ichard Francis Burton was born on March 19, 1821 at Barham House, Hertfordshire (Herts) in the home of his maternal grandparents, Richard and Sarah Beckwith Baker. He was of mixed English, Irish, Scottish, and possibly French ancestry.
explorer, anthropologist, linguist, writer, and diplomat
born in Herts, England
He came of the Westmorland Burtons of Shap, but never saw his paternal grandfather, the Rev. Edward Burton, who had settled in Ireland as rector of Tuam. His s father, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Netterville Burton, of the 36th Regiment, was an Irishman by birth and character. His mother was descended from the MacGregors, and he was proud of a remote drop of Bourbon blood piously believed to be derived from a morganatic union of the Grand Monarque. There were even those, including some of the Romany themselves, who saw gipsy written in his peculiar eyes as in his character, wild and resentful, essentially vagabond, intolerant of convention and restraint. His irregular education strengthened the inherited bias.
A childhood spent in France and Italy, under scarcely any control, fostered the love of untrammelled wandering and a marvellous fluency in continental vernaculars. Such an education so little prepared him for academic proprieties, that when he entered Trinity College, Oxford, in October 1840, a criticism of his military moustache by a fellow-undergraduate was resented by a challenge to a duel, and Burton in various ways distinguished himself by such eccentric behaviour that rustication inevitably ensued. Nor was he much more in his element as a subaltern in the 18th Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry, which he joined at Baroda in October 1842.
Discipline of any sort he abhorred, and the one recommendation of the East India Company’s service in his eyes was that it offered opportunities for studying Oriental life and languages. He had begun Arabic without a master at Oxford, and worked in London at Hindustani under Forbes before he went out; in India he laboured indefatigably at the vernaculars, and his reward was an astonishingly rapid proficiency in Gujarati, Marathi, Hindustani, as well as Persian and Arabic. His appointment as an assistant in the Sind survey enabled him to mix with the people, and he frequently passed as a native in the bazaars and deceived his own munshi, to say nothing of his colonel and messmates. His wanderings in Sind were the apprenticeship for the pilgrimage to Mecca, and his seven years in India laid the foundations of his unparalleled familiarity with Eastern life and customs, especially among the lower classes.
Besides government reports and contributions to the Asiatic Society, his Indian period produced four books, published after his return home: Scinde, or the Unhappy Valley (1851), Sindh and the Races that Inhabit the Valley of the Indus (1851), Goa and the Blue Mountains (1851), and Falconry in the Valley of the Indus (1852). None of these achieved popularity, but the account of Sind is remarkably vivid and faithful.
The pilgrimage to Mecca in 1853 made Burton famous. He had planned it whilst mixing disguised among the Muslims of Sind, and had laboriously prepared for the ordeal by study and practice. No doubt the primary motive was the love of adventure, which was his strongest passion; but along with the wanderer’s restlessness marched the zest of exploration, and whilst wandering was in any case a necessity of his existence, he preferred to roam in untrodden ways where mere adventure might be dignified by geographical service. There was a “huge white blot” on the maps of central Arabia where no European had ever been, and Burton’s scheme, approved by the Royal Geographical Society, was to extend his pilgrimage to this “empty abode,” and remove a discreditable blank from the map. War among the tribes curtailed the design, and his journey went no farther than Medina and Mecca. The exploit of accompanying the Muslim hajj to the holy cities was not unique, nor so dangerous as has been imagined. Several Europeans have accomplished it before and since Burton’s visit without serious mishap. Passing himself off as an Indian Pathan covered any peculiarities or defects of speech. The pilgrimage, however, demands an intimate proficiency in a complicated ritual, and a familiarity with the minutiae of Eastern manners and etiquette; and in the case of a stumble, presence of mind and cool courage may be called into request. There are legends that Burton had to defend his life by taking others’; but he carried no arms, and confessed, rather shamefastly, that he had never killed anybody at any time. The actual journey was less remarkable than the book in which it was recorded, The Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855). Its vivid descriptions, pungent style, and intensely personal “note” distinguish it from books of its class; its insight into Semitic modes of thought and its picture of Arab manners give it the value of an historical document; its grim humour, keen observation and reckless insobriety of opinion, expressed in peculiar, uncouth but vigorous language make it a curiosity of literature.
Burton’s next journey was more hazardous than the pilgrimage, but created no parallel sensation. In 1854 the Indian government accepted his proposal to explore the interior of the Somali country, which formed a subject of official anxiety in its relation to the Red Sea trade. He was assisted by Capt. J. H. Speke and two other young officers, but accomplished the most difficult part of the enterprise alone. This was the journey to Harrar, the Somali capital, which no white man had entered. Burton vanished into the desert, and was not heard of for four months. When he reappeared he had not only been to Harrar, but had talked with the king, stayed ten days there in deadly peril, and ridden back across the desert, almost without food and water, running the gauntlet of the Somali spears all the way. Undeterred by this experience he set out again, but was checked by a skirmish with the tribes, in which one of his young officers was killed, Captain Speke was wounded in eleven places, and Burton himself had a javelin thrust through his jaws. His First Footsteps in East Africa (1856), describing these adventures, is one of his most exciting and most characteristic books, full of learning, observation and humour.
After serving on the staff of Beatson’s Bashi-bazouks at the Dardanelles, but never getting to the front in the Crimea, Burton returned to Africa in 1856. The foreign office, moved by the Royal Geographical Society, commissioned him to search for the sources of the Nile, and, again accompanied by Speke, he explored the lake regions of equatorial Africa. They discovered Lake Tanganyika in February 1858, and Speke, pushing on during Burton’s illness and acting on indications supplied by him, lighted upon Victoria Nyanza. The separate discovery led to a bitter dispute, but Burton’s expedition, with its discovery of the two lakes, was the incentive to the later explorations of Speke and Grant, Baker, Livingstone and Stanley; and his report in volume xxxiii. of the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, and his Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa (1860), are the true parents of the multitudinous literature of “darkest Africa.” Burton was the first Englishman to enter Mecca, the first to explore Somaliland, the first to discover the great lakes of Central Africa. His East African pioneering coincides with areas which have since become peculiarly interesting to the British Empire; and three years later he was exploring on the opposite side of Africa, at Dahomey, Benin and the Gold Coast, regions which have also entered among the imperial “ questions” of the day. Before middle age Burton had compressed into his life, as Lord Derby said, “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.” The City of the Saints (1861) was the fruit of a flying visit to the United States in 1860.
Since 1849 his connexion with the Indian army had been practically severed; in 1861 he definitely entered the service of the foreign office as consul at Fernando [do] Po, whence he was shifted successively to Santos in Brazil (1865), Damascus (1869), and Trieste (1871), holding the last post till his death on the 20th of October 1890. Each of these posts produced its corresponding books: Fernando Po led to the publishing of Wanderings in West Africa (1863), Abeokuta and the Cameroons (1863), A Mission to Gelele, king of Dahome (1864), and Wit and Wisdom from West Africa (1865). The Highlands of the Brazil (1869) was the result of four years’ residence and travelling; and Letters from the Battlefields of Paraguay (1870) relate to a journey across South America to Peru.
Damascus suggested Unexplored Syria (1872), and might have led to much better work, since no consulate in either hemisphere was more congenial to Burton’s taste and linguistic studies; but he mismanaged his opportunities, got into trouble with the foreign office, and was removed to Trieste, where his Oriental prepossessions and prejudices could do no harm, but where, unfortunately, his Oriental learning was thrown away. He did not, however, abandon his Eastern studies or his Eastern travels. Various fresh journeys or revisitings of familiar scenes are recorded in his later books, such as Zanzibar (1872), Ultima Thule (1875), Etruscan Bologna (1876), Sind Revisited (1877), The Land of Midian (1879) and To the Gold Coast for Gold (1883).
None of these had more than a passing interest. Burton had not the charm of style or imagination which gives immortality to a book of travel. He wrote too fast, and took too little pains about the form. His blunt, disconnected sentences and illconstructed chapters were full of information and learning, and contained not a few thrusts for the benefit of government or other people, but they were not “readable.” There was something ponderous about his very humour, and his criticism was personal and savage.
By far the most celebrated of all his books is the translation of the ”Arabian Nights“ (The Thousand Nights and a Night, 16 vols., privately printed, 1885—1888), which occupied the greater part of his leisure at Trieste. As a monument of his Arabic learning and his encyclopaedic knowledge of Eastern life this translation was his greatest achievement. It is open to criticism in many ways; it is not so exact in scholarship, nor so faithful to its avowed text, as might be expected from his reputation; but it reveals a profound acquaintance with the vocabulary and customs of the Muslims, with their classical idiom as well as their vulgarest “ Billingsgate,” with their philosophy and modes of thought as well as their most secret and most disgusting habits. Burton’s “anthropological notes,” embracing a wide field of pornography, apart from questions of taste, abound in valuable observations based upon long study of the manners and the writings of the Arabs. The translation itself is often marked by extraordinary resource and felicity in the exact reproduction of the sense of the original; Burton’s vocabulary was marvelously extensive, and he had a genius for hitting upon the right word; but his fancy for archaic words and phrases, his habit of coining words, and the harsh and rugged style he affected, detract from the literary quality of the work without in any degree enhancing its fidelity. With grave defects, but sometimes brilliant merits, the translation holds a mirror to its author.
Sir Richard Burton 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. Of his other works, Vikram and the Vampire, Hindu Tales (1870), and a history of his favourite arm, The Book of the Sword, vol. i. (1884), unfinished, may be mentioned. His translation of The Lusiads of Cainoens (1880) was followed (1881) by a sketch of the poet’s life. Burton had a fellow-feeling for the poet adventurer, and his translation is an extraordinarily happy reproduction of its original. A manuscript translation of the” Scented Garden,” from the Arabic, was burnt by his widow, acting in what she believed to be the interests of her husband’s reputation. [See Bonfire of the Manuscripts.] Burton married Isabel Arundell in 1861, and owed much to her courage, sympathy and passionate devotion. Her romantic and exaggerated biography of her husband, with all its faults, is one of the most pathetic monuments which the unselfish love of a woman has ever raised to the memory of her hero. Another monument is the Arab tent of stone and marble which she built for his tomb at Mortlake.
Besides Lady Burton’s Life of Sir Richard F. Burton (2 vols., 1893, 2nd edition, condensed, edited, with a preface. by W. H. Wilkins, 1898), there are A Sketch of the Career of R. F. Burton, by A. B. Richards, Andrew Wilson, and St Clair Baddeley (1886); The True Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, by his niece, G. M. Stisted (1896); and a brief sketch by the present writer prefixed to Bohn’s edition of the Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1898), from which some sentences have here been by permission reproduced. In 1906 appeared the Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright of Olney, in two volumes, an industrious and rather critical work, interesting in particular for the doubts it casts on Burton’s originality as an Arabic translator, and emphasizing his indebtedness to Payne’s translation (i881) of the Arabian Nights. (S. L.-P.)
Sir Richard Francis Burton died on October 19, 1890 in Trieste. His friend, Attilio Hortis, gave the funeral oration.
Norman Penzer's An Annotated Bibliography of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1923) meticulously lists his 43 volumes of exploration and ethnography, more than 100 articles, and nearly 30 translations. Other manuscript material that Isabel Burton failed to burn exists in the Royal Anthropological Institute in in London.If one wishes to sample quickly Burton's style and substance, Burton biographer Frank McLynn edited Of No Country: An Anthology of the Works of Sir Richard Burton, (London: Scribner's, 1990; illustrations by Howard Phipps). It is highly recommended.