…it’s the Devil that Drives
Historical Badass: Explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton
BY CHRIS PARKER | JUNE 30, 2016
While on an expedition in 1855, Sir Richard Francis Burton was lying in his tent on the remote Horn of Africa when roughly 200 Somali warriors attacked his camp. It was around two in the morning, and Burton and his 42 comrades were bombarded with flying spears. A master swordsman, Burton grabbed his saber and tried to fight off the approaching assailants in the dark. In the confusion, he turned to strike ,only to hear the familiar voice of his ras–the expedition’s Somalian captain–cry out. Burton stalled, and during the brief pause an eager warrior stepped up and speared him through the face. But Burton, like a mad grizzly, continued to fight and eventually escaped… with the javelin still lodged in his jaw.
In later years, after gaining notoriety for his epic globe-trotting adventures, the imposing, darkly handsome Burton would proudly brandish his spear-hewn battle scar, often sitting for photographs and portraits with his damaged left cheek turned toward the artist.
Born in 1821 to a British Army colonel, Burton was a delinquent “gypsy eyed” child, raising hell while traveling with his family between France, Italy and England. Fiercely independent with an inherent disdain for authority, he balked at formal education. Forced to attend Oxford’s Trinity College by his fed-up father, Burton showed up sporting a mustache and looking for trouble. In the first few days he challenged an upperclassman to a duel for laughing at his facial hair, but the terrified boy nervously declined. College didn’t last long. He was eventually expelled for attending a steeplechase race against college rules and refusing to apologize afterward.
Burton joined the British army’s East India Company in 1842 and spent the next seven years as a captain stationed in India and later Sindh, Pakistan. He absorbed native languages (by his early 30s he spoke 29) and at one point kept a menagerie of monkeys, from which he claimed to pick up 60 “words.” He also studied the Hindu religion with a Nagar Brahmin, becoming a snake priest (literally handling live cobras) and developed a daily yoga practice of Pranayama and the 84 asana postures.
Though Burton’s intense cultural studies annoyed other Victorian-era officers who accused him of going native, his uncanny ability to assimilate made him the perfect spy for the British army. Disguised as a Persian named Mirza Abdullah, Burton would not break character for days–frequently fooling his own close confidants while on classified missions.
In Pakistan, Burton’s interests switched from Hinduism to Islam, sparking a fascination that would inspire his first major adventure–a pilgrimage to Mecca. After becoming a self-proclaimed “master-Sufi,” Burton left his post in the east and spent two years in England and France, planning his pilgrimage while also embarking on an exhaustive study of the sword. People flocked to see his fencing matches, where he would defeat renowned, armor-clad opponents while wearing nothing more than slacks and a cotton shirt.
In 1853, Burton, disguised as a wandering Dervish, set out for Mecca in a land only “open to the adventurous traveler.” The trip involved crossing the famed “Empty Quarter”–the world’s largest contiguous desert and at the time still a blank white space on the map. The journey was dangerous, to put it lightly, with the risk of certain death if discovered as a westerner. So Burton armed himself with a small pistol under his cloak and carried a Quran containing three hidden compartments, where he stored a compass, watch, money, and note-taking material. The arduous pilgrimage, which began with an attack by brigands that killed 12 men in his caravan, ended on September 11, 1853, when Burton entered the city of Mecca. He emerged unscathed and authored an account of the adventure, A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, which brought him instant fame abroad. His reasoning for the trip? To “prove, by trial that what might be perilous to other travelers was safe to me.”
Burton would continue to prove that point for the rest of his life. He was back in disguise in 1855 as an Arab merchant, this time trekking to the African city of Harar. No white man had ever passed through the city’s gates until Burton made the breach, where he stayed for 10 days as a guest (or prisoner, some argue) of the prince–then considered to be the most dangerous man in East Africa.
Burton’s last major expedition was an attempt to find the source of the Nile. He teamed up with a British aristocrat named John Hanning Speke and the two embarked on a great “safari”–a term Burton introduced to the English language. The journey turned into a full-on epic. Plagued by fever and tropical disease, the explorers spent nearly two years in the jungles of interior Africa. They encountered wild indigenous tribes, such as the cannibalistic Wabembe, whose eyes, Burton noted, “seemed to devour us.”
The explorers hiked hundreds of miles until they arrived in Ujiji, where they found Africa’s Great Lakes. Burton became the first European to “see” the world’s longest freshwater lake (Speke was temporarily blind), but ultimately, Burton considered the expedition a failure. The source of the Nile had eluded the explorers, though Speke later claimed its discovery–sparking controversy and a legendary rivalry.
Burton spent his later years working as a diplomat for England and continued to pursue exotic challenges. He searched for gorillas in the Congo (and found cannibals instead), got struck by lightning, and bagged peaks in the Cameroon Mountains. In Brazil, while working out of the port town of Santos, he canoed down the São Francisco River, running rapids no man had previously survived.
He also wrote incessantly. Though Burton’s pen was probably not quite mightier than his sword, it was a close second. He authored more than 40 books on his exploits, many of which became classics. He also translated the Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights into English–introducing stories such as “Aladdin” to the western world.
Old age eventually tracked Burton down. In his 50s, while on a climbing trip in the Alps, he chose to sleep in the snow to harden himself (as he had done in the past), but came down with a fever instead. His wife, Isabel, nursed him back to health, but it was clear Burton’s days of hardcore adventures were over. He continued to write prolifically up until his dying day, though his failing health often found him “dipping his pen in everything but the ink,” according Isabel.
Burton died of a heart attack in 1890 at the age of 69…but not before his country anointed him a Knight Commander in 1886.
Once he even contemplated writing a biography of Satan himself. “It is interesting to note the superior gusto with which Eastern, as well as the Western tale-teller describes his scoundrels and villains,” he wrote, “whilst his good men and women are mostly colourless and unpicturesque. So Satan is the true hero of Paradise Lost and by his side God and man are very ordinary; and Mephistopheles is much better society than Faust and Margaret.”2 Burton’s own visage seems to have conjured up thoughts of Satan; Swinburne said that he had the jaw of a devil and the brow of a god; and the Earl of Dunraven wrote that Burton “prided himself on looking like Satan—as, indeed, he did.”
But Burton’s preoccupation with things Satanic was only one aspect of the man. In the catholicity of his interests he seemed to have been a true man of the Renaissance. He was soldier, explorer, ethnologist, archaeologist, poet, translator, and one of the two or three great linguists of his time. He was also an amateur physician, botanist, zoologist, and geologist, and incidentally a celebrated swordsman and superb raconteur.
“Discovery is mostly my mania,” he wrote. And in a world where there seemed to be very little left to be discovered, he sought out the few remaining mysteries. He penetrated the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina at great risk and wrote detailed descriptions. He was the first European to explore the forbidden Moslem city of Harar in Somaliland, which promised death to any infidel. Then he turned to the mystery that had fired the curiosity of Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, “the greatest geographical secret after the discovery of America,” the source of the White Nile. Enduring great hardship, he succeeded with John Hanning Speke in discovering Lake Tanganyika, but just missed Lake Victoria, a failure that embroiled him in controversy and tragedy.
But Burton’s real passion was not for geographical discovery but for the hidden in man, for the unknowable, and inevitably the unthinkable. What his Victorian compatriots called unclean, bestial, or Satanic he regarded with almost clinical detachment. In this respect he belongs more properly to our own day. But he was trapped in a century where few men truly understood his talents; he was confined and penalized by the pruderies of his time, praised only for his most obvious exploits, and generally condemned for a curiosity as prodigious as it was penetrating.
During his later years he railed against the “immodest modesty,” cant, and hypocrisy of his era. He took it upon himself to bring to the West the sexual wisdom of the East, where acceptance of the naturalness of the art of love came close to religious exaltation. Precursor of Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud, he anticipated many of their insights. He translated his sixteen-volume edition of the unexpurgated Arabian Nights, larded with ethnological notes to make it a veritable treasure house. He risked prosecution and imprisonment to print, secretly, several translations of Oriental erotica, one of which, The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefzaoui, also called The Scented Garden, he was working on when he died.
His other writings were prodigious in quantity and extraordinarily varied in content. He shines therefore in three constellations of gifted men. He is among the first rank of British explorers, together with David Livingstone, Henry Stanley, Samuel Baker, and John Hanning Speke. He was one of that group of gifted British scientists, many of them “amateurs”—Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Charles Lyell, James Frazer, Flinders Petrie, Arthur Evans, A. H. Sayce, and Thomas Huxley—who pushed back the frontiers of man’s knowledge of man in an explosion of enthusiastic discovery. And thirdly, he was a literary figure of great distinction.
“He was fond of calling himself an anthropologist,” J. S. Cotton wrote in the Academy at his death, “by which he meant that he took for his domain everything that concerns man and woman. Whatever humanity does he refused to consider common or unclean; and he dared to write down in black and white (for private circulation) the results of his exceptional experience. … His virility stamped everything he said or wrote. … He concealed nothing; he boasted of nothing. … But to those who were admitted to his intimacy, the man was greater than what he did or what he wrote.”
His wife wrote that except in a gathering of his best friends “he would throw out his quills like a porcupine.”6 But there were many such gatherings, and it is astonishing how many nineteenth-century Englishmen in their reminiscences devoted pages to a single evening with Richard Burton. Bram Stoker, though at first repelled by his “iron countenance,” wrote that “as he talked, fancy seemed to run riot in its alluring power; and the whole world of thought seemed to flame with gorgeous colour.” Lord Redesdale noted that “the thing which he loved above all others was to astonish, and for the sake of that he would not hesitate to violate the virtue of the pure maiden who dwells in a well.”7 When a young curate asked him once if he had shot a man near Mecca, he replied mischievously, “Sir, I’m proud to say that I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.” Still Burton could be stung by the consequences of his own tall tales about himself. Once in a crowded party he overheard a woman say, “There is that infamous Captain Burton. I should like to know that he was down with some lingering illness.” Burton turned to face her and said gravely, “Madame, I have never in all my life done anything so wicked as to express so shocking a wish as that.”
Ouida, the fashionable female novelist of the time, wrote that Burton “looked like Othello, and lived like the Three Mousquetaires blended in one.”9 Frank Harris wrote a memorable essay on Burton, which he included in his Contemporary Portraits, along with Carlyle, Whistler, Swinburne, Rodin, and Anatole France. He had met him first at a London party:
Burton was in conventional evening dress, and yet, as he swung around to the introduction, there was an untamed air about him. He was tall, about six feet in height, with broad, square shoulders; he carried himself like a young man, in spite of his sixty years, and was abrupt in movement. His face was bronzed and scarred, and when he wore a heavy moustache and no beard he looked like a prize-fighter; the naked, dark eyes—imperious, aggressive eyes, by no means friendly; the heavy jaws and prominent hard chin gave him a desperate air.
Burton unbuttoned, and talked as only Burton could talk of Damascus and that immemorial East; of India and its super-subtle people, of Africa and human life in the raw today as it was twenty thousand years ago.… Burton was of encyclopaedic reading; knew English poetry and prose astonishingly; had a curious liking for “sabre-cuts of Saxon speech”—all such words as come hot from life’s mint.…
A western lynching yarn held him spell-bound, a crime passionel in Paris intoxicated him, started him talking, transfigured him into a magnificent story-teller, with intermingled appeals of pathos and rollicking fun, campfire effects, jets of flame against the night.
His intellectual curiosity was astonishingly broad and deep rather than high. He would tell stories of Indian philosophy or of perverse negro habits of lust and cannibalism, or would listen to descriptions of Chinese cruelty and Russian self-mutilation till the stars paled out. Catholic in his admiration and liking for all greatness, it was the abnormalities and not the divinities of men that fascinated him.
Deep down in him lay the despairing gloom of utter disbelief.… Burton’s laughter, even, deep-chested as it was, had in it something of sadness.10
As a brawler in his youth, and a literary brawler in maturity, Burton made many enemies. He could dismiss the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette for his “malevolent insipidities,” and demolish the reputation of an author by writing in a review, “This book has been carefully purged of everything valuable.” He attacked Henry Reeve, editor of the Edinburgh Review, as “a cross and cross-grained old man whose surly temper is equalled only by his ignoble jealousy of another’s success.”11 But much of this cudgeling was in response to venomous attacks upon his Arabian Nights. After its publication he was called “an authority … on all that relates to the bestial element in man,” and “a man who knows thirty-five languages and dialects, especially that of pornography.” Henry Reeve called his Nights “one of the most indecent books in the English language,” and “an extraordinary agglomeration of filth.”
Burton’s marriage was no less fascinating than his explorations. His friends and biographers have been sharply divided into those who admired and those who detested his wife. Isabel Arundell Burton was a member of the Roman Catholic aristocracy, in her youth a girl of considerable beauty, and all her life the possessor of a proud, independent, and romantic spirit. W. H. Wilkins, her first biographer, described her relations with her husband as “more like a poem than an ordinary marriage.” Ouida, who was friend to both, insisted theirs was “a love marriage in the most absolute sense of the word.”
Burton’s niece, Georgiana Stisted, on the other hand, who wrote an effusive biography of her uncle, described the marriage as “a serious imprudence.” John Payne, rival translator of the Arabian Nights, told the biographer Thomas Wright that Isabel “was answerable for most of Burton’s troubles. She didn’t know the difference between truth and falsehood.… She and Burton never understood each other.” Lord Redesdale wrote that “Burton was a model husband, and his wife adored him,” but he believed Isabel to have been a snob who did Burton great damage in his foreign office posts. Others called her silly, fatuous, superstitious, and a bigoted Catholic. Swinburne at first called her “the best of wives,” but turned against her savagely after Burton’s death.
Troubled by her husband’s preoccupation with erotic literature, Isabel repeatedly urged him to abandon his translation of The Scented Garden and turn instead to his own memoirs. Finally he said to her, “Tomorrow I shall have finished this, and I promise you that after this I will never write another book upon this subject. I will take to our biography.” The next day he was dead. Within a fortnight Isabel Burton had destroyed the manuscript. “Sorrowfully, reverently, and in fear and trembling,” she wrote, “I burnt sheet after sheet, until the whole of the volumes were consumed.”
Later she set about writing the biography of her husband, describing him as
“the most pure, the most refined, the most modest man … that ever lived.” She insisted, “There is one thing that I feel I am fit for, and that is to lift the vail as to the inner man.” Afterwards she took the forty-year accumulation of his journals and diaries and burned practically everything.
Burton had kept two sets of journals, one the detailed account of his travel experiences, which included his anthropological notes, summaries of books he had read, and impressions of conversations with many of the most influential people in England. The other set consisted of his intimate diaries, which he always kept under lock and key. From the few portions his wife singled out for quotation, and from several pages preserved in the British Museum, we have reason to believe that these diaries were a record of his pain, heartbreak, and humiliation, as well as his exaltation. A few documents and a good many letters escaped the holocaust. So the loss was not total; it was simply irreparable. There would have been a loss of comparable magnitude had Boswell’s widow built a bonfire at Malahide Castle.
A fine oil painting of Sir Richard Burton painted by Sir Frederick Leighton in 1876 hangs today in the National Portrait Gallery. It is a strong portrait, as befits the man, showing the ruddy complexion, full beard and moustache, and fierceness of eye. Burton is in good company, in the same room with Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Above him is Sir Charles Lyell, British geologist who was buried in Westminster Abbey. Across the room is the beguiling portrait of the three Brontë sisters done by their brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë. Burton seems to be staring at Ruskin, whose bland, blue eyes and benign countenance are in sharpest contrast with his own baleful glare. It is a curious accident that Burton should seem to be looking directly at the one man guilty of exactly the same kind of post-mortem burning as his wife. Ruskin had been made executor of the estate of the painter J. M. W. Turner, and in going through the collection of his canvases in 1857, he discovered a group of paintings Turner had made of sailors and prostitutes on the London docks. He burned them all.
Isabel knew the story well. “Turner’s executors burnt a few of his last pictures under similar circumstances to leave his reputation as a painter at its zenith,” she wrote. “I acted from the same motive.”15 Though the burning insured Isabel Burton’s position as Richard Burton’s most important biographer, it nevertheless underlined her incomprehension of the true nature of his “demon,” and made everything she wrote suspect, especially her portrait of “the inner man.”
Burton was a true man of the Renaissance. He was soldier, explorer, ethnologist, archaeologist, poet, translator, and one of the two or three great linguists of his time. He was also an amateur physician, a botanist, a geologist, a swordsman, and a superb raconteur. He penetrated the sacred Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina at great risk and explored the forbidden city of Harar in Somaliland. He searched for the sources of the White Nile and discovered Lake Tanganyika.