University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 2JD, Regno Unito
Barham House, Barham Ave, Elstree, Borehamwood WD6 3PW, Regno Unito
Sir 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.
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."
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.
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". 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. 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.
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. 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." Stanley Lane-Poole, a Burton detractor, reported that Burton "confessed rather shamefacedly that he had never killed anybody at any time."
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." 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." 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.
BACK TO HOME PAGE