Geographical Heroes: Richard Francis Burton

Sir Richard Burton studied at Oxford University where his passionate temperament earned him the name ‘Ruffian Dick’. He followed his fathers footsteps and joined the army,spending eight years in India. During this time he mastered Arabic, Hindi, ad six regional languages to add to a list that was tot total twenty nine by the end of his life – or fourty,taking into account local dialects.

Working as an army intelligence officer, he ventured in disguise as a Muslim merchant into the local bazaars. He left the army and after a brief spell back in England Burton set about his dream of travelling to the sacred (and forbidden) Muslim city of Mecca, via Cairo, Suez and Medina. Revelling as ever in the danger of the venture, he had himself circumcised, then adopted the disguise of an Afghan Pilgrim. On his eventual rival he sketched ans measured the holy shrine if Islam, the Ka’bah. Still unsatisfied he organised an expedition to the equally forbidden East Africa city of Harar, becoming the first European to enter without being executed.

Back on the coast, he and his officer companions, including John Hanning Speke, were attacked by Somalis. Once recovered from his injuries – he recieved a spear right though both cheeks – Burton volunteered for the Crimea War of 1854 -6, and then, with the backing of the Royal Geographical society and the British Foreign Office, led his famous expedition in search of the Niles source, again with Speke. The paid reach the shores of Lake Tanganyika, the second largest lake in Africa, and, though they were the first European to see it, they were too sick to explore it fully. Speke did a cursory investigation by canoe, and soon after, while Burton was recovering in Taboria, perhaps distracted again by his predelication for Arab culture, Speke investigated an even bigger lake to the north, an claimed that his, not  Tanganyika, as Burton supposed, was the source of the Nile. Their relationship deteriorating, Speke was the first to return to England and, despite a pledge not to reveal any of their discoveries first, now claimed to have discovered the source. The rift that this created between the two explorers was never bridged: but as it happened, Burton, for all his intellect, was wrong.

In 1860, Burton visited North America travelling by stagecoach to Salt Lake City, where he studied the Mormon Community, which he made the subject of a book. The following year he joined the Foreign office and for three years was consul in Fernando Po, a Spanish island off West Africa. His accounts of his brief exploratory trips – with his colourful descriptions of tribal fetishism, cannibalism, ritual murder and sexual practices – ruffled the sensibilities of other diplomats, yet somehow never quite sufficiently to justify his dismissal.

In 1872 Burton took up the Consulate at Trieste, where he stayed for the remaining 18 years of his life, writing and translating prolifically. His sixteen-volume translation of the Arabian Nights is considered unparalleled in both its literary fidelity to the original.

Following Burton’s death from a heart attack, Isabel burned almost all of his fourty year collection of journals. Burton’s rich writing style reflects his romantic fascination with exotic culture barred yo most of his kind. He shows a conscious awareness of what Europeans had lost by becoming ‘civilized’.


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