Listen to this article
In 1842, a group of Oxford dons glanced up from their game of bowls to see a horse trotting out of the main gates of Trinity College. Seated in the dog cart it was pulling was a young man they had expelled for the crime of attending a steeplechase. Richard Burton had already acquired something of a reputation at the university — for challenging another undergraduate who had laughed at his droopy moustache to a duel, for his debts to his tailor, for rowdy parties and for caricaturing the teachers who believed he might one day be turned into a clergyman. Informed of his sentence, Burton gave a low bow and wished his judges every future happiness. As the wheels of his dog cart ploughed over the college flower beds, Burton sounded a tin trumpet and blew kisses to passing shopgirls. While the dons spent the next 20 years mouldering away in Oxford, the man they “sent down” rose to become the most exotic explorer in the world, simultaneously confident of the pre-eminence of the west and beguiled by the mysticism of the east, driven partly by a passion to discover “Gnosis”, or the meaning of existence, and partly by pure egotism. Like many noteworthy men, he was slightly nuts. “Travellers, like poets, are mostly an angry race,” he boasted.
Burton was described in his Times obituary as “one of the most remarkable men of his time”. Yet his tomb in the suburban Catholic cemetery at Mortlake is one of the great unvisited sites of London, a striking sandstone mausoleum copied from an elaborate desert tent made for him in Damascus. It is perhaps not surprising that it is adorned with a crucifix. But it also carries a Star of David and the Islamic crescent-and-star.
Burton’s name is inscribed on the roll of winners of the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal “for his various exploratory enterprises, and especially for his perilous expedition with Captain JH Speke to the great lakes in Eastern Africa”, when the two men discovered the source of the Nile. The following name inscribed on the roll of honour inside the Society’s doors in Kensington is that of Jane, Lady Franklin, “for self-sacrificing perseverance in sending out expeditions to ascertain the fate of her husband”, Captain Sir John Franklin, who had been frozen to death attempting to discover the Northwest Passage in 1847. The battered boards list name after name of Victorian explorers who left Britain to chart unmapped wildernesses and turn the map pink — Baker, Burke, Fitzroy, Ross, Stanley, Thompson and dozens of others. David Livingstone may be the most famous of them. But Richard Burton is easily the most colourful.
For a while the rejected undergraduate toyed with emigrating, or enlisting in the Austrian army, the Swiss Guards or the Foreign Legion, until finally deciding to be “shot at for sixpence a day” with British forces in India. Imperial service was the route taken by many a young man sick of the limitations of life in Britain and at the time the army was desperate for officers, having just been cut to pieces during its retreat from Kabul.
The loss of the war in Afghanistan was one of the greatest imperial disasters of the 19th century. How could an expeditionary force from the world’s greatest military power be reduced to a single survivor by a bunch of Afghan tribesmen? But Burton “blessed the name” of the Afghans for giving him the chance of a new life.
Since the majority of the papers dealing with his childhood were destroyed in a fire, most of what we know of his life to this point comes from what Burton chose to disclose in an autobiography. He was certainly the eldest son of an army officer who considered him something of a prodigy. Burton claimed (he was not overburdened with modesty) that he had learnt Latin at three and Greek at four. Since his father had settled the family in France, he certainly spoke fluent French as a child. It was said that he could play chess blindfolded by 14, at which age he was already a skilled fencer. By the time he went to Oxford (his father had the bizarre idea that he might make a clergyman), the young Burton had brought his music lessons to an end by smashing a violin over the head of his teacher, but had learnt to box, drink and find his way around a brothel.
He was by now established as an outsider, and a striking-looking one, too. Everyone remarked upon the look in his eyes. The poet Swinburne was to talk of their having “a look of unspeakable horror” about them, contributing to “an almost unearthly appearance . . . the brow of a god and the jaw of a devil”. Within six months of beginning his Indian service, Burton qualified as an interpreter in Hindustani. Four months later he passed the examination to interpret in Gujarati. Many more languages followed, until he was eventually said to be proficient in an astonishing total of 40 languages and dialects.
Burton’s boss in India was the ruthless general Sir Charles Napier, who conquered Sindh (now part of Pakistan) for the Empire. The story that he informed London of his success with the Latin despatch “Peccavi” (“I have sinned”) belongs to Punch — Napier, a Scot with an enormous nose and great straggling beard, is best known for his response to protests from Hindu priests at his campaign to stop the practice of sati, in which widows were burnt alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands. “Be it so,” he is supposed to have said. “This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them . . . Let us all act according to national customs.” He soon had the practice under control.
Napier, though, was no linguist. Burton’s courage and facility for languages immediately made him useful to the general, while Napier’s eminence perhaps gave Burton something of a role model. As an intelligence agent, the young man was soon investigating not only wife killing but infanticide and male prostitution. An inquiry into male brothels in Karachi was said to have been carried out with a very un-Victorian attention to detail: the report was suppressed but haunted Burton for the rest of his days.
The life of a young British officer in India with “a horse or two, part of a house, a pleasant Mess, plenty of pale ale, as much shooting as he can manage, and an occasional invitation to a dance” had plenty of comforts. But it was not for Richard Burton. Growing his hair to shoulder length, cultivating a luxuriant beard, dying his hands, arms and feet with a thin coat of henna, he explored the society he found around him as “Mirza Abdullah”, a part-Arab, part-Persian “bazzaz” or trader from the Gulf. (The mixed background offered an explanation of any accidents of pronunciation, while his collection of fabrics gained entry to rich men’s houses and even, occasionally, to their harems.) Sometimes Mirza Abdullah held court in the bazaars, at others he attended mosques or visited drug dens. (“Opium taken in moderation is not a whit more injurious to a man than alcohol,” he concluded.)
After 10 years, Burton tired of service life in India and in 1852 proposed to the Royal Geographical Society that he undertake the hajj, or Muslim pilgrimage, to Medina and Mecca. He refined his disguise, shaving his head, developing another abundant beard and becoming “Sheikh Abdullah”, an itinerant sufi with an extensive knowledge of magic and medicine. (A friend claimed that to complete the disguise he also had himself circumcised, a rather more complicated procedure at the age of 31 than in infancy.) He set off alone from Cairo for Suez on a camel, reaching Medina after a subsequent sea voyage and surviving attacks by marauding Bedouin, remarking later that “There are few better tests than an 80-mile ride in midsummer, on a bad wooden saddle, borne by a worse dromedary, across the Suez Desert.”
After several weeks in the city of the second holiest site in Islam, Burton joined a caravan to Mecca, where he arrived on September 11 1853. Here, while performing the rituals of pilgrimage, he took surreptitious notes, drawing sketch maps on the inside of his white pilgrim’s robe. He may not have been the first European to gain access to Islam’s holiest site, and perhaps he might have accomplished the feat posing as a western convert. But there is no denying the subterfuge made for a better tale, which he made haste to publish and the British public made haste to buy. He did not undersell the adventure, describing the desert winds as “the flaming breath of a lion”, and how the heat haze “blurs the giant figures of camels, which, at a distance, appear strings of gigantic birds”. The key to survival was self-control, even at the infrequent oases, for “If you drink you cannot stop.”
There is a temptation among those who have never faced extreme danger to assume that somehow those who have confronted it are made of different stuff. A moment’s thought tells us this is unlikely: they are as conscious of fear as the rest of us but just learn to control it rather better. Burton can never have forgotten that discovery within the forbidden cities would likely have meant instant death. When he managed to get himself hoisted inside the Kaaba itself — the holiest site in Islam — he described his feelings as “akin to that of a trapped rat”.
He had an intuitive understanding of how to frame non-fiction thrillers. “Ruffian Dick”, as he had been nicknamed at Oxford, told the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society that an expedition to Somaliland had been called off because its wimpy leader had been unwilling to face “the chance of losing his cod”, which Somali warriors were said to be in the habit of chopping off and hanging from their arms as war trophies.
“The Dark Continent”, then being carved up between European empires, proved irresistible to Burton. His next objective was another forbidden city, the fortress of Harar in the Horn of Africa, a centre for the slave trade. Local people believed their way of life would be brought to an end if ever a Christian set foot inside its walls and British officials in the region considered Burton’s plan quite likely to trigger mayhem. But Burton made his way to Harar alone, this time disguised as a Turkish merchant, until eventually forging a letter accrediting himself as a British envoy, which persuaded the emir to allow him to stay for 10 days. It made for another thrilling tale. “I was under the roof of a bigoted prince whose least word was death; amongst a people who detest foreigners; the only European that had ever passed over their inhospitable threshold, and the fated instrument of their future downfall.”
Soon Burton was off again, this time to visit Berbera, an ancient Somali port he had come to believe was “the true key of the Red Sea”. While camped outside the town his expedition was attacked by dozens of local tribesmen. One of Burton’s companions was killed, one escaped with light wounds, a third, John Hanning (“Jack”) Speke, was stabbed in one shoulder and both thighs, yet he managed also to escape. An attacker then drove the barbed point of a lance through Burton’s face, pinning his upper and lower jaws together and leaving him for the rest of his life with the distinctive facial scars that added to his extraordinary appearance: high forehead, tumbling beard and deeply burnt skin.
Sunburned eccentrics returning to Britain telling tales of weird and wonderful places were becoming national heroes. All the Great Powers were dispatching explorers but the Enlightenment’s thirst for knowledge found a perfect partner in Great Britain’s sense of Manifest Destiny. Trade followed exploration — as it followed missionaries infused with a belief that it was man’s duty to master nature and convert the heathen — and the flag followed trade, as engineers and administrators followed pioneers and cartographers. Civilisation was a constant attempt to reduce the white spaces marked “Regions Unknown”, and few of the great Victorian scientists, from Darwin to Huxley, achieved eminence without taking part in expeditions of one kind or another. Maps, firearms and quinine did not make the explorers fearless but they certainly gave them huge advantages.
The sponsor for most British exploration in the 19th century was the Royal Geographical Society, founded in 1830 and the biggest scientific society in London. Much of its membership sauntered out of Burke’s Peerage: the original list includes three dukes, nine earls, six viscounts, three marquises, 14 lords and 38 knights and baronets. By 1900 the number of dukes and earls had doubled, the number of lords had trebled and the number of baronets and knights quadrupled. This pukka institution sponsored expeditions across the globe, bestowing its Gold Medal on one remarkable explorer after another.
Burton next proposed to the RGS an expedition to settle the mystery that had baffled humankind since before Ptolemy: where was the source of the Nile? It was known that the river was formed of two branches, which came together near Khartoum. The origins of the Blue Nile were understood to be in Ethiopia. But what of the White Nile? Burton proposed not to follow the world’s longest river upstream to its source but to strike inland from the east coast of Africa to the lakes, where he believed the river began.
On December 20 1856, Burton arrived on the island of Zanzibar with his companion Jack Speke: it seemed there were no hard feelings after the Somalia ambush and, anyway, according to Burton, Speke had decided he was tired of life and had “come to be killed in Africa”. Speke was 29, much better-looking than Burton, but nothing like as clever and with none of his flair for languages. Six months later, under the red banner of the sultan of Zanzibar, the two men set off into the interior, eventually joined by 132 porters bearing the beads, bolts of cloth and spools of wire they proposed to barter with local tribespeople, along with tents, bedding, guns, barometers and pedometers, rain gauges and thermometers, chisels and saws, knives and umbrellas, brandy, canisters of snuff and 2,000 fishing hooks. Burton described a mood of exhilaration as they went forth “shaking off with one mighty effort the leaden weight of routine, the cloak of carking care and the slavery of Civilization”.
It was slow going — up hills, through swamps, paying tribute to tribal chieftains and swatting away the insects that bit them mercilessly: 10 miles’ progress was a good day. Burton continued scientific research by, among other things, measuring the length of the penises of the African men they met, while considering them on the whole “a futile race of barbarians, drunken and immoral”. The porters squabbled, the two white men fell sick and hallucinated and went nearly blind. A beetle crawled into Speke’s ear while he was asleep one night and when he attempted to dig it out with his pocket knife he made himself deaf.
The two men “discovered” the enormous inland sea of Lake Tanganyika. It was vast, but three months’ exploration convinced them it could not be the source of the Nile. Both men were now very sick, when they were told by local people of another huge expanse of water several weeks’ journey to the north. Speke made a steady recovery but Burton was still ill and made the critical mistake of deciding to stay and recuperate in the camp they had established alongside an Arab slaving settlement. So Speke went on alone to investigate the second lake.
When the solitary Speke reached what was inevitably dubbed Lake Victoria, he concluded he had solved the great mystery of mankind and found the source of the Nile. He raced back to tell Burton, who simply refused to believe him. On the return journey the two men made to the coast, and then on the sea journey home, relations became worse and worse until, at Aden, Speke took ship for England, arriving 12 days before Burton and proclaiming that he had settled the issue once and for all. He was garlanded with praise and soon sent back to Africa to confirm his discovery.
Because exploration had achieved a status in the popular imagination not matched until the space race, the dispute between the two men became a public sensation. In comfortable Victorian suburbs they thrilled to stories of white men armed with nothing but certitude and mass-produced firearms confronting heathen “savages” and ferocious animals. Some of the men hacking their way through tropical jungles were, like David Livingstone, driven by an implacable hostility to slavery. Some were scientists. Others just wanted to get rich. But all testified to the greatness of the white Victorian. Audiences packed out the lectures they gave on returning home and were intoxicated by the stories they heard of men such as Joseph Thomson — the inspiration for Captain Good in King Solomon’s Mines — who subdued a force of Masai warriors by removing his false teeth, thereby proving he was superhuman. It was the possibility of fatal consequences that gave these stories their hair-raising power. Explorers like Livingstone and Mungo Park perished in Africa; some, like Captain Cook, had died on the shores of exotic islands; others, like Sir John Franklin or, later, Captain Scott, would perish in the frozen extremities of the earth. All were martyrs for empire.
The Lake Victoria dispute was to be settled in the normal Victorian way, at a debate, organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Bath for September 1864. Burton and Speke would present their arguments to a learned audience and any lucky hoi polloi who could get in. On the afternoon before the debate, Speke went to shoot partridges on his uncle’s nearby estate. At about 4pm he was seen standing on a wall when a shot was heard and he collapsed. Those who rushed to his side found a great wound in his chest. By the time a doctor had been summoned, he was dead. The likelihood must be that it was an accident — but when Burton heard the news he is said to have collapsed into a chair saying, “By God, he’s killed himself!”
There comes a point when an adventurous life becomes merely rackety. Burton was civilised by the love of a good woman, whom he married in January 1861. Isabel Arundell was the daughter of a distinguished Catholic family, who — to her family’s dismay — had been in love with the older Ruffian Dick for years. Describing herself as a “mere bellows-player to the organist”, she learnt to fence, she said, so that she could “defend Richard when he and I are attacked in the wilderness together”; she also learnt to tend livestock and to strip and reassemble guns.
The married Burton decided that what he now needed was a regular job. He found it in the tiresome occupation of consul in Fernando Po, a hellish island in the infamously unhealthy Gulf of Guinea, a place he described as “the very abomination of desolation”. He was even disappointed by an eagerly anticipated field trip to Dahomey to inspect the famous military formation of 5,000 African virgins (“never yet having met a single specimen”). He found “they were mostly elderly and all of them were hideous . . . The officers are decidedly chosen for the size of their bottoms.” He attributed his survival in what was known as The White Man’s Grave to drinking a half-bottle of port every day.
At his next consular posting, in Brazil, Burton devoted much of his time to writing travelogues. Then, at last, he was given the more congenial position of consul in Damascus in his beloved east. Here he spent his time writing more books, while resisting demands from local moneylenders that he act as what he called a “bumbailiff to a parcel of bloodsuckers”. His truculence earned him, he claimed, pursuit by a force of 300 armed men sent by the local Ottoman governor. The Turkish government soon demanded he be recalled to London. The Foreign Office obliged, dispatching him to the humdrum tedium of consul in the Habsburg port of Trieste. Here he festered for nearly two decades, pottering about in a fez, turning out endless manuscripts (including A History of Farting), with the occasional concerned visitor seeking him out and reporting that he found his posting “almost as irksome as the rocks of St Helena to Napoleon”.
Eventually, Burton found a way to keep the wolf from the door, discovering the eternal truth of HL Mencken’s observation that no one went bankrupt underestimating the taste of the public. His version of The Kama Sutra appeared in 1883, replete with his description of the ideal woman, from temperament and eyes to breasts and “yoni”. Burton’s 1885 translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night was an instant success: not only did he include the dirty bits, he embellished them, telling his wife that he had struggled to make his way for nearly 50 years but “I translate a doubtful book in my old age, and I immediately make 16,000 guineas. Now that I know the tastes of England, we need never be without money.” In 1890, one day away from completing his translation of The Perfumed Garden (which he lamented gave far too little attention to homosexuality, not to mention bestiality), the body which had been so knocked about by violence and sickness — viral, bacterial, venereal — gave out.
As a Catholic, Isabel had been troubled by some of her husband’s enthusiasms for years. Now, she delayed certification of death until her husband had been given the last rites. Then she took a thousand pages of his final manuscript and burnt them.
Jeremy Paxman is an FT contributing editor
Photographs: Bridgeman Art Library; De Agositini/Getty; Universal History/Getty; Rischgitz/Getty; Royal Geographical Society/Bridgeman
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published