Richard Burton – The Greatest British Explorer

Spoke 25 languages, a master of disguise and intrepid explorer. The first non-Muslim to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Richard Burton was the translator of Arabian Nights, the classic series of tales about djinns, robbers, and princesses told nightly by Scheherazade to forestall her execution.

Richard Burton was a 19th century English adventurer and scholar beyond par. Thrown out of Oxford University for unruly conduct (he tended to challenge anyone to a duel who made fun of his moustache) he joined the East India Company stationed in Sind – which is now a province in Pakistan. He quickly displayed an unsettling ability to learn languages and dialects, mastering not only the classic forms but also the slang and obscure vulgar terms. At one count he was said to be fluent in at least 25 languages and 15 additional dialects. These abilities quickly attracted the attention of his commanders, desperate for ground level information.

Burton was given free rein to soak up the local culture, absorbing the customs and etiquette of Sind, in particular all things related to Islam. This cultural immersion, along with his linguistic genius, enabled him to walk incognito in the marketplace and streets of the city to gather information. In a sense he forsook the teaching of the Oxford dons to instead learn a first hand anthropology from his mistresses and street companions.

However, his curious nature once more brought him into disrepute when he elected to study the city brothels – few things were to prove as attractive to Burton than the sexual habits and peculiarities of a country. In the course of his investigations it became clear that amongst the most popular clientele were esteemed British officers. Naturally, the report did little for his popularity in the uptight Victorian ethos that prevailed in the service and Burton took a leave of absence.

It was during this time that he explored Goa and wrote “Goa and the Blue Mountains”, the first of many works. Although now regarded of a trouble-maker with an unhealthy curiosity, Burton won popular acclaim for his feat of becoming the first Englishman to go on Hajj to Mecca. Sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society the British Foreign Office also gave their tacit approval – loose cannon that Burton was, he might still be used to the Empire’s advantage.

The journey to Mecca was and still is strictly off-limit to non-Muslims but this Burton saw as no real obstacle. He arranged for his own circumcision, versed himself still further in the intricacies of Arab and Muslim custom and embarked on the pilgrimage disguised as an Afghani physician. The gall and imagination he had in such an undertaking is apparent in the telling of it in his “A Pilgrimage to Mecca.”:

“Men, women, and children besieged my door…Even respectable natives opined that the stranger was a holy man, gifted with supernatural powers, and knowing everything. One old person sent to offer me his daughter in marriage; he said nothing about dowry, ” but I thought proper to decline the honour.”

Curing the ills of his fellow pilgrims with little more than rosewater and iodine, he nevertheless decided not to push his luck and reverted to his favorite disguise of a dervish. He had in fact been initiated into the upper echelons of a Sufi order or as he preferred to put it the ‘Oriental Freemasons’. As a Dervish any residual peculiarities of his complexion or manner could be turned to his advantage.

“No character in the Moslem world is so proper for disguise as that of the Darwaysh. It is assumed by all ranks, ages, and creeds; by the nobleman who has been disgraced at court, and by the peasant who is too idle to till the ground…The more haughty and offensive he is to the people, the more they respect him; a decided advantage to the traveller of choleric temperament. In the hour of imminent danger, he has only to become a maniac, and he is safe; a madman in the East, like a notably eccentric character in the West, is allowed to say or do whatever the spirit directs.”

Burton distinguished himself in audacious escapades such as infiltrating the capital of Somalia, Harar, a land forbidden to foreigners. He became the first white man to enter and leave alive though he and his followers were hunted back through the desert to the safety of the coast. He recorded his exploits in Samalia in First Footsteps in East Africa“.

He also accompanied Speke on the ground-breaking expedition to discover the source of the Nile; work that was to greatly assist the future exploration of Stanley and Livingstone.

On one level Burton would seem to be a talented secret agent in the employ of the British Government, laying the groundwork for the further expansion of the Empire and the exploitation of new trade routes. Or he could be seen as merely a dedicated explorer and a member of the National Geographic Society, one of the intrepid characters who risked life and limb to return to London and deliver lectures to uptight men in linen suits.

Then again the Arabs claimed him for their own and as an ordained Sufi he would have been respected throughout the Muslim world. He was clearly one of that strange breed of Westerners that felt far more at home in the world of superstition and intrigue that was the East. In the end it would seem that he was a man who acted for himself and what he valued, moving through political spheres as though they were but a stage.

He will perhaps be best remembered though for his contributions to literature. Not only are his accounts of travel in India, Africa and the Mormon territories of the USA Formidable reading in themselves, he specialized in extensive translations of the Eastern classics. He spent numerous years on a 16 volume translation of the Arabian Nights; the first to do justice to this epic of oral storytelling and it brought him great fame and wealth back home in England.

It’s now difficult to get hold of the Nights in the original format but Burton’s footnotes often rivaled the length of the stories themselves. He could live a month in a place and soak up more information than most would perceive in years. Accordingly he would annotate stories would observation such as that of the inspection of the sheet after the nuptial night:

This custom is still maintained in the East to demonstrate that the ‘domestic calamity; (the daughter) went to the husband a clean maid. No blood will impose (ie fool) upon the experts except that of a pigeon- when not subjected to the microscope.

It was perhaps more due to the graphic sexual content of the Nights that the hung-up Victorians were so impressed and why it won such popular appeal. Burton wrote at great length on homosexuality, eunuchs and bizarre sexual practices of the cultures that he encountered. To illustrate the classic love of boys amongst the Arabs he mentioned the remark of an illustrious imam. This exalted personage was asked: “O Mujtahid! Figure thee in a garden of roses and hyacinths with the evening breeze waving the cypress-heads, a fair youth of twenty sitting by thy side and the assurance of perfect privacy. What, prithee, would be the result?’

The holy man bowed the chin of doubt upon the collar of meditation; and, too honest to lie presently whispered, ‘Allah defend me from such temptation of Satan!‘” Burton’s reputation as a translator of pornography was further strengthened by his translations of the Kama Sutra which he made a household name in England. Whilst serving in the British foreign offices of Damascus, Santos in Brazil and Trieste, he completed the translation of the highly sensual erotic classic “The Perfumed Garden.” It was not published before his death however and after his demise his wife, Isabelle, described as a ‘brave, pathetic, ridiculous woman, burnt the manuscript page by page; she feared that such scandalous material might tarnish the reputation of the faithful, upright, Christian man she knew her husband to be.