Sir Richard Francis Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), English explorer, scholar, poet, translator, and diplomat, explored in Africa and Asia and studied Oriental literature and American religions.

Richard Burton was born on March 19, 1821, in the west of England into the family of a ne'er-do-well gentleman soldier and a putative descendant of an illegitimate son of Louis XIV. Soon the family moved to Tours, France, where Burton received a classical education. As a boy, he exhibited courage, derring-do, and a wavering self-control. When he was 10, Burton's family returned briefly to England. He went to school in Richmond, his days punctuated by fighting and wild escapades. Back in France and then in Italy, where Burton spent his adolescent years, his wildness was more characteristic than learning.

Burton attended Trinity College, Oxford, from 1840 to 1842, when he was dismissed for disobedience. Entering the Indian army, he spent the next 7 years studying 11 languages (passing examinations in most and publishing original grammars in 2), practicing his gifts for disguise, learning geodesy, and gathering the material for a book on Goa, two books on Sindh, a discourse on falconry, and a book on bayonet exercise which was ultimately adopted as a British army manual.

In 1852, having begun the courtship of Isabel Arundell which was to result in marriage in 1861, Burton concocted a scheme (he was then on sick leave from the Indian army) to learn the secrets of Mecca and Medina, the jealously guarded shrines of Islam. In April 1853 a bearded Burton stained himself with henna, called himself an Afghani doctor, and for many months sustained the disguise despite varied opportunities of detection. The result of this spectacular exploit was a readable and learned book of travel, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and El Medina (1855).

Explorations in Africa

The Arabian adventure whetted Burton's ambitions as an explorer. He turned his attention to the Horn of Africa and, in company with John Speke and others, Burton began an exploration of Somalia and eastern Ethiopia that, for him, culminated in a dangerous foray to the "forbidden" Moslem city-state of Harar, which he was the first white man to visit. Afterward, near Berbera, Burton and Speke had to flee the country after an attack by Somali which left them both wounded. The published account of this African escapade was contained in First Footsteps in East Africa; or An Exploration of Harar (1856).

After participating in the Crimean War, Burton persuaded the Royal Geographical Society in 1855 to appoint him leader of an expedition to ascertain the limits of the "Sea of Ujiji," which had been outlined by missionaries in East Africa, and to "determine the exportable produce of the interior and the enthnography of its tribes." He was urged to seek the source of the Nile and the location of the mountains of the Moon. First Burton visited Kilwa, Mombasa, and the Usambara mountains; these minor exploits formed the basis of Zanzibar: City, Island, and Coast (2 vols., 1872).

Then, in 1857, from Bagamoyo on the Indian Ocean, Burton, Speke, and African guides and porters followed the traditional route to Tabora, where they arrived 10 months later. Burton had begun to suffer intermittent bouts of fever, but he proceeded westward to the trading town of Ujiji, where, early in 1858, he became the first European in modern times to view Lake Tanganyika; what Burton saw was but one of the three components, Lakes Victoria and Nyasa being the others, of the Sea of Ujiji. This was the conclusion of Burton's greatest African performance, appropriately expressed in the lavishly written, intellectually expansive pages of The Lake Regions of Central Africa (2 vols., 1860). There are copious notes on the peoples with whom Burton had become acquainted, on the Arab and Indian traders of the interior, on the topography of what was to become Tanganyika, on its flora and fauna, and on a vast miscellany which Burton—a true encyclopedist—had recorded.

After returning to Britain and publishing his book, Burton, by way of diversion, crossed North America, particularly focusing upon the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons); The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (1861) is jammed with random but important information.

Consular Career and West African Explorations

Burton married Isabel in 1861 and, presumably because of his new responsibilities, decided to take a position in the British consular service. He wanted to go to Damascus but, instead, was offered the comparatively lowly post of consul to the Bights of Benin and Biafra, with a base on Fernando Po. This was known as the Foreign Office grave, but Burton used it to visit Abeokuta, the Egba Yoruba capital in western Nigeria; to climb Mt. Cameroons; to venture up the Gabon River in search of gorillas and to learn about a native people called the Pahouin or Fang; to explore the estuary of the Congo River; and to visit the Portuguese colony of Angola.

In 1864 he paid an official call upon Gelele, King of the Fon of Dahomey. The slave trade still flourished there, and the Foreign Office was determined to negotiate its conclusion. Burton, unhappily, failed to persuade the Fon to cease participating in the trade, but he did acquire a typically full and valuable knowledge of the kingdom, its religion, its culture, and even its Amazons. The published record of these West African years includes a two-volume account of Nigeria and the Cameroons (1863), reminiscences of his wanderings throughout the region (1863), A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome (2 vols., 1864), and a book on Gabon and the Congo (2 vols., 1876).

Burton spent the rest of his life far from Africa. He was a consul in Brazil, in Damascus, and finally in Trieste. And he wrote, translated, or edited 35 more books, not least of which were his famous translations The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (10 vols., 1885-1888) and The Kama Sutra (1883). He died in Trieste on Oct. 20, 1890.

Further Reading on Sir Richard Francis Burton

The standard modern biographies of Burton are Byron Farwell, Burton (1963), and Fawn H. Brodie, The Devil Drives (1967). Among the older biographies, Georgiana M. Stisted, The True Life of Capt. Sir Richard F. Burton (1896), is valuable. The standard bibliography is Norman M. Penzer, An Annotated Bibliography of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1923). Sir Reginald Coupland, The Exploitation of East Africa, 1856-1890: The Slave Trade and the Scramble (1939; 2d ed. 1968), includes material on Burton.

Additional Biography Sources

Rice, Edward, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: the secret agent who made the pilgrimage to Mecca, discovered the Kama Sutra, and brought the Arabian nights to the West, New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1991.

McLynn, F. J., Burton: snow upon the desert, London: John Murray, 1990.

Hastings, Michael, Sir Richard Burton: a biography, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978.

Farwell, Byron, Burton: a biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1988, 1963.

Dearden, Seton, Burton of Arabia: the life story of Sir Richard Francis Burton, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978, c1937.

Burton, Isabel, Lady, The life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, Boston: Longwood Press, 1977.

Brodie, Fawn McKay, The Devil drives: a life of Sir Richard Burton, New York: Norton, 1984.