Sunday, 6 May 2012

Going for a Burton

What does the name Richard Burton mean to you?
                The Welsh actor of mellifluous voice, the serial husband of Elizabeth Taylor, seven times Oscar nominee and Hollywood hell-raiser with a taste for the sauce, maybe?

Nope - not this bloke.

                     If so, meet ‘Ruffian Dick’. In the world of extraordinary Victorian adventurers, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS is amongst the most remarkable. Born in 1821, the young Burton accompanied his parents on their European travels, (his father was an Anglo-Irish officer in the British Army), and developed a prodigious talent for languages. After being sent down from Oxford University, Burton joined the army of the East India Company being, as he wrote later, ‘fit for nothing but to be “shot at for sixpence a day”’, and was posted to Gujarat. In India, Burton immersed himself in the local cultures, continuing to learn languages, and developing his reputation as a ‘demonic’ fighter – he was a skilled swordsman (described once as the finest in Europe), an excellent shot and a superb horseman. It was here he gained the nickname ‘Ruffian Dick’, although some of his peers felt he had ‘gone native’.

Dick, looking suitably Ruffianish.

If Mary Kingsley refused to compromise on her outfit in foreign climes, Burton went entirely in the opposite direction. In 1853, he dyed his skin with walnut juice, disguised himself as a Pashtun, and went on Hadj to Mecca, passing into the heart of Islam (almost) undetected. The following year, he became the first European to enter the forbidden city of Harar, (now in Ethiopia) – but this time he didn’t bother with a disguise. He simply forged a letter of introduction, rode his mule up to the gates in his army uniform and asked to come in. Soon after, Burton was in a party, which included John Hanning Speke, who were attacked by Somali tribesmen; Speke was captured and tortured before escaping, Burton was speared in the face with a javelin, which went in through one cheek, knocked out some teeth and part of his palate, and went out of the other cheek, scarring him for life. 

In 1856, Burton and Speke were in Africa again, on an expedition to investigate a legendary ‘inland sea’, (unofficially, it was a search for the source of the Nile). The expedition was beset with difficulties, illnesses and animosity, but they explored Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria before returning, separately, in very poor health. The quarrels between the two persisted for the rest of their lives, but their groundbreaking expedition laid the foundations for Grant, Baker, Livingstone and Stanley (and Kingsley). The story is told in the fantastic 1989 film The Mountains of the Moon.

In 1861, Burton married Isobel Arundell, and the (mainly) inseparable pair travelled together as Burton took various diplomatic posts. He continued his prodigious literary output, translating and adapting foreign works and writing his own accounts of his travels. Burton produced a sixteen-volume edition of the The Book of the Thousand and One Nights (known more popularly as The Arabian Nights), adding detailed footnotes and appendices drawn from his vast knowledge of the East. However, Burton was a little too learned for some Victorians, who deemed the work to be pornographic, a situation not helped when Burton also published editions of the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden. If you think the Arabian Nights are just about Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin, you really don’t want to read Burton. When Burton died, in 1890, Isobel burned many of his papers, seemingly to protect both his reputation and the public from reading ‘…for filth’s sake’. He was buried at Mortlake in a tomb shaped like a Bedouin tent.

I have been reading Burton, or about him, for more years than I care to remember. Inevitably, so complex a character polarises peoples’ opinions, but I find him fascinating. He was a true polymath – he spoke at least twenty-nine languages, wrote on subjects as far ranging as falconry, fencing, and orientalism, travelled throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, and mapped great swathes of the ‘dark Continent’. Like Mary Kingsley, he did not dismiss the peoples he observed as mere savages, but studied them with interest and respect (well, at least some of the time).

There is a magnificent website at where just about everything he ever wrote is available, usually as PDF files from scans of originals. It is an absolute goldmine, but be warned. If you plan a quick visit, expect to lose at very least half a day.


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