His Wikipedia page says: explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. He spoke 29 European, Asian, and African languages. He wore a mustache.
He was also, I think, a character in several of Rudyard Kipling’s stories.
One thing he was not: a tourist. The world was his. Being born British in the nineteenth century helped. There were still many blank spots on the map of the world back then.
Here are my notes on the biography of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton.
- He joined the military but not for the Queen’s service, but for The Honourable East India Company (a.k.a. the John Company).
- First post: India. He traveled there looking forward to the campaign that would retake Afghanistan for the British Empire. By the time he arrives, the campaign had already finished. Burton had romanticized India, and all he encountered was squalor and dirt. “The bay (Bombay) so celebrated was anything but beautiful.”
- He had an Indian wife. The white soldiers of the John Company were encouraged to marry Indian women and were given a subsidy to do so. Burton called his native wife Búbú (booboo).
- He was concerned that most English women were inept in sexual matters. This ineptitude needed to be remedied “by a constant and intelligent study of the Ananga Ranga Scriptures… “There is an inner state of erotic possession, the long sequences of caresses, kisses, scratches, bites, love cries, and various positions that led to an extended state of sexual gratification and excitement, which was to be enjoyed with abandonment by man and woman alike.”
- Still in India, he got a collection of monkeys and gave them ranks (doctor, aide-de-camp, etc). They would sit at the table for dinner with Burton.
- After intense studies of Hinduism, Burton receives the janeo, the sacred three-ply cotton that meant the wearer was a member of the highest caste.
- Side note. Origin of the word assassin: hashshashin. Hashish takers.
- In Iran, he completed secret missions passing himself as a dervish (a member of the Sufi Muslim religious order who has taken vows of poverty and austerity).
- “It is always a melancholy spectacle, the last resting-place of a fellow-countryman in some remote nook of a foreign land, far from the dust of his forefathers – in a grave prepared by strangers, around which no mourners ever stood, and over which no friendly hand raised a tribute to the memory of the lamented dead. The wanderer’s heart yearns at the sight. How soon may not such fate bu his own!”
- In Cairo, he presents himself as an Afghan doctor. Says he was brought up in Rangoon, Burma. That why he has an accent when he speaks Arabic, he says.
- Pilgrimage to Mecca. Burton is the first non-Muslim to complete the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He is cautioned not to speak any language but Arabic and dress as an Arab. People, the solitary, the weak and poor, are left to die on the landscape.
- En route to Harar, Ethiopia. Burton is still disguised as an Arab, but the disguise is doing more harm than good (people may confuse him with a Turk), so he decides to reveal that he is indeed an Englishman.
- “All these African cities are prisons on a large scale, into which you enter by your own will… and you leave by another’s.”
- The Great Safari, the expedition to the source of the Nile. Keep in mind that this is 19th century Africa. Virgin, unexplored, filled with diseases unknown to Europeans.
- As he departs Bombay toward Africa, he says “of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks [he had written on sailing], is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Home, one feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood… A journey, in fact, appeals to Imagination, to Memory, to Hope, -the three sister Graces of our moral being.”
- He doesn’t find the source of the Nile, but discovers Tanganyika Lake.
- On over-the-top weddings, he said “a grand marriage is a barbarous and an indelicate exhibition.”
- He somehow travels to the United States and explores the Wild West, then goes south to Brazil, where he navigates 1300 miles on the Sao Francisco river, from Minas Gerais to the ocean.
- Later in life, he describes himself as “weary of wandering over the world and finding every petty race wedded to its own opinions.”
Among his minor works:
- Introducing the Kama Sutra to the western world. By the way, the general purpose of the Kama Sutra is to provide advice on how to use others, especially women, for one’s personal gain and improved social status. The erotic chapters are just part of the Sutra.
- The most famous translation of A Thousand Nights and a Night, also known as Arabian Nights.
Of his face, a poet once wrote:
… he was gypsy in his terrible magnetic eyes – the sullen eyes of a stinging serpent. He had a deep bronzed complexion, a determined mouth, half-hidden by a black moustache which hung down in a peculiar fashion on both sides of his chin. His face had no actual beauty in it. It revealed a tremendous animalism, an air of repressed ferocity, a devilish fascination. There is an almost tortured magnificence in his huge head, tragic and painful, with its mouth that aches with desire, with those dilated nostrils that drink in I know not what strange perfumes.