Richard Francis Burton

For other people named Richard Burton, see Richard Burton (disambiguation).
Sir Richard Francis Burton

Burton in 1864
Born (1821-03-19)19 March 1821
Torquay, Devon, England
Died 20 October 1890(1890-10-20) (aged 69)
Trieste, Austria-Hungary
Resting place St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church Mortlake, London, England
Nationality British
Alma mater Trinity College, Oxford
Occupation Soldier, diplomat, explorer, translator, arabist, author
Notable work Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah;
The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night;
The Kasidah
Spouse(s) Isabel Burton (m. 1861–90)

Military career

Nickname(s) Ruffian Dick
Allegiance British Empire
Service/branch Bombay Army
Years of service 1842–61
Rank Captain
Battles/wars Crimea War
Awards Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George
Crimea Medal

Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (19 March 1821 – 20 October 1890) was an English explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. He was famed for his travels and explorations in Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian and African languages.[1]

Burton's best-known achievements include a well-documented journey to Mecca, in disguise at a time when Europeans were forbidden access on pain of death; an unexpurgated translation of One Thousand and One Nights (commonly called The Arabian Nights in English after early translations of Antoine Galland's French version); the publication of the Kama Sutra in English; and a journey with John Hanning Speke as the first Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile.

Burton defied many aspects of the pervasive British ethnocentrism of his day, relishing personal contact with exotic human cultures in all their variety. His works and letters extensively criticized colonial policies of the British Empire, even to the detriment of his career. Although his university education aborted, he became a prolific and erudite author and wrote numerous books and scholarly articles about subjects including human behaviour, travel, falconry, fencing, sexual practices and ethnography. A characteristic feature of his books is the copious footnotes and appendices containing remarkable observations and information.[2]

Burton 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 guided by the locals and was the first European to see Lake Tanganyika. In later life, he served as British consul in Fernando Pó, Santos, Damascus and, finally, Trieste. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded a knighthood (KCMG) in 1886.


Early life and education (1821–41)

Burton was born in Torquay, Devon, at 21:30 on 19 March 1821; in his autobiography, he incorrectly claimed to have been born in the family home at Barham House in Elstree in Hertfordshire.[3][4] He was baptized on 2 September 1821 at Elstree Church in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire.[5] His father, Lt.-Colonel Joseph Netterville Burton, of the 36th Regiment, was an Irish-born British army officer of Anglo-Irish extraction who through his mother's family – the Campbells of Tuam – was a first cousin of Lt.-Colonel Henry Peard Driscoll and Mrs Richard Graves. Richard's mother, Martha Baker, was the daughter and co-heiress of a wealthy English squire, Richard Baker (1762-1824), of Barham House, Hertfordshire, for whom he was named. Burton had two siblings, Maria Katherine Elizabeth Burton (who married Lt.-General Sir Henry William Stisted) and Edward Joseph Netterville Burton, born in 1823 and 1824, respectively.[6]

Burton's family travelled considerably during his childhood. In 1825, they moved to Tours, France. Burton's early education was provided by various tutors employed by his parents. He first began a formal education in 1829 at a preparatory school on Richmond Green in Richmond, Surrey, run by Rev. Charles Delafosse.[7] Over the next few years, his family travelled between England, France, and Italy. Burton showed an early gift for languages and quickly learned French, Italian, Neapolitan, and Latin, as well as several dialects. During his youth, he was rumored to have carried on an affair with a young Roma (Gypsy) woman, even learning the rudiments of her language, Romani. 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".[8]

Burton matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, on 19 November 1840. Before getting a room at the college, he lived for a short time in the house of Dr. William Alexander Greenhill, then physician to the Radcliffe Infirmary. Here, he met John Henry Newman, whose churchwarden was Dr. Greenhill. Despite his intelligence and ability, Burton was antagonised by 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 April 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, the punishment received by some less provocative students who had also visited the steeplechase – he was instead permanently expelled from Trinity College.[9]

Army career (1842–53)

Burton in Persian disguise as "Mirza Abdullah the Bushri" (ca. 1849–50).

In his own words, "fit for nothing but to be shot at for six pence a day",[10] Burton enlisted in the army of the East India Company at the behest of his ex-college classmates who were already members. 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 Charles James Napier. While in India, he became a proficient speaker of Hindustani, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki 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)",[11] although the truth of this has been questioned, since it would usually have required long study, fasting, and a partial shaving of the head. It has been suggested that his teacher, a Nagar Brahmin could have been an apostate.[12] 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".[13] 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.[14] 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".[15]

First explorations and journey to Mecca (1851–53)

"The Pilgrim", illustration from Burton's Personal Narrative (Burton disguised as "Haji Abdullah", 1853).

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 seven years in India gave Burton a familiarity with the customs and behaviour of Muslims and prepared him to attempt a Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca and, in this case, Medina). It was this journey, undertaken in 1853, which first made Burton famous. He had planned it whilst traveling disguised among the Muslims of Sindh, and had laboriously prepared for the adventure by study and practice (including undergoing the Muslim tradition of circumcision to further lower the risk of being discovered).[16]

Although Burton was certainly not the first non-Muslim European to make the Hajj (Ludovico di Varthema did this in 1503),[17] his pilgrimage is the most famous and the best documented of the time. He adopted various disguises including that of a Pashtun to account for any oddities in speech, but he still had to demonstrate an understanding of intricate Islamic traditions, and a familiarity with the minutiae of Eastern manners and etiquette. Burton's trek to Mecca was dangerous, and his caravan was attacked by bandits (a common experience at the time). As he put it, though "... 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".[18] The pilgrimage entitled him to the title of Hajji and to wear the green head wrap. Burton's own account of his journey is given in A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah[19](1855).

When Burton returned to the British Army, he sat for examination as an Arab linguist. The examiner was Robert Lambert Playfair, who disliked Burton. As Professor George Percy Badger knew Arabic well, Playfair asked Badger to oversee the exam. Having been told that Burton could be vindictive, and wishing to avoid any animosity should Burton fail, Badger declined. Playfair conducted the tests; despite Burton's success living as an Arab, Playfair had recommended to the committee that Burton be failed. Badger later told Burton that "After looking [Burton's test] over, I [had] sent them back to [Playfair] with a note eulogising your attainments and ... remarking on the absurdity of the Bombay Committee being made to judge your proficiency inasmuch as I did not believe that any of them possessed a tithe of the knowledge of Arabic you did."[20]

Early explorations (1854–55)

Isabel Burton

Following his return to Cairo from Mecca, Burton sailed to India to rejoin his regiment. In March 1854, he transferred to the political department of the East India Company and went to Aden on the Arabian Peninsula in order to prepare for a new expedition, supported by the Royal Geographical Society, to explore the interior of the Somali Country and beyond, where Burton hoped to discover the large lakes he had heard about from Arab travelers. It was in Aden in September of this year that he first met Captain (then Lieutenant) John Hanning Speke, who would accompany him on his most famous exploration. Burton undertook the first part of the trip alone. He made an expedition to Harar (in present-day Ethiopia), which no European had entered (indeed there was a prophecy that the city would decline if a Christian was admitted inside).

This leg of the expedition lasted from 29 October 1854 to 9 February 1855, with much of the time spent in the port of Zeila, where Burton, “assuming the disguise of an Arab merchant”, awaited word that the road to Harar was safe. Burton not only travelled to Harar but also was introduced to the Emir and stayed in the city for ten days, officially a guest of the Emir but in reality his prisoner. The journey back was plagued by lack of supplies, and Burton wrote that he would have died of thirst had he not seen desert birds and realized they would be near water.

Following this adventure, Burton prepared to set out for the interior accompanied by Lieutenant Speke, Lieutenant G. E. Herne and Lieutenant William Stroyan and a number of Africans employed as bearers. However, while the expedition was camped near Berbera, his party was attacked by a group of Somali waranle ("warriors"). The officers estimated the number of attackers at 200. In the ensuing fight, Stroyan was killed and Speke was captured and wounded in eleven places before he managed to escape. Burton was impaled with a javelin, the point entering one cheek and exiting the other. This wound left a notable scar that can be easily seen on portraits and photographs. He was forced to make his escape with the weapon still transfixing his head. It was no surprise then that he found the Somalis to be a "fierce and turbulent race".[21] However, the failure of this expedition was viewed harshly by the authorities, and a two-year investigation was set up to determine to what extent Burton was culpable for this disaster. While he was largely cleared of any blame, this did not help his career. He describes the harrowing attack in First Footsteps in East Africa (1856).[22]

In 1855, Burton rejoined the army and traveled to the Crimea, hoping to see active service in the Crimean War. He served on the staff of Beatson's Horse, a corps of Bashi-bazouks, local fighters under the command of General Beatson, in the Dardanelles. The corps was disbanded following a "mutiny" after they refused to obey orders, and Burton's name was mentioned (to his detriment) in the subsequent inquiry.

Exploring the African Great Lakes (1856–60)

Routes taken by the expeditions of Burton and Speke (1857–58) and Speke and Grant (1863).

In 1856, the Royal Geographical Society funded another expedition in which Burton set off from Zanzibar to explore an "inland sea" that had been described by Arab traders and slavers. His mission was to study the area's tribes and to find out what exports might be possible from the region. It was hoped that the expedition might lead to the discovery of the source of the River Nile, although this was not an explicit aim. Burton had been told that only a fool would say his expedition aimed to find the source of the Nile because anything short of that would then be regarded as a failure.

Before leaving for Africa, Burton became secretly engaged to Isabel Arundell. Her family, particularly her mother, would not allow a marriage since Burton was not a Catholic and was not wealthy, although in time the relationship became tolerated.

John Hanning Speke again accompanied him and on 27 June 1857, they set out from the east coast of Africa heading west in search of the lake or lakes. They were helped greatly by the Omani Arabs who lived and traded in the region. They followed the traditional caravan routes, hiring professional porters and guides who had been making similar treks for years. From the start, the outward journey was beset with problems such as recruiting reliable bearers and the theft of equipment and supplies by deserting expedition members.

Both men were beset by a variety of tropical diseases on the journey. Speke was rendered blind by a disease for some of the journey and deaf in one ear (due to an infection caused by attempts to remove a beetle). Burton was unable to walk for some of the journey and had to be carried by the bearers.

Monument commemorating Burton and Speke's arrival in Ujiji

The expedition arrived at Lake Tanganyika in February 1858. Burton was awestruck by the sight of the magnificent lake, but Speke, who had been temporarily blinded, was unable to see the body of water. By this point much of their surveying equipment was lost, ruined, or stolen, and they were unable to complete surveys of the area as well as they wished. Burton was again taken ill on the return journey, and Speke continued exploring without him, making a journey to the north and eventually locating the great Lake Victoria, or Victoria Nyanza. Lacking supplies and proper instruments, Speke was unable to survey the area properly but was privately convinced that it was the long sought source of the Nile. Burton's description of the journey is given in Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa (1860). Speke gave his own account in The Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1863).[23]

Both Burton and Speke were in extremely poor health after the journey and returned home separately. As usual, Burton kept very detailed notes, not just on the geography but also on the languages, customs, and even sexual habits of the people he encountered. Although it was Burton's last great expedition, his geographical and cultural notes proved invaluable for subsequent explorations by Speke and James Augustus Grant, Samuel Baker, David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley. Speke and Grant's (1863) exploration began on the east coast near Zanzibar again and went around the west side of Lake Victoria to Lake Albert and finally returned in triumph via the River Nile. However, crucially, they had lost track of the river's course between Lake Victoria and Albert. This left Burton, and others, unsatisfied that the source of the Nile was conclusively proven.

Burton and Speke

"Burton and Speke" redirects here. For the novel by William Harrison, see Burton and Speke (novel).
Lake Tanganyika photographed from orbit. Burton was the first European to see the lake.

A prolonged public quarrel followed, damaging the reputations of both Burton and Speke. Some biographers have suggested that friends of Speke (particularly Laurence Oliphant) had initially stirred up trouble between the two.[24] Burton's sympathizers contend that Speke resented Burton's leadership role. Tim Jeal, who has accessed Speke's personal papers, suggests that it was more likely the other way around, Burton being jealous and resentful of Speke's determination and success. "As the years went by, [Burton] would neglect no opportunity to deride and undermine Speke's geographical theories and achievements".[25]

Speke had earlier proven his mettle by trekking through the mountains of Tibet, but Burton regarded him as inferior as he did not speak any Arabic or African languages. Despite his fascination with non-European cultures, some have portrayed Burton as an unabashed imperialist convinced of the historical and intellectual superiority of the white race, citing his involvement in the Anthropological Society, an organization that established a doctrine of scientific racism.[26][27] Speke appears to have been kinder and less intrusive to the Africans they encountered, and reportedly fell in love with an African woman on a future expedition.[28]

There were also problems with the debt associated with their expedition, for which Speke claimed Burton had sole responsibility. But their biggest disagreement was on the source of the Nile.

The two men traveled home separately. Speke returned to London first and presented a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society, claiming Lake Victoria as the source of the Nile. According to Burton, Speke broke an agreement they had made to give their first public speech together. Apart from Burton's word, there is no proof that such an agreement existed, and most modern researchers doubt that it did. Tim Jeal, evaluating the written evidence, says the odds are "heavily against Speke having made a pledge to his former leader".[29]

Burton arrived in London to find Speke being lionized and his own role being considered secondary. Speke had already applied for further expeditions to the region without Burton. In subsequent months both men attempted to harm each other's reputations. Burton disparaged Speke's claims, calling his evidence inconclusive and his measurements inaccurate.

Speke undertook a second expedition, along with Captain James Grant and Sidi Mubarak Bombay, to prove that Lake Victoria was the true source of the Nile. Speke, in light of the issues he was having with Burton, had Grant sign a statement saying, among other things, "I renounce all my rights to publishing ... my own account [of the expedition] until approved of by Captain Speke or [the Royal Geographical Society]".[30] Burton and Livingstone were still unconvinced, but believing the matter had settled, the Royal Geographical Society awarded Speke its Gold Medal.

On 16 September 1864, Burton and Speke were scheduled to debate the source of the Nile at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. On the day before the debate, Burton and Speke sat near each other in the lecture hall. According to Burton's wife, Speke stood up, said "I can't stand this any longer," and abruptly left the hall. That afternoon Speke went hunting on the nearby estate of a relative. He was discovered lying near a stone wall, felled by a fatal gunshot wound from his hunting shotgun. Burton learned of Speke's death the following day while waiting for their debate to begin. A jury ruled Speke's death an accident. An obituary surmised that Speke, while climbing over the wall, had carelessly pulled the gun after himself with the muzzle pointing at his chest and shot himself. Alexander Maitland, Speke's only biographer, concurs.[31]

Diplomatic service and scholarship (1861–90)

Burton in 1876

In January 1861, Burton and Isabel married in a quiet Catholic ceremony although he did not adopt the Catholic faith at this time. Shortly after this, the couple were forced to spend some time apart when he formally entered the Foreign Service as consul on the island of Fernando Po, now Bioko in Equatorial Guinea. This was not a prestigious appointment; because the climate was considered extremely unhealthy for Europeans, Isabel could not accompany him. Burton spent much of this time exploring the coast of West Africa. He described some of his experiences, including a trip up the Congo River to the Yellala Falls and beyond, in his 1876 book Two trips to gorilla land and the cataracts of the Congo.

The couple were reunited in 1865 when Burton was transferred to Santos in Brazil. Once there, Burton travelled through Brazil's central highlands, canoeing down the São Francisco River from its source to the falls of Paulo Afonso.[32]

In 1868 and 1869 he made two visits to the war zone of the Paraguayan War, which he described in his Letters from the Battlefields of Paraguay(1870).[33]

In 1868 he was appointed as the British consul in Damascus, an ideal post for someone with Burton's knowledge of the region and customs.[34] However Burton made many enemies during his time there. He managed to antagonise much of the Jewish population of the area because of a dispute concerning money-lending. It had been the practice for the British consulate to take action against those who defaulted on loans but Burton saw no reason to continue this practice and this caused a great deal of hostility.

He and Isabel greatly enjoyed their time there, and considered it the best years of their lives. They befriended Jane Digby, the well-known adventurer, and Abdelkader El Djezairi, a prominent leader of the Algerian revolution then living in exile.

However, the area was in some turmoil at the time with considerable tensions between the Christian, Jewish and Muslim populations. Burton did his best to keep the peace and resolve the situation, but this sometimes led him into trouble. On one occasion, he claims to have escaped an attack by hundreds of armed horsemen and camel riders sent by Mohammed Rashid Pasha, the Governor of Syria. He wrote, "I have never been so flattered in my life than to think it would take three hundred men to kill me."[35]

In addition to these incidents, there were a number of people who disliked Burton and wished him removed from such a sensitive position. He was recalled in 1871, prompting a telegram to Isabel "I am superseded. Pay, pack, and follow at convenience", and reassigned in 1872 to the sleepy port city of Trieste in Austria-Hungary.[36] A "broken man", Burton was never particularly content with this post, but it required little work, was far less dangerous than Damascus (as well as less exciting), and allowed him the freedom to write and travel.[37]

In 1863 Burton co-founded the Anthropological Society of London with Dr. James Hunt. In Burton's own words, the main aim of the society (through the publication of the periodical Anthropologia) was "to supply travelers with an organ that would rescue their observations from the outer darkness of manuscript and print their curious information on social and sexual matters". On 13 February 1886 Burton was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) by Queen Victoria.[38]

He wrote a number of travel books in this period that were not particularly well received. His best-known contributions to literature were those considered risqué or even pornographic at the time and which were published under the auspices of the Kama Shastra society. These books include The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana (1883) (popularly known as the Kama Sutra), The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885) (popularly known as The Arabian Nights), The Perfumed Garden of the Shaykh Nefzawi (1886) and The Supplemental Nights to the Thousand Nights and a Night (seventeen volumes 1886–98).

Published in this period, but composed on his return journey from Mecca, The Kasidah[8] has been cited as evidence of Burton's status as a Bektashi Sufi. Deliberately presented by Burton as a translation, the poem and his notes and commentary on it contain layers of Sufic meaning, that seem to have been designed to project Sufi teaching in the West.[39] "Do what thy manhood bids thee do/ from none but self expect applause;/ He noblest lives and noblest dies/ who makes and keeps his self-made laws" is The Kasidah's most often-quoted passage. As well as references to many themes from Classical Western myths, the poem contains many laments that are accented with fleeting imagery such as repeated comparisons to "the tinkling of the Camel bell" that becomes inaudible as the animal vanishes in the darkness of the desert.

Other works of note include a collection of Hindu tales, Vikram and the Vampire (1870); and his uncompleted history of swordsmanship, The Book of the Sword (1884). He also translated The Lusiads, the Portuguese national epic by Luís de Camões, in 1880 and, the next year, wrote a sympathetic biography of the poet and adventurer. The book The Jew, the Gipsy and el Islam was published posthumously in 1898 and was controversial for its criticism of Jews and for its assertion of the existence of Jewish human sacrifices. (Burton's investigations into this had provoked hostility from the Jewish population in Damascus (see the Damascus affair). The manuscript of the book included an appendix discussing the topic in more detail, but by the decision of his widow, it was not included in the book when published).


Richard Burton's Tomb at Mortlake, south west London, June 2011.
Close up of inscription on the tomb.

Burton died in Trieste early on the morning of 20 October 1890 of a heart attack. His wife Isabel persuaded a priest to perform the last rites, although Burton was not a Catholic and this action later caused a rift between Isabel and some of Burton's friends. It has been suggested that the death occurred very late on 19 October and that Burton was already dead by the time the last rites were administered. On his religious views, Burton called himself an atheist, stating he was raised in the Church of England which he said was "officially (his) church".[40]

Isabel never recovered from the loss. After his death she burned many of her husband's papers, including journals and a planned new translation of The Perfumed Garden to be called The Scented Garden, for which she had been offered six thousand guineas and which she regarded as his "magnum opus". She believed she was acting to protect her husband's reputation, and that she had been instructed to burn the manuscript of The Scented Garden by his spirit, but her actions have been widely condemned.[41]

Isabel wrote a biography in praise of her husband.[42]

The couple are buried in a remarkable tomb in the shape of a Bedouin tent, designed by Isabel,[43] in the cemetery of St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church Mortlake in southwest London. The coffins of Sir Richard and Lady Burton can be seen through a window at the rear of the tent, which can be accessed via a short fixed ladder. Next to the lady chapel in the church there is a memorial stained-glass window to Burton, also erected by Isabel; it depicts Burton as a mediaeval knight.[44] Burton's personal effects and a collection of paintings, photographs and objects relating to him are in the Burton Collection at Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham.[45]

Kama Shastra Society

Burton had long had an interest in sexuality and some erotic literature. However, the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 had resulted in many jail sentences for publishers, with prosecutions being brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Burton referred to the society and those who shared its views as Mrs Grundy. A way around this was the private circulation of books amongst the members of a society. For this reason Burton, together with Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, created the Kama Shastra Society to print and circulate books that would be illegal to publish in public.[46]

Burton's languages

By the end of his life, Burton had mastered at least 25 languages – or 40, if distinct dialects are counted.[47]

1. English
2. French
3. Occitan (Gascon/Béarnese dialect)
4. Italian

a. Neapolitan Italian

5. Latin
6. Greek
7. Saraiki dialect (he wrote a grammar)[48]
8. Hindustani

a. Urdu
b. Sindhi

9. Marathi
10. Arabic
11. Persian (Farsi)
12. Pushtu
13. Sanskrit
14. Portuguese
15. Spanish
16. German
17. Icelandic
18. Swahili
29. Amharic
20. Fan
21. Egba
22. Asante
23. Hebrew
24. Aramaic
25. Many other West African & Indian dialects

One of the most celebrated of all his books is his translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (commonly called The Arabian Nights in English after early translations of Antoine Galland's French version), in ten volumes, (1885) with seven further volumes being added later. The volumes were printed by the Kama Shastra Society in a subscribers-only edition of one thousand with a guarantee that there would never be a larger printing of the books in this form. The stories collected were often sexual in content and were considered pornography at the time of publication. In particular, the Terminal Essay in volume 10 of the Nights contained a 14,000-word essay entitled "Pederasty" (Volume 10, section IV, D), at the time a synonym for homosexuality (as it still is, in modern French). This was and remained for many years the longest and most explicit discussion of homosexuality in any language. Burton speculated that male homosexuality was prevalent in an area of the southern latitudes named by him the "Sotadic zone".[49] Rumours about Burton's own sexuality were already circulating and were further incited by this work.

Perhaps Burton's best-known book is his translation of The Kama Sutra. In fact, it is untrue that he was the translator since the original manuscript was in ancient Sanskrit which he could not read. However, he collaborated with Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot on the work and provided translations from other manuscripts of later translations. The Kama Shastra Society first printed the book in 1883 and numerous editions of the Burton translation are in print to this day.[46]

His English translation from a French edition of the Arabic erotic guide The Perfumed Garden was printed as The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefzaoui: A Manual of Arabian Erotology (1886). After Burton's death, Isabel burnt many of his papers, including a manuscript of a subsequent translation, The Scented Garden, containing the final chapter of the work, on pederasty. Burton all along intended for this translation to be published after his death, to provide an income for his widow,[50] and also, as a final gesture of defiance against Victorian society.


Burton pictured later in life.

Burton's writings are unusually open and frank about his interest in sex and sexuality. His travel writing is often full of details about the sexual lives of the inhabitants of areas he traveled through. Burton's interest in sexuality led him to make measurements of the lengths of the sexual organs of male inhabitants of various regions which he includes in his travel books. He also describes sexual techniques common in the regions he visited, often hinting that he had participated, hence breaking both sexual and racial taboos of his day. Many people at the time considered the Kama Shastra Society and the books it published scandalous.

Biographers disagree on whether or not Burton ever experienced homosexual sex (he never directly acknowledges it in his writing). Allegations began in his army days when Charles James Napier requested that Burton go undercover to investigate a male brothel reputed to be frequented by British soldiers. It has been suggested that Burton's detailed report on the workings of the brothel may have led some to believe he had been a customer.[51] There is no documentary evidence that such a report was written or submitted, nor that Napier ordered such research by Burton, and it has been argued that this is one of Burton's embellishments.[52]

A story that haunted Burton up to his death (recounted in some of his obituaries) was that he came close to being discovered one night when he lifted his robe to urinate rather than squatting as an Arab would. It was said that he was seen by an Arab and, in order to avoid exposure, killed him. Burton denied this, pointing out that killing the boy would almost certainly have led to his being discovered as an impostor. Burton became so tired of denying this accusation that he took to baiting his accusers, although he was said to enjoy the notoriety and even once laughingly claimed to have done it.[53][54] A doctor once asked him: "How do you feel when you have killed a man?", Burton retorted: "Quite jolly, what about you?". When asked by a priest about the same incident Burton is said to have replied: "Sir, I'm proud to say I have committed every sin in the Decalogue."[55] Stanley Lane-Poole, a Burton detractor, reported that Burton "confessed rather shamefacedly that he had never killed anybody at any time."[56]

These allegations coupled with Burton's often irascible nature were said to have harmed his career and may explain why he was not promoted further, either in army life or in the diplomatic service. As an obituary described: "...he was ill fitted to run in official harness, and he had a Byronic love of shocking people, of telling tales against himself that had no foundation in fact."[57] Ouida reported: "Men at the FO [Foreign Office] ... used to hint dark horrors about Burton, and certainly justly or unjustly he was disliked, feared and suspected ... not for what he had done, but for what he was believed capable of doing."[58] Whatever the truth of the many allegations made against him, Burton's interests and outspoken nature ensured that he was always a controversial character in his lifetime.




Works and correspondence

Burton published over 40 books and countless articles, monographs and letters. A great number of his journal and magazine pieces have never been catalogued. Over 200 of these have been collected in PDF facsimile format at[59]

An extensive selection of Burton's correspondence can be found in the four volume Book of Burtoniana edited by Gavan Tredoux (, 2016), which is freely downloadable in HTML, PDF, Kindle/MOBI and ePub formats. [60]

Brief selections from a variety of Burton's writings are available in Frank McLynn's Of No Country: An Anthology of Richard Burton (1990; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons).


1.^ Burton later expressed his own doubts about the death by writing "The calamity had been the more unexpected as he was ever remarkable for the caution with which he handled his weapons."[61]


  1. Lovell, p. xvii.
  2. In The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton (chapter 38) by Isabel Burton (1897), W. H. Wilkins (the co-author of the book) writes: "So far as I can gather from all I have learned, the chief value of Burton’s version of The Scented Garden lay not so much in his translation of the text, though that of course was admirably done, as in the copious notes and explanations which he had gathered together for the purpose of annotating the book. He had made this subject a study of years. For the notes of the book alone he had been collecting material for thirty years, though his actual translation of it only took him eighteen months."
  3. Lovell, p. 1.
  4. Wright (1906), vol. 1, p. 37.
  5. Page, William (1908). A History of the County of Hertford. Constable. vol. 2, pp. 349–351. ISBN 0-7129-0475-1.
  6. Wright (1906), vol. 1, p. 38.
  7. Wright (1906), vol. 1, p. 52.
  8. 1 2 The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî by Richard F. Burton (1870).
  9. Wright (1906), vol. 1, p. 81.
  10. Falconry in the Valley of the Indus, Richard F. Burton (John Van Voorst 1852) page 93.
  11. Burton (1893), Vol. 1, p. 123.
  12. Rice, Edward. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1991). p. 83.
  13. In 1852, a letter from Burton was published in The Zoist: "Remarks upon a form of Sub-mesmerism, popularly called Electro-Biology, now practised in Scinde and other Eastern Countries", The Zoist: A Journal of Cerebral Physiology & Mesmerism, and Their Applications to Human Welfare, Vol.10, No.38, (July 1852), pp.177–181.
  14. Lovell, p. 58.
  15. Wright (1906), vol. 1, pp. 119–120.
  16. Seigel, Jerrold (1 December 2015). "Between Cultures: Europe and Its Others in Five Exemplary Lives". University of Pennsylvania Press via Google Books.
  17. Leigh Rayment. "Ludovico di Varthema". Discoverers Web. Discoverers Web. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
  18. Selected Papers on Anthropology, Travel, and Exploration by Richard Burton, edited by Norman M. Penzer (London, A. M. Philpot 1924) p. 30.
  19. Burton, Richard Francis (1855). "A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 8 July 2016.
  20. Lovell, pp. 156–157.
  21. In last of a series of dispatches from Mogadishu, Daniel Howden reports on the artists fighting to keep a tradition alive, The Independent, dated Thursday, 2 December 2010.
  22. Burton, Richard (1856). First Footsteps in East Africa (1st ed.). Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. pp. 449–458.
  23. The Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile by John Hanning Speke at (URL accessed 10 April 2006)
  24. Carnochan, pp. 77–8 cites Isabel Burton and Alexander Maitland
  25. Jeal, p. 121
  26. Jeal, p. 322
  27. Kennedy, p. 135
  28. Jeal, pp. 129, pp. 156–166
  29. Jeal, p. 111
  30. Lovell, p. 341.
  31. Kennedy, p. 123
  32. Wright (1906), vol. 1, p. 200.
  33. Letters from the Battlefields of Paraguay, the Preface.
  34. The London Gazette: no. 23447. p. 6460. 4 December 1868.
  35. Burton (1893), Vol. 1, p. 517.
  36. The London Gazette: no. 23889. p. 4075. 20 September 1872.
  37. Wright, Thomas (1 January 1906). "The Life of Sir Richard Burton". Library of Alexandria via Google Books.
  38. The London Gazette: no. 25559. p. 743. 16 February 1886.
  39. The Sufis by Idries Shah (1964)
  40. Wright (1906) "Some three months before Sir Richard's death," writes Mr. P. P. Cautley, the Vice-Consul at Trieste, to me, "I was seated at Sir Richard's tea table with our clergy man, and the talk turning on religion, Sir Richard declared, 'I am an atheist, but I was brought up in the Church of England, and that is officially my church.'"
  41. Wright (1906), vol. 2, pp. 252–254.
  42. Burton (1893)
  43. Cherry, Bridget and Pevsner, Nikolaus (1983). The Buildings of England – London 2: South. London: Penguin Books. p. 513. ISBN 0140710477.
  44. Boyes, Valerie & Wintersinger, Natascha (2014). Encountering the Uncharted and Back – Three Explorers: Ball, Vancouver and Burton. Museum of Richmond. pp. 9–10.
  45. De Novellis, Mark. "More about Richmond upon Thames Borough Art Collection". Your Paintings: Uncovering the Nation's Art Collection. BBC. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  46. 1 2 Ben Grant, "Translating/'The' “Kama Sutra”", Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, Connecting Cultures (2005), 509–516
  47. McLynn, Frank (1990), Of No Country: An Anthology of the Works of Sir Richard Burton, Scribner's, pp. 5–6.
  48. سرائیکی گرائمر. (in Arabic) 12 January 2014
  49. Pagan Press (1982–2012). "Sir Richard Francis Burton Explorer of the Sotadic Zone". Pagan Press. Pagan Press. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
  50. The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton (chapter 38) by Isabel Burton (1897) (URL accessed 12 June 2006)
  51. Burton, Sir Richard (1991) Kama Sutra, Park Street Press, ISBN 0-89281-441-1, p. 14
  52. Godsall, pp. 47–48
  53. Lovell, pp. 185, 186
  54. Rice, Edward (2001) [1990]. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography. Da Capo Press. pp. 136–137. ISBN 978-0306810282.
  55. Brodie, Fawn M. (1967) The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.: New York 1967, p. 3.
  56. Rice, Edward (2001) [1990]. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography. Da Capo Press. p. 137. ISBN 978-0306810282.
  57. Obituary in Athenaeum No. 3287, 25 October 1890, p. 547.
  58. Richard Burton by Ouida, article appearing in the Fortnightly Review June (1906) quoted by Lovell
  59. "Shorter Works by Richard Francis Burton".
  60. "The Book of Burtoniana, in Four Volumes, edited by Gavan Tredoux.".
  61. Godsall, p. 255

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