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.