the region’s languages. A study he was commissioned to undertake on the homosexual brothels of Karachi got Burton into some trouble with his authorities which, together with his having been ill with cholera, severely hindered his army career upon his return to England. He was, however, quickly able to turn his travels into his first published book: Goa, and the Blue Mountains; or, Six Months of Sick Leave, an account of the native population of Goa, of the Malabar Hindus, and of the mountain-dwelling Todas, who practiced polyandry.

In 1852 Burton became the first Westerner to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina—an act that was forbidden to non-Muslims under penalty of death and therefore required Burton to assume an elaborate disguise. News of his travels enhanced Burton’s reputation in England, and the resulting book of that adventure, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah, enjoyed considerable success and was considered in the early 2000s to be one of his finest works.

In 1861 Burton married Isabel Arundell, a woman of some means and a devout Catholic. After his marriage he continued his cultural studies, receiving appointments in such locales as West Africa, Brazil, and Damascus. He eventually settled in Trieste, where he completed his best-known works: the ten-volume A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, an additional six volumes called Supplemental Nights, and the translation of the Eastern erotic masterpiece, The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, which he was forced to publish anonymously because of obscenity laws.

Although Burton, who was committed to the exploration of other cultures, found many cultural practices in his travels that he considered superior to Great Britain’s, he nevertheless remained a staunch imperialist throughout his life, believing ultimately that the African and Middle Eastern races were inferior to white Europeans.

Burton was knighted in 1886. Upon his death four years later, Isabel, who was alarmed at her husband’s interest in erotica, burned several of his manuscripts. Nevertheless, several cartons of Burton’s writings survived: posthumously published works included The Jew, the Gypsy, and El Islam and Wanderings in Three Continents.

Early Life

(19th-Century Biographies)

0111205155-Burton_R.jpg Sir Richard Burton (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 848 words.)