Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, KCMG, FRGS, (March 19, 1821 – October 20, 1890) was an English explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, ethnologist, linguist, poet, hypnotist, fencer and diplomat. He was known for his travels and explorations within Asia and Africa as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke twenty-nine European, Asian, and African languages.
Burton's best-known achievements include travelling in disguise to Mecca, making an un-bowdlerised translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (the collection is more commonly called The Arabian Nights in English because of Andrew Lang's abridgement) and the Kama Sutra and journeying with John Hanning Speke to discover the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile. He was a prolific author and wrote numerous books and scholarly articles about subjects including travel, fencing and ethnography.
He was a captain in the army of the East India Company serving in India (and later, briefly, in the Crimean War). Following this he was engaged by the Royal Geographical Society to explore the east coast of Africa and led an expedition which discovered Lake Tanganyika. In later life he served as British consul in Fernando Po, Damascus and, finally, Trieste. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded a knighthood (KCMG) in 1886. Burton was considered a controversial figure in his day and, while some considered him a hero, others considered him a scoundrel.
Burton was born in Torquay, Devon at 9:30 p.m. on 19 March 1821 (in his autobiography, he erroneously claimed to have been born in the family home at Barham House in Hertfordshire). His father, Captain Joseph Netterville Burton, was a British army officer of Irish extraction; his mother, Martha Baker, was an heiress of a wealthy Hertfordshire squire. He had two siblings, Maria Katherine Elizabeth Burton and Edward Joseph Burton.
Burton's family travelled considerably during his childhood. In 1825, his family moved to Tours, France; over the next few years, they traveled between England, France and Italy. Burton's early education was provided by various tutors employed by his parents. He showed an early gift for languages and quickly learned French, Italian and Latin. During his youth, he was rumored to have carried on an affair with a young Romani (Gypsy) woman, even learning the rudiments of her language. This may explain why he was able later in life to learn Hindi and other Indic languages almost preternaturally quickly, as Romani is related to this language family. The peregrinations of his youth may have encouraged Burton to regard himself as an outsider for much of his life. As he put it, "Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause..."
Burton entered Trinity College, Oxford in the autumn of 1840. Despite his intelligence and ability, he rapidly fell out with his teachers and peers. During his first term, he is said to have challenged another student to a duel after the latter mocked Burton's moustache. Burton continued to gratify his love of languages by studying Arabic; he also spent his time learning falconry and fencing. In 1842, he attended a steeplechase in deliberate violation of college rules and subsequently dared to tell the college authorities that students should be allowed to attend such events. Hoping to be merely "rusticated" - that is, suspended with the possibility of reinstatement - like some less provocative students who had visited the steeplechase, he was permanently expelled from Trinity College. In a final jab at the environment he had come to despise, Burton reportedly trampled the College's flower beds with his horse and carriage while departing Oxford.
In his own words "fit for nothing but to be shot at for six pence a day", Burton enlisted in the army of the East India Company. He hoped to fight in the first Afghan war but the conflict was over before he arrived in India. He was posted to the 18th Bombay Native Infantry based in Gujarat and under the command of General Sir Charles James Napier. While in India he became a proficient speaker of Hindustani, Gujarati and Marathi as well as Persian and Arabic. His studies of Hindu culture had progressed to such an extent that "my Hindu teacher officially allowed me to wear the Janeu (Brahmanical Thread)" although the truth of this has been questioned since it would usually have required long study, fasting and a partial shaving of the head. Burton's interest (and active participation) in the cultures and religions of India was considered peculiar by some of his fellow soldiers who accused him of "going native" and called him "the White Nigger". Burton had many peculiar habits that set him apart from other soldiers. While in the army, he kept a large menagerie of tame monkeys in the hopes of learning their language. He also earned the name "Ruffian Dick" for his "demonic ferocity as a fighter and because he had fought in single combat more enemies than perhaps any other man of his time."
He was app ointed to the Sindh survey, where he learned to use the measuring equipment that would later be useful in his career as an explorer. At this time he began to travel in disguise. He adopted the alias of Mirza Abdullah and often fooled local people and fellow officers into failing to recognise him. It was at this point that he began to work as an agent for Napier and, although details of exactly what this work entailed are not known, it is known that he participated in an undercover investigation of a brothel said to be frequented by English soldiers where the prostitutes were young boys. His life-long interest in sexual practices led him to produce a detailed report which was later to cause trouble for Burton when subsequent readers of the report (which Burton had been assured would be kept secret) came to believe that Burton had, himself, participated in some of the practices described within his writing.
In March 1849 he returned to Europe on sick leave. In 1850 he wrote his first book Goa and the Blue Mountains a guide to the Goa region. He travelled to Boulogne to visit the fencing school there and it was there where he first encountered his future wife Isabel Arundell, a young Catholic woman from a good family.
Motivated by his love of adventure, Burton got the approval of the Royal Geographical Society for an exploration of the area and he gained permission from the Board of Directors of the British East India Company to take leave from the army. His time in the Sindh prepared him well for his Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca and, in this case, Medina) and his seven years in India gave Burton a familiarity with the customs and behaviour of Muslims. It was this journey, undertaken in 1853 which first made Burton famous. He had planned it whilst travelling disguised among the Muslims of Sindh, and had laboriously prepared for the ordeal by study and practice (including being circumcised to further lower the risk of being discovered).
Although Burton was not the first non-Muslim European to make the Hajj (that honor belonging to Ludovico di Barthema in 1503), his pilgrimage is the most famous and the best documented of the time. He adopted various disguises including that of a Pathan (modern Pashtun) to account for any oddities in speech, but he still had to demonstrate an understanding of intricate Islamic ritual, and a familiarity with the minutiae of Eastern manners and etiquette. Burton's trek to Mecca was quite dangerous and his caravan was attacked by bandits (a common experience at the time). As he put it, although "...neither Koran or Sultan enjoin the death of Jew or Christian intruding within the columns that note the sanctuary limits, nothing could save a European detected by the populace, or one who after pilgrimage declared himself an unbeliever.".<%2