The Last Great Adventurer

Portrait of Sir Richard Burton by Frederic Leighton

Today (March 19) is the birthday of one of history’s all time great adventurers- Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG. He was at times a British soldier, explorer, spy, diplomat, writer, poet, translator, scholar, orientalist, linguist, ethnologist, folklorist, and swordsman. He spoke 29 languages. In the Victorian period, when much of the world was still unknown, and in many cases forbidden, Burton expanded our knowledge of it’s people and places to an extent that few men other than the early ocean explorers have.

He earned many and varied sobriquets in his life. When he was in the army in India his critics called him “the White Nigger” because he had supposedly “gone native” due to his studies of and interest in the local peoples. He was also known as “ruffian Dick” since he was a ferocious fighter and had fought more enemies in single combat than any man of his time. He could claim titles ranging from the Islamic Hajji to the “Sir” of British knighthood. He was among the most admired and most criticized men of his time.

Photograph of Burton clearly showing the scar left by a Somali spear.

On his exploration of Somalia he was wounded by a Somali spear entering his left cheek, the point protruding from the other. The scar from this, one of many wounds his adventures left him with, can be seen in most of his portraits and photos.

At a time when it was certain death for a westerner to visit Mecca, he disguised himself as a Pashtun (ethnic Afghani) and successfully made the Hajj (great pilgrimage) to and from the Masjid al-Haram (the Great Mosque) to view the Qaaba (the square house) in which is the sacred black stone. En route his caravan was attacked by bandits, adding to the danger. One of the ‘scandals’ to pester Burton’s later life was the rumor that he killed a young boy who caught him lifting his robe to urinate instead of squatting like an arab would. Fortunately Burton had been circumcised in preparation for his journey, which made it easier for him to convince the boy to keep his doubts to himself, without resorting to violence. Eventually tiring of defending himself against something he hadn’t done, he often would shock his accusers by falsely admitting to it. When a doctor asked him, “How do you feel having killed a man?” Burton replied, “Quite jolly, how about you?” After completion of the Hajj, Burton was entitled to use the title of Hajii and to wear a green Keffiyeh (head scarf).

Burton in eastern disguise

He searched for the source of the Nile along with John Hanning Speke. The details of their association are far too long and complex to go into here, and have been handled better elsewhere. Suffice it to note that the partnership and later enmity between the two ended on September 16, 1864 with Speke’s death. It was ruled an accident, but I am convinced by the circumstances it was a suicide.

Not all of Burton’s life involved exploration. He served twenty-five years as a diplomat and made scholarly translations of the Arabian Nights (in twenty volumes!), Vikram and the Vampire, the Kama Sutra and the Perfumed Garden, among others. After Burton’s death his wife Isabel burned a number of his papers and notes, including a revised version of the Perfumed Garden, because of their ‘prurient’ nature, thus depriving the world of a literary masterpiece.

The tomb of Sir Richard and Lady Isabel Burton

Even a mere list of Burton’s accomplishment’s would be too long for the scope of this simple blog. He died in Trieste in 1890 and was interred in Surrey. His tomb is in the shape of an arab tent. He was the world’s last great adventurer.

For those interested in finding our more, I can recommend two books: Death Rides a Camel by Allen Edwardes and The Devil Drives by Fawn M. Brodie. They offer somewhat differing views of the details of Burton’s life, but are, in my opinion, the two best of the Burton biographies available. For those of a more visual bent 1990’s Mountains of the Moon with Patrick Bergin looking uncannily like a young Burton, is a good bet. It gives an interesting (though like most movies a bastardized and tarted up) view of the relationship between Burton and Speke.

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One Response to The Last Great Adventurer

  1. cyrakitty says:

    Truly amazing everything that man accomplished. Makes me feel rather inept.

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