Sex and drugs and the source of the Nile: Sir Richard Francis Burton

Burton photo

They say that things often come in threes, and so it has appeared recently in relation to an individual I have long admired and been fascinated by: Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton.  As far as I’m aware there is no significant Burton-related anniversary in 2015 (other than it being 125 years since his death), but nevertheless he’s popped up in a couple of places of late.  First of all there was a Radio 4 Great Lives programme about the man; then yesterday there was an article in Nature by Professor Clare Pettitt and on Wednesday night, at a WIldlife Trust event in Cambridge, I found myself chatting to a man whose name badge stated “Richard Burton”.

Clearly the universe was trying to tell me something and it reminded me of a piece of writing that I produced in October 1990 (!) to mark the 100th anniversary of Burton’s death, and never published.  To put this in context, I was 25, about a year into my PhD research, and anticipating the birth of my first child in December.  Re-reading the piece has been less painful than I thought it would have been. Some of the writing is a little clumsy and there are other aspects that I’d now focus on, but it’s not too bad.  Having said that, Karin said it sent her to sleep and that my writing has improved a lot in 25 years, so there’s no pleasing everyone!

Anyway I thought I’d post this piece of writing (very lightly edited) as an indulgent missive from my 25 year old to my 50 year old self.  And it’s dedicated to my daughter Ellen in her 25th year.


Often, simply striving for fame is not enough. No matter how daring your exploits or how much you publish, the contingencies of history conspire to obscure you, consigning your life and works to the realms of the scholar or to that nebulous coterie, the “enthusiasts”. Such has been the fate of one of the most exciting of the many outstanding lives of the Victorian age.

This week marks the one hundredth anniversary of the death of one of our most important, yet underappreciated, scholar-travelers, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. Such anniversaries always seem to necessitate a reassessment of the celebratee’s life and work, and this one is no exception; two major new biographies, an extensive “biobibliography” chronicling Burton’s literary output, and a film “Mountains of the Moon“. Yet for all this, Burton is still not a widely known figure; although his adventures far surpass, in daring and in accomplishment, his contemporaries Livingstone and Stanley, still he does not enjoy their household-name status. This is in spite of, between 1890 and 1989, the publication of at least eight biographies, a bibliography, and many articles and essays devoted to the man’s exploits. Add to this Burton’s own vast literary output, none of which is noted for any bashful self-deprecation on the part of the author, and one begins to wonder at the criteria we use to apportion recognition.

Richard Francis Burton was born in 1821, the son of an army officer, Colonel Joseph Burton. His early life was spent travelling Europe with his family, fueled by the incessant wanderlust of his father. This gypsy start to life, as well as being an obviously formative prelude to his later travels, seemed to encourage the rowdier, untamed, hell-raising aspects in the characters of Richard and his brother Edward. The despair of their parents, the pair were soon packed off to college in England; Edward to Cambridge, Richard to Oxford. College and academic life did not suit either of the boys, and both left (in Richard’s case, forcibly; he was sent down after attending a proscribed horse race) to pursue military careers. Over the next 50 years, Richard Burton devoted himself to restlessly wandering the world, roaming Africa and Asia, North and South America, and Europe. He was one of the first Europeans to visit the Islamic sacred cities of Medina and Mecca; he explored India, often on covert missions for the British government; travelled in Africa where he searched for the source of the Nile (and only missed discovering it through ill-luck and the machinations of others); he lived for a time in South America as consul at the port of Santos in Brazil and observed first-hand the war between Paraguay and the allied forces of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay; and in all travelled and observed enough to satisfy several lifetimes.

During his wanderings Burton saw and experienced much, events which invariably he became curious about, investigating further, writing down his views. Whether it was local uses of medicinal and psychoactive plants; details of tribal ritual, or the niceties of local sexual practice; the grammatical fine points of local dialects; geological formations; curiosities of natural history; or simply the price of staple vegetables in a native market, Burton was interested. These details inevitably found their way into his many books, articles and learned papers, packing paragraphs of ethnological, geographical, archaeological and natural history minutiae into his accounts of travels and expeditions.

It is Burton’s polymath approach to scholarly work that is the man’s most interesting feature. Perhaps it was his limited formal education (travelling tutors, two terms at Oxford) that fostered this approach. Though in many ways laudable, conventional academia can lead to a blinkered approach to research, ivory-towerism at its worst. If Burton had limited himself to purely single-strand studies, for example oriental languages (or even language), as may have resulted from following an academic career, the world, and Richard Francis Burton, would have been far poorer. Had he only recorded the bare geographical necessities required of, for example, his travels in the Great Lakes region of Africa, what dry accounts they would have been, and what details we would have lost.

This is not to say that Burton’s work was not scholarly, far from it. His translation of the Arabian Nights, although not the first, is certainly the definitive version, rich in anecdotal footnotes from a man for whom the deserts of Arabia were perhaps his first real home (as a child and a young man he had hated Britain, especially its climate), and his research and translation of the works of the Portuguese poet-explorer Camoes shows Burton at his most academic.

Burton has perhaps been more misunderstood, loathed and ignored than any of his contemporaries, or any comparable figure before or since. This is in part due to the man’s interests during his lifetime: translations of obscure erotica such as the Kama Sutra; a more than passing interest in the ins-and-outs of male and female circumcision; undercover reconnaissance of Indian homosexual brothels (which invariably led to rumours about Burton himself) all added to his infamy. Perhaps more than anything else, this meant that most of Burton’s books were not widely read, a trend which continues today, aided by the inflated prices demanded by booksellers for even the most popular of his works.

As if our view of Burton were not obscured enough, his over-zealous wife Isabel sought to soften history’s account of her “Jemmy” by burning almost all of his private papers after his death; writings which may have cast light on this enigmatic man were consigned wholesale to the grate. Because of this, Burton’s biographers have tended to be hard on Isabel, dwelling on her attempts to instill Catholicism into her part Muslim, part Atheist husband, and, of course, on her literary pyromania. This may be because of frustration on their part; biographers and commentators have never really been able to reason Burton out, and large parts of his life remain veiled in secrecy and obfuscation. The task has not been aided by Isabel’s actions. Yet she was devoted to Burton, who was never the easiest of men to get along with, being often bad tempered or absent for months on end.

But Isabel is only a scapegoat. Mainly, the problem is that there never has been any other person to compare with Burton. How could any man hope to fulfill all that he aspired to? Why the incessant wandering in search of new experiences? Why was it that the man did not focus his energies, rather spreading himself across a continent of interest, his curiosity endless? It has been said that if Richard Burton had concentrated his mind in this way, he could have been one of the foremost intellects of his time, rivaling Darwin or Huxley, Edison or Swan. Yet this misinterprets the man. It is doubtful whether Burton could have disciplined himself enough to centre on a single area of research; Burton was a searcher, a shifter of interests. Burton’s writings have been criticised as being unstructured, cluttered and self-indulgent, almost as if he had not the time nor inclination to properly revise and edit, but simply wanted to get the current project out of the way in order to get on with the next. This is borne out by the fact that, towards the end of his life, he had eleven desks set up in the study of his home in Trieste, where he was consul; each desk was for a different project and, when he tired of one, he would move to another, as if restlessly seeking for something.

But none of this need be considered as faults in Burton’s character; he was probably no more flawed, neurotic or self-obsessed than any of the great men of his time. It seems impossible than an intellect as deep and all-encompassing as his, which mastered some twenty nine languages, produced fifty books (many of them comprising more than one volume) plus innumerable essays and articles plus all the work that Isabel burned, could ever hope to be completely stable and well adjusted. Eccentricities of writing and behaviour seem inevitable.

Now, one hundred years after his death, is as good a time as any to properly reappraise the life of Richard Francis Burton. As an explorer, anthropologist, geographer, linguist, orientalist, translator, diplomat, swordsman, writer (and a lot more besides) he stands unrivalled by the broad sweep of his experience and knowledge. Yet his private life seems consistently to get in the way of any objective assessment of the man and his accomplishments.

The scandalous view of Burton, prevalent in England during his life and long after his death, was as a man obsessed by sex, a delver into the sordid details of native life and custom, promoter (though not practitioner, Isabel would never have allowed it) of polygamy, an unpopular critic of certain governmental interventions abroad, a user of cannabis, opium and other, more exotic drugs, and an ill-tempered, frequently drunk, godless, misogynist racist. His reputation as a fighter, even a murderer, was often played up by Burton, though there has is only one well documented account of him ever killing anyone, and then in self defence. Yet the real Burton, so far as we can tell, does not deserve this misrepresentation. His interest in all things erotic was partly academic and partly out of concern for the then current view that women should not find pleasure in sex. Are these the motives of an over-sexed misogynist?   His use of drugs, including alcohol, is well known, but was not unusual amongst Victorians exposed to the influences of the Far East, or for whom port, wine and whiskey were often viewed as medicinal necessities. Finally, Burton was no more racist than most Europeans of his time, yet it was from an intellectual stand point, not an emotional or cultural one. Most of the great academics of the period believed that there was a progression of human development, with white Europeans at the pinnacle. But no one who deeply despised Arabs or Indians could live and worship amongst them the way Burton did. He may have severely criticised them, but then he criticised everyone.

All of this points to a man more liberal than many people have believed; Burton was in many ways a free thinker, particularly given his upper middle class military background. Finally, there is the matter of his atheism, if such it was, which would today raise few eyebrows. Yet the man lived and prayed for much of his life as a Muslim, had been initiated into an esoteric Sufi brotherhood, and before that into a Hindu sect. This is not the life of a godless man, in the accepted sense of the word, but of a man searching for truth, who was too intelligent to believe he had ever found it in the rosary beads of his wife’s Catholicism or in the calling chant of a muezzin.

The life of Richard Francis Burton was dogged by ill-luck and, certainly towards its end, ill health, and furthermore seemed cursed by the intransigence of government officials and individuals with grudges. A character such as his finds no difficulties in making enemies, yet they always seemed to be foes with influence, willing to block his attempts at organising expeditions or soliciting official help for schemes to further the British Empire, or its servant Burton. He never did find the source of the Nile; this single act, more than any other, would have ensured his position as the greatest of the Victorian explorers. Yet had he been successful, would the constant round of lecture tours, press interviews, official visits, and all have given him time to think and write about anything else? I believe it would, though whether it would have satisfied his roving curiosity and incessant wanderlust seems unlikely.


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Filed under Biogeography, History of science

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