So far from home: Richard Francis Burton

BurtonRichard Francis Burton lived from 1821 to 1890, and for almost all of that time he seems to have been driven by a furious energy which prompted him to both explore other cultures, from the gypsies in his youth to the Persians in his old age, and to rebel against the hypocrisies and complacencies of the Victorian age. As a result he had a dual career as a scholar and explorer, and as a fighter, pursued by the enmity and petty spite of those he had offended.

A list of Burton’s achievements can lead, such is their number, to lack of consideration of the man’s character, which was a very unusual mix of intransigence and sensitivity.

Burton knew 29 languages and a dozen dialects. He published 30 books and translated or edited another 20. He was considered one of the best swordsmen in Europe, travelled in and explored Central Africa, Arabia, Iceland, America, Brazil, India, Turkey, Persia, was interested in astrology, palmistry, spiritualism, botany, archaeology, anthropology and erotica. He was a poet and a translator, an inventor, had a fascination with mining, especially for precious minerals. His knowledge was encyclopedic and undisciplined.

He served under Lord Lucan in the Crimea; travelled in disguise to Mecca; discovered Lake Tanganyika; interviewed Brigham Young; travelled with the Tichborn Claimant; was a friend of Arthur Evans, Ouida and Swinburne; admired by Schliemann and Stanley; corresponded with Gordon. Despite an unsavoury reputation and official disapproval Burton had many friends, fruit of his many languages and interests, his travels and his strong opinions.

As a student Burton rebelled against university authority and was expelled. As a soldier in the Crimea he was punished for refusing to obey orders (given the level of incompetency the Army displayed in that war he should have been promoted). In India he was regarded with distrust for going ‘native’: he disliked the stiff-necked arrogance of Imperial rule. His reputation accumulated in these spheres allowed the incompetent and treacherous Speke to rob him of the credit of his African exploration. And he spent the second half of his career in minor diplomatic employment because nobody in the Administration knew what to do with him.

Burton’s emotional life seems to have had the same contrasts as his career. On more than one occasion, hearing of the death of a friend, Burton, who cultivated the reputation of a bravo, cried uncontrollably. The death of Speke, with whom he was debating in a most bitter spirit of enmity (on both sides) left him devastated. On another occasion he fainted on hearing the news of a friend’s death. His wife Isabel decided when she first met him that she would marry him and spend her life with him, and she did. Her story is one of great devotion, almost idolising Burton. She maintained this till the day of her death, a remarkable achievement. She was in her way as remarkable and as eccentric a person as her husband. In spite of her Roman Catholicism – a very strong belief – she gave unquestioning loyalty to the sceptic Burton. She obeyed his orders unhesitatingly, even when ordered to ignore an earthquake. This devotion is his best testimonial.

Burton had no children, concealed his tremendous sensitivity and tenderness, formed strong emotional ties with his few men friends, and created what became a platonic relationship with his wife Isabel. Inevitably there has been discussion of his possible homosexuality, but the only evidence is slander from men who disliked him. In any case (as I hope homosexual people would agree) homosexuality is not an explanation for a man’s character (unless you are a follower of Freud, in which case you could have a field day, though I suspect your conclusions would be more about Freud than Burton).

He was a supporter of Darwin. On one voyage he was talking to a Catholic archbishop. Said the archbishop, on seeing some monkeys:
“Well Burton, there go some of your ancestors”.
“At least my lord I have made some progress. But what of your lordship who is I understand descended from the angels”.

A student of religions (Mecca, Salt Lake City, Rome) and an atheist, Burton expressed his faith in his one book of poetry the Kasidah.

All faith is false, all faith is true
Truth is the shattered mirror shown
In myriad bits; while each believes
His little bit the whole to own

There is no God, no man-made God;
A bigger, stronger, crueller man;
Black phantom of our baby-fears’
Ere thought, the life of Life, began

Burton was undisciplined. He wrote too much, and left too much in. He held strong opinions and would not modify them for anybody. He kept no law but his own. He was distrusted and cultivated his fearsome reputation. There was no place for him. He was aware of his gifts, his potential and his failure, perhaps unendurably. “With every talent but the talent to use them”. Distrusted by his age, driven by a furious energy and with a discounted and hidden sensitivity. Half way to being a great man of action and a great man of literature, he was neither – or both. A very rarely gifted man, as Isabel saw.

Burton’s copious writings are available at as free downloads, along with rare illustrations and an informative commentary. As a writer Burton was prolix in the Victorian style and his enormous learning on many subjects overflowed into digressions and asides as well as the main body of the texts. Almost the best part of any book by Burton are his footnotes, which lead the reader on a fascinating journey sometimes far from the subject in hand, very much like his namesake Robert Burton.

I find his celebrated translation of the Thousand Nights and One Night so energetic and flowing that it removes my quibbles about the archaic vocabulary Burton employed.

“Know, O thou ifret, that in days of yore and in ages long gone before, a King called Yunan reigned over the city of Fars of the land of the Roum. He was a powerful ruler and a wealthy, who had armies and guards and allies of all nations of men; but his body was afflicted with a leprosy which leeches and men of science failed to heal…At last there came to his city a mighty healer of men and one well stricken in years, the sage Duban hight…”

The footnotes, as so often, are just as interesting:

“In the east men respect manly virtues, not the hysterical, philanthropic, pseudo-humanitarianism of modern government which is really cruellest of all…(government in eastern countries) is a despotism tempered by assassination. And under no other rule is a man socially freer and his condition contrasts strangely with the grinding social tyranny which characterises every mode of democracy or constitutionalism ie political equality…there are indeed only two efficacious forms of punishment all the world over, corporal for the poor and fines for the rich, the latter being the severer form.”

“The more I study religions the more I am certain that man never worshipped anything but himself.”

No man before him says Farwell had taken such a scientific interest in the subject of sex. As he travelled and explored, Burton kept notes on everything (each journey resulted in a book) and his notes included information on local sexual practices, comparative length of penuses, details of sexual mutilation, and a host of topics that horrified his staid Victorian contemporaries. And did he write ‘A History of Farting’?

Burton by Byron Farwell (what a great name, especially for a Burton biographer) is still the best biography, though first published in 1963. Burton’s sex life, his breadth of interests and accomplishments, his sensitivity, Darwinism, the Kasidah, the misfit are all aspects covered in the book that intrigued me. It’s more convincing than Fawn Brodie’s book of 1967, The Devil Drives, which first sparked my interest many years ago, which now seems too pat with Freudian interpretations. An interesting account of one of his journeys is Sind Revisited by Christopher Ondaatje (1996). William Harrison’s Burton and Speke (1982) is a novel on the two men I found fascinating, and better than the movie made from it.

Burton was one of the great outsiders. His interests ranged far beyond any one person’s ability to comprehend them, as did Leonardo’s. His empathy gave him an insight into other cultures which was quite opposed to the values of the age of imperialism in which he lived and made him an outcast (as it did Kipling despite all his patriotic verse). From his youth this Irishman who was bought up in France and fascinated with gypsies was always looking for his place. He never found it.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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