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Richard Francis Burton Edit Profile

also known as Sir Richard Francis Burton

diplomat , ethnologist , geographer , linguist , Military , spy , writer

Sir Richard Burton, in full Sir Richard Francis Burton English was an scholar-explorer and Orientalist who was the first European to discover Lake Tanganyika and to penetrate hitherto-forbidden Muslim cities. He published 43 volumes on his explorations and almost 30 volumes of translations, including an unexpurgated translation of The Arabian Nights.

Background

Burton was of mixed English, Irish, and possibly French ancestry. He was born into a respectable and affluent family in Devonshire, England. His mother was the daughter of a wealthy squire. His father, retiring early from an unsuccessful army career, chose to raise his two sons and daughter in France and Italy, where young Richard developed his astonishing talent for languages to such an extent that before matriculating at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1840, he had become fluent in French, Italian, and the Béarnais and Neapolitan dialects, as well as in Greek and Latin. But his continental upbringing left him ambivalent about his national identity. He called himself “a waif, a stray…a blaze of light, without a focus,” and complained that “England is the only country where I never feel at home.”

Education

Burton received his schooling from private tutors and a school in Surrey, before going to the Trinity College, Oxford University from where he was expelled. He joined the East India Company to fight in the first Afghan war, but was commissioned to the regiment of General Charles James Napier in Gujarat. In India, he developed his linguistic skills and performed many undercover operations for the Company. When an undercover investigation of a homosexual brothel went horribly wrong, he came back to Europe on a sick leave. His seven year stay in middle-Asia equipped him with all the tools he needed while treading on the forbidden (for non-Muslims) pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina which he wanted to undertake. He successfully completed the expedition and his memoir became world famous. Propelled by this success, he went on several other forbidden and exotic expeditions

Career

Burton was perhaps one of the most brilliant men in an era of brilliant men, yet throughout his life he was unable to harness his prodigious mental abilities in any direction that did not interest him, even when there were immediate and important gains to be had. He was one of history's most courageous and intrepid explorers, but he seemed to care more for the act of exploration than for any exploitation of the effort. He was repeatedly handed opportunities of a lifetime, only to dismiss, squander and misuse them.

Burton's life seems consumed by a craving for understanding, a desire for wealth in any form (especially gold) and acceptance by his queen, his nation and his peers. Except in limited form, he never attained any of these goals — all too often because he sabotaged his own efforts. He spent the last thirty years of his life as a consul in the British ambassadorial service, a position for which he was roundly unsuited and in which he repeatedly came close to disgracing himself.

Yet for all that, Burton was an astonishingly accomplished man whose legacy of exploration, adventure, writing and translation seems too vast for any collection of five men, let alone one. Already a fluent speaker of several European languages at twenty, he learned two difficult Asian languages (Gujarati and Hindustani) in a short time to serve as a translator, and perhaps as a spy, for the British Army in India. He learned Arabic and visited the forbidden cities of Harar and then Mecca in an era when it was death for a non-Muslim to set foot there, and came away safely both times to write lengthy and detailed accounts of the journeys.

He headed an expedition to find the source of the Nile river, becoming with John Hanning Speke the first European to penetrate deep into East Africa and sight not one, but two immense lakes. (Which led to one of the great setbacks of his career when, on faulty evidence, Burton chose the wrong lake as the Nile source, while Speke, on other faulty evidence, chose the correct lake. The battle between the two men and the two lakes raged until conclusively settled almost twenty years later — it was Speke's Lake Victoria that sourced the Nile, not Burton's Tanganyika. Burton's reputation among his fellow explorers never fully recovered.)

Burton then traversed the wilds of the United States (including Utah, the west and San Francisco) just before the Civil War, extensively explored Western Africa, traversed South America and later explored Syria and other parts of the Middle East while accompanied by his wife. (An unlikely candidate for marriage and considered by some almost wholly unmarriagable, his marriage at 40 to a refined younger woman from an aristocratic family became a legendary pairing of love, companionship and mutual adventure.)

Amidst all this, he turned out book after book — one or several for each journey, each erudite to a fault, stuffed with observations, meteorological and other measurements, working grammars for languages he encountered (and learned!) and ethnological notes still referred to today. He wrote a book on falconry in India, a book on bayonet training, another book of sword exercises, and a book of offensive, libelous doggerel that his new wife tried to suppress. No few of these books touched on sensitive topics, often sexual, that were either omitted from the final publications (or their first reprints) or included only in dignified Latin comprehensible, in theory, only to those learned enough not to be titillated or shocked.

His consulate positions in the bight of Africa and Brazil served as bases for his explorations into West Africa and South America, but his long absences and dismal performance lost him both positions and nearly all other opportunities. Against the odds, he was given the position in Damascus, Syria, a region in which his languages and experience should have made him ideally suited. After all too short a time, his lack of political skill and finesse with the city's opposed factions resulted in him being all but run out of town.

In his final long and at least minimally successful tenure as consul at Trieste (now on the northeast tip of Italy; then part of Austria), he continued to turn out books, mostly translations of Arabic and Persian classics — including the massive and magnificent seventeen-volume translation of the interwoven Arabic folk tales known as Alf Layla wa Layla — The Thousand Nights and a Night — or, after a subsequent popular abridgement, as the Arabian Nights.

In the end, Burton never gained more than modest financial security, and left Isabel with a need to press forward with final book contracts and raising public subscriptions to pay for his tomb and burial and her modest lifestyle after his passing. His reputation among his peers in the Royal Geographical Society and elsewhere was badly damaged by his long battle against Speke and the source of the Nile, and many of his genuine accomplishments were ignored or dismissed. His nation quite forgot him in his long absence from the country and the headlines. While his queen finally saw fit to recognize his life achievements, it was with a relatively paltry KCMG (Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George), which is frequently awarded to British Ambassadors, but which permitted the Burtons to style themselves Sir Richard and Lady Burton and little else.

Although Burton was the victim of abysmal bad luck at several critical points in his life — his father's decision to move back to France when he was about to set out on the usual English road to success of Eton/Harrow and Oxford/Cambridge; the illness that prevented him from accompanying Speke on the side expedition that would discover Lake Victoria; the Somali attack that scarred his face and nearly killed him — the primary cause of Burton's lack of traditional success was Burton himself. For every time fate dealt him an unkind card, there was a time (or two) that Burton himself threw in a winning hand to chase the next wild goose. Time and again he contrived to insult and offend the one person who could most help him to his next goal, or, when provoked, could do the most to obstruct him. More than once he managed to put himself in the wrong place or defend the wrong point. The man who had been a rowdy and uncontrollable “beast” in his youth does not seem to have ever learned the value of patience, humility and politics.

Achievements

  • Sir Richard Francis Burton wrote some forty major works that were published during his lifetime, as well as a great number of shorter papers and monographs and several works that did not see print until after his death.

    Burton received a thrill from going on expeditions to religiously forbidden places. He went for Hajj to Mecca (a zealously guarded Islamic city which non-Muslims are prohibited from entering) and Medina in 1853. He accomplished this journey by disguising himself as a Muslim merchant and even underwent circumcision. His next expedition of great risk and danger was to Harar, the forbidden East African City. According to a prophecy, the city would fall if a Christian entered its domains, but Burton did it in 1854 and became the first European to do so.

Works

Religion

Burton called himself an atheist, stating he was raised in the Church of England which he said was "officially (his) church".

"The more I study religions the more I am convinced that man never worshipped anything but himself."

The Book of The Thousand Nights And A Night (1885) Terminal Essay: Social Conditions, fn. 13.

Burton now commenced to write a work to be called El Islam, or the History of Mohammedanism; which, however, he never finished. It opens with an account of the rise of Christianity, his attitude to which resembled that of Renan. Of Christ he says: "He had given an impetus to the progress of mankind by systematizing a religion of the highest moral loveliness, showing what an imperfect race can and may become." He then dilates on St. Paul, who with a daring hand "rent asunder the ties connecting Christianity with Judaism." "He offered to the great family of man a Church with a Diety at its head and a religion peculiarly of principles. He left the moral code of Christianity untouched in its loveliness. After the death of St. Paul," continues Burton, "Christianity sank into a species of idolatry. The acme of stupidity was attained by the Stylites, who conceived that mankind had no nobler end than to live and die upon the capital of a column. When things were at their worst Mohammed first appeared upon the stage of life." The work was published in its unfinished state after Burton's death.

Views

Burton’s more than 50 books reveal his love of wandering, his dislike of convention, and his phenomenal capacity for learning languages. In his work there is always tension between fact and emotion, but because Burton felt that the latter was the most important force in life, he is an artistic rather than a scientific writer. His world view was Oriental in its profound sadness for the misery and sorrow of man; this sympathy, however, was often obscured by his conviction of his personal and racial superiority to those of whom he wrote. Burton died in Trieste on Oct. 20, 1890.

Quotations: "Of the gladest moments in human life, methinks is the departure upon a distant journey to unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the Slavery of Home, man feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood....afresh dawns the morn of life..."

Journal Entry (2 December 1856)

Personality

Burton’s personality and his writing were shaped in significant ways by the multiple, varied experiences he lived within and outside Britain and Europe from an early age; his publications range from travel accounts to translations and edited works. Burton’s experiences of travel also actively contributed to the formation of an eminent personality whose thought and sensibility cannot be easily circumscribed within critical categories and discursive parameters. Scholars have speculated on whether he might have been better suited to a different historical period: a contemporary commentator, Verney Lovett Cameron emphasised his notoriety as a traveller and compared him to the famous explorers of the sixteenth century: “Had he lived in the Elizabethan instead of the Victorian era he would have been an epoch maker”

Physical Characteristics: Dark hair, mustache, austere facial features

Quotes from others about the person

  • “Richard's idea was that every man, by doing all the good he could in this life, always working for others, for the human race, always acting "Excelsior," should leave a track of light behind him on this World as he passes through. His idea of God was so immeasurably grander than anything people are usually taught to think about God. It always seemed to him that we dwindled God down to our own mean imaginations; that we made something like ourselves, only bigger, and far crueller. There is some truth in this; we are always talking about God just as if we understood Him. His idea of a Divine Being was so infinite, so great, that to pray to Him was an impertinence; that it was monstrous that we should expect Him to alter one of His decrees, because we prayed for it; that He was a God of big universal love, but so far off, as to be far above anything we can understand.

    Isabel Burton, in The Life of Captain Sir Richd. F. Burton (1893), p. 196

    He was, as has been well said, an Elizabethan born out of time; in the days of Drake his very faults might have counted to his credit.

    Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition

    It was not his nature to give up until all his strength had been expended.

    Philip José Farmer, describing Burton's character in To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971); Burton was one of the primary resurrected heroes in Farmer's Riverworld series.

    There seems little doubt that Burton was trying to project Sufi teaching in the West... In Sufism he finds a system of application to misguided faiths "which will prove them all right, and all wrong; which will reconcile their differences; will unite past creeds; will account for the present and will anticipate the future with a continuous and uninterrupted development."

    Idries Shah, in The Sufis (1964)

    Burton's strain of Romany accounted for his vagabond tendencies, intolerant of all convention or restraint, which procured him the sobriquet of "Ruffian Dick" at Oxford and in his early days in India. Before middle age he had, as Lord Derby, said, "compressed into his life more of study, more of hardship, and more of successful enterprise and adventure than would have sufficed to fill up the existence of half a dozen ordinary men."

    This was the man Hugh had chosen for his "friend and companion," whose creed was, "A man should seek Honor, not honors," and whose motto ran, "Omne solum forti patria"— "every region is a strong man's home."

    Edward Hugh Sothern, in The Melancholy Tale of "Me" : My Remembrances (1916), p. 137

    I could not but be struck by the strangers. The lady was a big, handsome blonde woman, clever-looking and capable. But the man riveted my attention. He was dark, and forceful, and masterful, and ruthless. I have never seen so iron a countenance. I did not have much time to analyse the face; the bustle of arrival prevented that. But an instant was enough to make up my mind about him. We separated in the carriage after cordial wishes that we might meet again. When we were on the platform, I asked Irving:

    "Who is that man?"

    "Why," he said, " I thought I introduced you!"

    "So you did, but you did not mention the names of the others!" He looked at me for an instant and said inquiringly as though something had struck him:

    "Tell me, why do you want to know?"

    "Because," I answered, "I never saw any one like him. He is steel! He would go through you like a sword!"

    "You are right!" he said. "But I thought you knew him. That is Burton — Captain Burton who went to Mecca!"

    Bram Stoker, describing his first meeting of Burton and his wife on 13 August 1878, in Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (1907), Vol. 1, p. Page 224

    My first impression of the man as of steel was consolidated and enhanced. He told us, amongst other things, of the work he had in hand. Three great books were partially done. The translation of the Arabian Nights, the metrical translation of Camoëns, and the Book of the Sword. These were all works of vast magnitude and requiring endless research. But he lived to complete them all.

    Bram Stoker, on a later meeting of Burton on 8 February 1879, in Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (1907), Vol. 1, p. Page 225

    Burton had a most vivid way of putting things — especially of the East. He had both a fine imaginative power and a memory richly stored not only from study but from personal experience. As he talked, fancy seemed to run riot in its alluring power; and the whole world of thought seemed to flame with gorgeous colour. Burton knew the East. Its brilliant dawns and sunsets; its rich tropic vegetation, and its arid fiery deserts; its cool, dark mosques and temples; its crowded bazaars; its narrow streets; its windows guarded for out-looking and from in-looking eyes; the pride and swagger of its passionate men, and the mysteries of its veiled women; its romances; its beauty; its horrors.

    Bram Stoker, on a meeting of Burton on 18 September 1886, in Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (1907), Vol. 1, p. Page 230

    A living soul that had strength to quell

    Hope the spectre and fear the spell,

    Clear-eyed, content with a scorn sublime

    And a faith superb, can it fare not well?

    "Verses on the Death of Richard Burton" by Algernon Swinburne, in The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Vol. 53 (1891), p. 506; the complete text can also be found at the end of of The Life of Sir Richard Burton (1906) by Thomas Wright.

    Souls there are that for soul’s affright

    Bow down and cower in the sun’s glad sight,

    Clothed round with faith that is one with fear,

    And dark with doubt of the live world’s light.

    But him we hailed from afar or near

    As boldest born of his kinsfolk here

    And loved as brightest of souls that eyed

    Life, time, and death with unchangeful cheer,

    A wider soul than the world was wide

    Whose praise made love of him one with pride...

    Who rode life's lists as a god might ride.

    "Verses on the Death of Richard Burton" by Algernon Swinburne, in The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Vol. 53 (1891), p. 507

    But we that yearn for a friend’s face, — we

    Who lack the light that on earth was he, —

    Mourn, though the light be a quenchless flame

    That shines as dawn on a tideless sea.

    "Verses on the Death of Richard Burton" by Algernon Swinburne, in The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Vol. 53 (1891), p. 507

    Burton had the jaw of a devil and the brow of a god.

    Algernon Charles Swinburne, as quoted in "A Neglected and Mysterious Genius" by Arthur Symons, in The Forum, Vol. 67 (1922), p. 240

    All his life he loved to disguise himself. We shall see him later as a Greek doctor, a Pathan Hakim, and an Arab shaykh. His shops had plenty of customers, for he was in the habit of giving the ladies, especially if they were pretty, "the heaviest possible weight for their money," though sometimes he would charge too much in order to induce them to chatter with him.

    Thomas Wright, in The Life of Sir Richard Burton (1906), Ch. 10 : Karachi. Love of Disguise

    In time, by dint of plain living, high thinking, and stifling generally the impulses of his nature, Burton became a Master Sufi, and all his life he sympathised with, and to some extent practised Sufism.

    Thomas Wright, in The Life of Sir Richard Burton (1906), Ch. 16 : "Would you a Sufi be?"

    Burton now commenced to write a work to be called El Islam, or the History of Mohammedanism; which, however, he never finished. It opens with an account of the rise of Christianity, his attitude to which resembled that of Renan. Of Christ he says: "He had given an impetus to the progress of mankind by systematizing a religion of the highest moral loveliness, showing what an imperfect race can and may become." He then dilates on St. Paul, who with a daring hand "rent asunder the ties connecting Christianity with Judaism." "He offered to the great family of man a Church with a Diety at its head and a religion peculiarly of principles. He left the moral code of Christianity untouched in its loveliness. After the death of St. Paul," continues Burton, "Christianity sank into a species of idolatry. The acme of stupidity was attained by the Stylites, who conceived that mankind had no nobler end than to live and die upon the capital of a column. When things were at their worst Mohammed first appeared upon the stage of life." The work was published in its unfinished state after Burton's death.

    Thomas Wright, in The Life of Sir Richard Burton (1906), Ch. 28 : El Islam”

Interests

  • Sport & Clubs

    Fencing

Connections

Richard Francis Burton got engaged to Isabel Arundell amid protests from Isabel’s family. Isabel’s family was against the marriage as he neither was a Catholic nor rich. But with time the protests declined and the couple got married in 1861.

father:
Joseph Netterville Burton - English - Lt.-Colonel of the 36th Regiment

mother:
Martha Baker - English

sister:
Maria Katherine Elizabeth Burton - English

Married Lt.-General Sir Henry William Stisted.

Brother:
Edward Joseph Netterville Burton - English

colleague:
James Hunt - Speech therapist

In 1863 Burton co-founded the Anthropological Society of London with Dr. James Hunt.

colleague, rival:
John Hanning Speke - English - explorer , officer
John Hanning Speke - colleague, rival of Richard Burton

John Hanning Speke, an army officer’s son from the West Country, was commissioned into the army of the East India Company in 1844 at the age of seventeen. In 1854 he eagerly joined an expedition to east Africa under the command of Captain Richard Burton, who had returned from his sensational visit to Mecca disguised as an Arab pilgrim the year before. The explorers came under a fierce attack by tribesmen at Berbera and both Speke and Burton were wounded, Speke almost fatally. Rightly or wrongly, Speke believed that Burton had questioned his courage in this incident. It rankled with him all his life and underlay a growing antipathy between the two men, who were in any case extremely unalike. Compared with the brilliant and wildly unconventional Burton, Jack Speke seemed a plodder.

Despite this, however, in 1856 Speke joined Burton on another expedition to east Africa, organized by the Royal Geographical Society. The purpose was supposedly to follow up rumours of a great lake in the interior, the so-called Sea of Ujiji, but in reality the search was on for the source of the Nile.

The expedition moved inland from the coast opposite Zanzibar and, in February 1858, it discovered Lake Tanganyika. After three months exploring the lake, both Burton and Speke were ill and the expedition started back towards the coast. However, they had heard tell of another huge lake to the north of Tanganyika. Speke, who had by now recovered, set off in command of a small party and in August came upon what he later described as ‘a vast expanse’ of ‘the pale-blue waters’ of the northern lake. He named it Lake Victoria and believed, correctly, that it was the source of the Nile.

Burton would not accept Speke’s claim to have discovered the Nile’s source, for which he felt there was no convincing evidence. He believed that the true source was more likely to be ‘his’ Lake Tanganyika. But Speke got back to England in May 1859 before Burton, and announced that he had found the source of the Nile. Burton felt belittled and was infuriated by Speke’s account of the expedition in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. The breach between them was never healed.

The Royal Geographical Society sent Speke back to Africa to substantiate his Nile claims. The expedition left the coast in September 1860 but there were difficulties because its two interpreters quarrelled, which complicated the negotiations with the local rulers through whose territories the expedition had to pass and with the Arab traders from whom it needed supplies. There were long delays before the explorers reached Gondokoro, 750 miles south of Khartoum, in February 1862. After much politicking and intrigue the powerful king of Buganda, Mutesa, allowed Speke to proceed to the point on Lake Victoria where the White Nile issues from the lake. He reached what he named Ripon Falls on July 28th 1862. He was thirty-five and this was the crowning point of his life.

Unfortunately, Speke did not follow the Nile stream northwards as closely as he might have, which enabled doubters to question whether ‘his’ river really was the Nile. Speke got back to Gondokoro in February 1863 and by May was in Cairo where he announced to the waiting world that the question of the source of the Nile was now ‘settled’.

Returning to London to address a special meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, Speke was the hero of the hour. In December 1863 he published his book, The Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile. Unfortunately for him, it had been badly edited and appeared both inaccurate and disagreeably boastful. In 1864 he published What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile about the earlier expedition, which also did his reputation no good. Burton was still refusing to admit that Speke had discovered the source of the Nile, the two men were completely at loggerheads and a debate between them was scheduled at the British Association for September 16th. Speke went shooting partridges in Wiltshire the day before, climbed over a wall with his gun cocked and shot himself. His death was probably an accident, but word spread that he had committed suicide because he was too scared to face Burton in debate.

Speke was thirty-seven when he died. It was not until years later that he was proved to have been right and that Lake Victoria Nyanza is the source of the White Nile (though the lake has several feeder rivers).

References