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Image result for Richard Francis BurtonSir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (19 March 1821 – 20 October 1890) was a British 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 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 he aborted his university studies, 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. William Henry Wilkins wrote: "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."[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 locals and was the first European known to have seen 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 in 1886.[3]

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".[50] Rumours about Burton's own sexuality were already circulating and were further incited by this work.

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.[53] 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.[54]

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.[55][56] 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."[57] 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."[58] 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."[59] 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.


  1. Lovell, p. xvii.
  2. Burton, I., Wilkins, W. H. (1897). The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton. The Story of Her Life. New York: Dodd Mead & Company.
  3. "Historic Figures: Sir Richard Burton". BBC. Retrieved 7 April 2017
  4. Lovell, p. 1.
  5. Wright (1906), vol. 1, p. 37.
  6. Page, William (1908). A History of the County of Hertford. Constable. vol. 2, pp. 349–351. ISBN 0-7129-0475-1.
  7. Wright (1906), vol. 1, p. 38.
  8. Wright (1906), vol. 1, p. 52.
  9. The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî by Richard F. Burton (1870).
  10. Wright (1906), vol. 1, p. 81.
  11. Falconry in the Valley of the Indus, Richard F. Burton (John Van Voorst 1852) page 93.
  12. Burton (1893), Vol. 1, p. 123.
  13. Rice, Edward. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1991). p. 83.
  14. 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.
  15. Lovell, p. 58.
  16. Wright (1906), vol. 1, pp. 119–120.
  17. Seigel, Jerrold (1 December 2015). "Between Cultures: Europe and Its Others in Five Exemplary Lives". University of Pennsylvania Press – via Google Books.
  18. Leigh Rayment. "Ludovico di Varthema". Discoverers Web. Discoverers Web. Archived from the original on 17 June 2012. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
  19. Selected Papers on Anthropology, Travel, and Exploration by Richard Burton, edited by Norman M. Penzer (London, A. M. Philpot 1924) p. 30.
  20. Burton, R. F. (1855). A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah. London: Tylston and Edwards.
  21. Lovell, pp. 156–157.
  22. 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.
  23. Burton, Richard (1856). First Footsteps in East Africa (1st ed.). Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. pp. 449–458.
  24. The Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile by John Hanning Speke at www.wollamshram.ca (URL accessed 10 April 2006)
  25. Carnochan, pp. 77–8 cites Isabel Burton and Alexander Maitland
  26. Jeal, p. 121
  27. Jeal, p. 322
  28. Kennedy, p. 135
  29. Jeal, pp. 129, pp. 156–166
  30. Jeal, p. 111
  31. Lovell, p. 341.
  32. Kennedy, p. 123
  33. Wright (1906), vol. 1, p. 200.
  34. Letters from the Battlefields of Paraguay, the Preface.
  35. "No. 23447". The London Gazette. 4 December 1868. p. 6460.
  36. Burton (1893), Vol. 1, p. 517.
  37. "No. 23889". The London Gazette. 20 September 1872. p. 4075.
  38. Wright, Thomas (1 January 1906). "The Life of Sir Richard Burton". Library of Alexandria – via Google Books.
  39. "No. 25559". The London Gazette. 16 February 1886. p. 743.
  40. The Sufis by Idries Shah (1964)
  41. 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.'"
  42. Wright (1906), vol. 2, pp. 252–254.
  43. Burton (1893)
  44. Cherry, Bridget and Pevsner, Nikolaus (1983). The Buildings of England – London 2: South. London: Penguin Books. p. 513. ISBN 0140710477.
  45. Boyes, Valerie & Wintersinger, Natascha (2014). Encountering the Uncharted and Back – Three Explorers: Ball, Vancouver and Burton. Museum of Richmond. pp. 9–10.
  46. De Novellis, Mark. "More about Richmond upon Thames Borough Art Collection". Your Paintings: Uncovering the Nation's Art Collection. BBC. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
  47. Ben Grant, "Translating/'The' “Kama Sutra”", Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, Connecting Cultures (2005), 509–516
  48. McLynn, Frank (1990), Of No Country: An Anthology of the Works of Sir Richard Burton, Scribner's, pp. 5–6.
  49. سرائیکی گرائمر. siraiki.blogspot.com (in Arabic) 12 January 2014
  50. Pagan Press (1982–2012). "Sir Richard Francis Burton Explorer of the Sotadic Zone". Pagan Press. Pagan Press. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
  51. The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton (chapter 38) by Isabel Burton (1897) (URL accessed 12 June 2006)
  52. Kennedy, D. (2009). The highly civilized man : Richard Burton and the Victorian world. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674025523. OCLC 647823711.
  53. Burton, Sir Richard (1991) Kama Sutra, Park Street Press, ISBN 0-89281-441-1, p. 14
  54. Godsall, pp. 47–48
  55. Lovell, pp. 185, 186
  56. Rice, Edward (2001) [1990]. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography. Da Capo Press. pp. 136–137. ISBN 978-0306810282.
  57. Brodie, Fawn M. (1967). The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.: New York 1967, p. 3.
  58. Obituary in Athenaeum No. 3287, 25 October 1890, p. 547.
  59. Richard Burton by Ouida, article appearing in the Fortnightly Review June (1906) quoted by Lovell
  60. "Shorter Works by Richard Francis Burton".
  61. "The Book of Burtoniana, in Four Volumes, edited by Gavan Tredoux".
  62. Godsall, p. 255