Sir Richard Burton: Not the Actor, the Other One

Richard Francis Burton, ca. 1864

Recently I had cause to pull a biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) off my to-be-read shelf, where it has sat since 1990. I originally bought it because I was writing my dissertation on the way the definition of the Orient changed over time with increasing exposure to the non-Western world and Burton was one of the men who translated the Arabian Nights into English in the nineteenth century. I also bought it because I’ve long been fascinated by the geographical explorers of the nineteenth century.(1)

I will probably never read it.(2) Looked at almost thirty years later(3), the sub-title alone is enough to put me off: The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra, and Brought the Arabian Nights to the West. Because, no, no and no.

  • Burton wasn’t the first European to make the pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as an Arab. Ludovico di Varthema beat him by three centuries. He wasn’t even the first Englishman to do so. And he didn’t make the hajj as a “secret agent.” Like many other European explorers of the period, he was funded by the Royal Geographical Society. The Royal Geographic was in it for the knowledge. Burton was in it for the adventure.
  • Burton certainly didn’t “discover” the Kama Sutra, which was never lost. He was the first to publish an English translation. The so-called Burton translation owed a great deal to Burton’s largely forgotten collaborators: British traanslator Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot and two Indian scholars, Bagavanlal Indrajit and Shivaram Parashuram. (I am, however, prepared to give Burton full credit for the substantial distortions of the text that appear in the translation since they are in keeping with everything we know about him. If you’re interested in learning more, I refer you to Wendy Doniger’s Redeeming the Kama Sutra.)
  • Burton wasn’t the first man to translate the Arabian Night into a European language. French linguist Antoine Galland published twelve small volumes of what he named the Thousand and One Nights between 1704 and 1717. For the English-speaking audience, the first volumes of the Thousand and One Nights appeared in 1706, in an anonymous translation from Galland under the name The Arabian Nights Entertainments. Known as the “Grub Street” translation, it remained in print almost continuously for a century. Richard Burton’s infamous 15-volume translation—10 volumes of text and five volumes of notes—appeared in 1885 and 1886. It certainly didn’t replace Galland in the hearts of the reading public, because it was virtually unreadable. (FYI: not every one agrees with me on this point.)(4)

And yet the exaggeration in that sub-title is central to the aspects of Burton that captured the imagination of his contemporaries and continues to capture ours. He was a skilled linguist, a reckless adventurer, a polymath, and a master of self-promotion.

After he was kicked out of Oxford for refusing to be contrite about multiple infractions of the rules, he went to India as a junior officer in the 18th Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry.(Because of course the army is a good career for a hard-core rule-breaker.) He was already fluent in French, Italian (including a couple of Italian dialects), Greek and Latin. Once in India, he added Arabic, Hindi and a number of other South Asian languages to his toolbox. (By the end of his career, he spoke between twenty-five and forty languages, depending on where you draw the line between language and dialect. Are you feeling like a slacker yet?)  As a result of his fluency in languages and his willingness to disguise himself as a Muslim trader, he became an intelligence officer for Sir Charles James Napier, a general in the British Indian Army and later the governor of the province of Sindh, in what is now Pakistan.(5) On one expedition for Napier, he infiltrated the homosexual brothels in Karachi and produced a detailed report on their operations that led to the end of his career when it fell into the hands of an officer who was not a Burton fan. (I suspect there were many of them. )

With his army career in tatters at the age of 29, Burton turned himself into a professional explorer/adventurer whose books about his travels made him famous. In addition to making the hajj, he traveled to the forbidden East African city of Harar (1854), searched for the source of the White Nile (1855), led an expedition inland from Zanzibar (1857-58), and visited the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City in 1860–as distant and exotic as Timbuktu as far as his British readers were concerned. His accounts of his travels are a combination of adventure and ethnography, with a strong interest in the sexual practices of the places he visited, the more lurid the better. The books are vivid, opinionated, clever, and marred for a modern reader by the deeply rooted racism of his time. (Personally, I find his opinions about women hard to swallow as well.)

In 1861, he married Isabel Arundell and did his version of settling down, which meant joining the British Foreign office and serving as consul in places that allowed him to enjoy adventures on a smaller scale, and write about them for his eager audience. (The Foreign Office was not amused about the books.)

His final assignment was the consulate at Trieste, a comedown for an aging adventurer. He arrived at Trieste in 1872 and remained until his death. At Trieste, he wrote on a wide variety of topics and emerged as a translator of some note. (Though I do wonder how many unacknowledged collaborators were involved.) After his death, his wife burned his diaries, presumably in an effort to protect his reputation, and wrote a biography in which she tried to turn Britain’s favorite bad-boy adventurer into an ideal Victorian gentleman.

Over the course of his life, Burton published 43 books on his explorations and other topics and almost thirty translations. Feel like a slacker now? Me, too.

1) Several decades of fascination later, I recommend Heinrich Barth as the most fascinating of them all

2) Though I will keep it for reference because giving away historical non-fiction and biography always comes back to bite me.

3) Thirty? Really?? (Pardon me while I stop to check that.) Dang! I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time now.

4) Galland is a hobby-horse of mine. If you want to know, you can read my article on the subject here.

5) Napier is best known for the kind of multi-lingual pun that I wish I could make. Having conquered the province of Sindh, he sent a one-word dispatch to his superiors that read “Peccavi”–the Latin for “I have sinned”. (Say it out loud.) This may simply be a bit of comic-book history. Some scholars believe it was invented by the humor magazine Punch. A pity. Like most comic-book history, it is emotionally satisfying even if untrue.

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