Frequently described within his own lifetime as the most interesting figures of the nineteenth century, Sir Richard Burton was one of the greatest explorers to come out of England.
A brilliant, charismatic man, Burton combined being a great scholar and a daring adventurer. Fluent in some twenty-nine languages, and combined with his somewhat Mediterranean looks, he was able to pass himself off as native in many countries in the Middle- and Far East which enabled him to gain an insight into different cultures usually denied to travellers.
Born in 1821, his first career was in the British army in India. Here he served as an intelligence officer and was known as “Ruffian Dick” on account of his love of fighting. He wrote the first modern account of Goa, Goa and the Blue Mountains in 1851, and followed it with two important accounts of Scinde, a politically sensitive area.
After this he made the journey for which he is probably best remembered, the Hajj to the sacred Islamic cities of Mecca and Medina, disguised as a pilgrim. His account, Personal narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah, 1855-56, is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of travel ever published. Travelling as an Afghan Pathan, he became the first European to travel between the Holy Cities. He had intended to traverse Arabia but was frustrated by fighting amongst the tribes. Burton performed all the rituals of the Hajj and was so affected by the experience that on his return to London he formed a company to enable pilgrims to reach Mecca more easily.
Burton’s next great adventure was to the forbidden city of Harar in East Africa, where no European had ever entered. Disguised as a merchant called Haji Mirza Abdullah, he met the ruler, spent ten days, and returned safely to Berbera. None the less, on the coast of Somalia Burton’s party was attacked and he got a spear through the face. The account of this journey is found in First Footsteps in East Africa, 1856.
Illustration from R.F. Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa, 1856.
Undaunted, Burton set out again in Africa, this time to explore the Lake regions. He undertook the escapade with one of his companions from the Harar excursion, John Speke. The purpose of the expedition was to find the Jebel Kumri, or the “Mountains of the Moon.” They discovered Lake Tanganyika but, with failing health they were forced to return to Kazeh to recuperate. Following this, Burton sent Speke off by himself to investigate a large lake. Speke became convinced that this was the source of the Nile; a conclusion disputed by Burton which led to their falling out and, probably, Speke’s mysterious death. The published account, The Lake Regions of Central Africa, 1860, (image below) contains Burton’s first attack on Speke in print.
During his life he published forty-three volumes on his explorations and almost thirty volumes of translations. Burton’s genius and his fearlessness should have made him a valuable asset to colonial England, but he was an outsider, a restless wanderer with a strong dislike of authority who delighted in shocking polite society with tales of cannibalism and drinking from human skulls. His fascination with, and exploration of the intimate customs of different cultures, led to publication of such works as The Perfumed Garden and the Kama Sutra. His translation of the Arabian Nights was also considered to be quite shocking. Burton died in 1890. After his death his wife burned most of his manuscripts so, unfortunately we will never know the full extent of his genius.