Sir Richard Burton Additional Biography

Life’s Work

(19th-Century Biographies)

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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(19th-Century Biographies)

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.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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

In 1863 Burton helped to establish the Anthropological Society of London, which would later become the Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He hoped that this society would publish scholarly discussions of sexual matters without hesitation, but the society instituted rules concerning “respectability” and “propriety” that frustrated Burton’s efforts to publish sensitive material. With or without the support of scholarly societies, he published learned books that dealt with the sexual habits of various non-Western peoples. Although these studies met with some criticism, there was a certain amount of toleration throughout British society for discussions of people whom the public considered mere “savages.” Over the years though, Burton became frustrated with his prudish editors, who censored many of his descriptive footnotes.

In 1872 Burton and his wife, Isabel, took up residence in Trieste, Italy. This would turn out to be Burton’s last British consul post. During his years there, he focused on literary matters. It was his wish that the erotica that he had collected from various parts of the world be made available to an English-speaking audience. In translating the ancient love manuals of India and Arabia, Burton and his collaborators had to be careful. If the translations were not handled properly, Burton could be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. It was necessary to publish the translation of the ancient erotic Indian classic, the Kama Sutra under the imprint of an imaginary publishing firm, the “Kama Shastra Society of London and Benares.” Burton collaborated with Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot on the translation projects The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana (1883) and the Ananga Ranga (1885).

Burton’s translation of The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana soon became one of the most pirated books in the English language. It could not be officially published in England or the United States though until 1962. Burton published his translation The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefzaoui: A Manual of Arabian Erotology in 1886. He also published a remarkable unexpurgated translation The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments (16 vols., 1885-1888). Burton took great care in his translations not to use language that could be considered obscene. After his death in 1890, his wife destroyed his revised edition of The Perfumed Garden and many other manuscript diaries and notes that she believed to be obscene.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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 Richard Burton: A Biography. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1978. A popular biography. While it lacks documentation, it does provide some information lacking in earlier biographies.

Moorehead, Alan. The White Nile. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1960. A marvelous and powerfully written account of the quest for the source of the Nile. Excellent integration of Burton’s role in the exploration of East Africa.

Mountfield, David. A History of African Exploration. Northbrook, Ill.: Domus Books, 1976. A well-illustrated coverage of African exploration. The sections on East Africa and Burton’s expeditions are excellent.

Rawling, Gerald. “Ruffian Dick.” British History Illustrated 5 (February/March, 1979): 6-18. Brief, colorful coverage of Burton’s controversial life. Excellent description of Burton’s African explorations.