…but it’s always a good time to celebrate Sir Richard Francis Burton, whose birthday was yesterday. A Victorian phenom, even at a time when many gentlemen pursued science and literature, traveled to exotic climes and exerted themselves on behalf of the Empire, Burton was in a class by himself. His life was so packed with adventure that Wikipedia not only gives him ample biographical space, but has created a Richard Burton timeline.
Sort of an ‘army brat,’ Burton was the son of an officer who took his family with him to every posting – which explains how young Richard started learning a foreign language early. He had an ear and he picked up dialects as well as the formal tongue wherever he went – best guess is that over his lifetime he learned nearly 30 languages. As a young (early 20s) officer in India, he learned Hindi, Gujarati, Sindhi, Marathi, Arabic and Persian.
And he had a flair for the dramatic – assigned to the survey of Sindh, he liked to dress and speak like a native, traveling the area under the name of Mirza Abdullah, delighted when his fellow officers didn’t recognize him.
It was his talent for disguise that led to his first literary success – disguised as a Pashtun, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, the second non-Muslim ever to do so. Had he been discovered, it’s likely he’d have been murdered on the spot. He wrote up his adventure as A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855) and became an instant celebrity.
Burton worked for the Royal Geographical Society long enough to be the first European to locate Lake Tanganyika – it was on that expedition that he and his group were attacked and he took a javelin in the face, leaving him with a dramatic scar that can be seen in the Leighton portrait. He traveled in disguise again as an Arab merchant in order to find the forbidden city of Harar in Somalia. He ended up as a diplomat, posted at the end of his life in Trieste.
He translated The Arabian Nights and The Kama Sutra for shocked Victorians and he was working on the translation of the classic The Perfumed Garden when he died.
He married Isabel Arundell, who devoted her life to furthering his career, a task made more difficult by Burton’s ability to irritate and offend precisely those people whose approval he sought.
He was an amazing, multitalented, complicated man, just as Colonel Blimpish as any Victorian gentleman, yet simultaneously adventurous, forward-thinking and liberal in his attitudes towards the exotic cultures he encountered.
There is so much to know about him and a good place to start is here.. Many of his best-known works are at Project Gutenberg. And here is a bit of First Footsteps in East Africa, the story of his trek to find Harar:
The interior ofour new house was a clean room, with plain walls, and a floor of tamped earth; opposite the entrance were two broad steps of masonry, raised about two feet, and a yard above the ground, and covered with, hard matting. I contrived to make upon the higher ledge a bed with the cushions which my companions used as shabracques, and, after seeing the mules fed and tethered, lay down to rest worn out by fatigue and profoundly impressed with the ‘poesie’ of our position. I was under the roof of a bigoted prince whose least word was death; amongst a people who detest foreigners; the only European that had ever passed over their inhospitable threshold, and the fated instrument of their future downfall.