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Richard Burton

Richard Burton Shapero Rare Books

The start in a regular Blog series with our roving Travel expert Julian Mackenzie.

Richard Burton Shapero Rare Books

Julian begins with one of the great men of his age, Richard F. Burton (1821-1890) - a true polymath:

'With an extraordinary talent for languages Richard Burton was famed as both explorer and scholar. In 1853, he became the first English Christian to enter Mecca freely as a true Mohammedan pilgrim whilst travelling in disguise as an Afghan Pathan. Whilst he later published unexpurgated translations of great works including the One Thousand and One Nights and the Perfumed Garden.

In 1861 Burton married Isabel Arundell and resolved to take up useful employment in the British Consular service. He was hoping for a glamorous posting, perhaps Damascus, but ended up on the island of Fernando Po, then considered to be a graveyard posting as the climate was thought to be unhealthy for Europeans.  Undaunted by the fact Isabel Burton was not allowed to accompany her husband, Burton used the opportunity to visit Abeokuta, the Yoruba capital in western Nigeria; to climb Mt. Cameroon; to search for gorillas along the Gabon River; to explore the estuary of the Congo River; and to make contact with the Fang people.

In 1863, Burton published Wanderings in West Africa, which included accounts of his journeys to Sierra Leone and Nigeria.  Having heard of stories of gold and gold mining he aimed to discover the truth of these rumours and his writing is credited with drawing public and corporate attention to mining prospects in a region hitherto largely ignored.

A Mission to Gelele is one of Burton’s more sensational books. Despite Dahomey having the reputation of being the most bloodthirsty land in Africa, Burton had wanted to visit since arriving at Fernando Po, but the British government turned down his request. Eventually Lord John Russell gave permission for an official visit to protest about King Gelele's participation in the slave trade and his continuing to practise human sacrifice.

When Burton arrived, he was greeted by the King and toasted with rum drunk from a human skull, whilst the King subsequently laid on enough human sacrifice for Burton to leave quite revolted with Gelele and his kingdom.

Burton returned to West Africa in 1882, with Verney Lovett Cameron (the first European to cross Central Africa), to make an expedition in search of gold to the (later proved non-existent) Kong Mountains – renowned in film as the home of the eponymous great ape. They did however find gold in the valley of the Ancobra river but were unable to make a long-term commercial success of the venture. This proved to be Burton’s last expedition as told in: To the Gold Coast for Gold.'

Discover more: Richard Burton


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Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned dealer in London, specialising in antiquarian & rare books and works on paper, with particular expertise in fine illustrated books from the 15th to the 20th century, travel & voyages, natural history, modern firsts, rare children’s books, guidebooks, Hebraica & Judaica, Eastern European, and Islamica

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