Sir Richard Burton

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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

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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...

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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.