Former BBC journalist, Simon Bendle, explores the life, times and travels of Sir Richard Francis Burton: one of Victorian England’s most adventurous, scandalous and controversial world explorers.
He was a Victorian rolling stone, always on the move, always searching for a new experience. He hated what he called the “slavery of civilization” and rejoiced in shocking the people of polite society. A young vicar once asked Burton if it was true that he’d killed a man in the Arabian desert. “Sir,” Burton replied coolly, “I’m proud to say that I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.”
Richard Francis Burton was exceptional from the start. Raised in France and Italy by roaming Anglo-Irish parents, he was an unruly and angry schoolboy. At fifteen, he was caught writing passionate letters to prostitutes. By his late teens, he was experimenting with opium. He went to Oxford’s Trinity College in 1840, already sporting an impressive mustache, and within an hour of arriving, he had challenged a fellow student to a duel for laughing at it.
Nicknamed Ruffian Dick in university, Burton was an impressive-looking young man: he stood six-feet tall with a large head and fierce facial features. He had an air of smouldering ferocity about him. His eyes were dark and burning. His prize-fighter look would later be crowned by a huge, grisly scar on his cheek that he had earned while fighting for his life in Africa.
Burton could have had a brilliant academic career at Oxford. He was a gifted writer and translator on account of his stunning talent for languages — by the end of his life he spoke twenty-five of them. Burton also went on to make his mark as an explorer, soldier, diplomat, archaeologist and swordsman — not to mention amateur doctor, hypnotist and heroic boozer and brawler.
Despite his knack for academics, dusty old Oxford was no place for Burton. He hated it and felt like an outsider. He deliberately got himself expelled by breaking petty rules so that he could join the infantry and sail to India. For his first army job, he was assigned the role of a spy in the Sindh (at the time, it was part of a newly conquered area in the north, but is part of what we now know as Pakistan). His role was to collect information on the region’s people and geography. And he really went for it, disguising himself as an Indian and bravely wandering around the streets, chatting with unsuspecting locals in flawless Sindhi.
Nothing was taboo for Burton. While in India, he smoked opium with addicts, sipped bhang (a cannabis drink) with holy men and shagged local women. He took lessons from a snake charmer, tried to ride alligators and dove into the homosexual brothels of Karachi on order from Gen. Charles Napier (who was worried the homosexuals were corrupting his troops and wanted to find out more about them). Napier’s enthusiastic young captain didn’t disappoint. Burton filed a shockingly explicit report that surely made some military whiskers stand on end. After many nights of hanging out with prostitutes, Burton concluded there were three brothels in Karachi “in which not women but boys and eunuchs… lay for hire.” He listed the prices and services on offer, noting that the lads cost twice as much as the eunuchs because — brace yourself for this — “the scrotum of the un-mutilated boy could be used as a kind of bridle for directing the movement of the animal.”
General Napier took the report at face value and used it to shut down the dodgy meat markets. But others weren’t so pragmatic. Gay sex was, for many Victorians, a grave sin. And the idea that Burton could write about it so coolly and clinically, without judgment or moralizing, was worrisome. Many were convinced that Burton must have mixed business with pleasure during his undercover operation. Knowing him, he probably did (some historians suspect he was bisexual). Fellow officers already called him “the white nigger” because he spent leisure time with “natives”. After he had infiltrated the homosexual brothel, he was seen as something worse still: a sexual deviant.
The reward for Burton’s bravery and honesty was humiliation. His army reputation was in tatters. Sick from cholera and fed up with everyone, he left India, returned to Europe and began planning his next dramatic move: a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Non-Muslims have always been barred from entering Mecca and over the centuries many curious Christians and Jews who tried to penetrate the sacred city have been impaled, crucified or sold into slavery. This didn’t deter Burton. With his language skills, he was sure he could pull it off – it was just a matter of holding his nerve. In the spring of 1853, disguised as an Afghan pilgrim, his skin stained with walnut juice and his penis recently circumcised, he sailed to the Middle East and traveled first to Medina, the second holiest city in Islam, before crossing the desert to Mecca itself.
He took with him a small tent, a goatskin water bag and a bright yellow umbrella to keep off the sun. Hidden beneath his robes were a pistol, a dagger and a secret journal. Hanging from his belt was a large rosary which, if things got hairy, could be “converted into a weapon of offence.” The journey was a brutal and violent affair. Bedouin bandits attacked the caravan he was traveling with, killing twelve men and several camels. A quarrel between a Turkish pilgrim and an Arab had ended with the Turk being stabbed in the gut and left by the roadside for the jackals to finish off. Every day the desert wind blew like the “breath of a volcano.”
Despite the hardships, dangers and the constant deadly risk of being exposed as an infidel, Burton found he was having a great time. He reported that life in the desert was exhilarating: “Your morale improves and the hypocritical politeness and the slavery of civilization are left behind you in the city.” Once inside Mecca, Burton was in his own version of Heaven. He met pilgrims from every nation. He visited and measured every shrine. He prayed every prayer and performed every ritual. He even had the gall to sketch Islam’s holiest building — the Kaaba — onto his white pilgrim robe, putting himself at huge risk of being detected. After six euphoric days, he turned around and headed for home.
Burton wasn’t the first non-Muslim to see Mecca and survive; a few plucky Europeans had managed it before him. But none produced such a rip-roaring account of their travels as Burton. His book, Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Mecca, is part adventure story, part beginner’s guide to Islam. No one in Britain had ever seen anything like it. It sold like Harry Potter.
Fired up, Burton now turned to Africa. His next goal was to become the first European to visit the forbidden city of Harar in present-day Ethiopia. Like Mecca, Harar promised death to infidels. Legend held that if an non-believer penetrated its walls, the city would fall within a generation. At first, Burton toyed with the idea of trying to enter in disguise but decided against it – he could never pass for a local in Africa. Instead, he brazenly rode up to its gates alone, wearing his British army uniform, and simply asked to “come in.” To his amazement, they agreed.
Harar was a disappointment to Burton — a drab, dusty old place — but soon enough, there would be plenty of action. After returning to the coast, Burton teamed up with three other British explorers: William Stroyan, G.E. Herne and John Hanning Speke. At 2am one morning, the men were attacked in their tents by Somalis armed with spears, daggers and war-clubs. Stroyan was killed in the unexpected raid. Speke was taken prisoner and tortured (he later escaped, bleeding from eleven wounds). Herne got away. A Somali had thrown a spear directly into Burton’s face. The weapon entered his left cheek, smashed out his back teeth and part of his palate and re-emerged through his right cheek. Despite the javelin that was sticking out of his head, Burton also managed to get away. He made it to a friendly ship that was berthed nearby where the weapon was removed and his face was sewn up. Burton then returned home with a souvenir from Africa: a massively ugly scar that gave his fierce image an even more sinister edge.
Back in England, Burton’s mind turned to marriage. He proposed to a young Catholic aristocrat named Isabel Arundell. But no sooner had she said “yes” than he was off again to Africa with Speke — this time to try to find the source of the world’s greatest river: the Nile. Isabel would not see her husband-to-be for the next three years.
The Nile was the big one. It was the greatest prize a 19th century explorer could hope for. People had been dreaming of unraveling its mystery since ancient times. Many had tried and were killed in the process. Every expedition that was sent up the mighty river had foundered in scorching deserts or the vast swamplands of South Sudan. Some believed the Nile sprang from great fountains in central Africa. Others thought it flowed from two enormous lakes. Arab stories placed the source among mysterious snow-covered mountains. Burton and Speke tried a fresh approach: Instead of following the river all the way upstream from Egypt in the north, they marched inland from Africa’s east coast. Their route took them through an enormous and unmapped wilderness, across what is now Tanzania. It was an area ravaged by the Arab slave trade. There were hostile tribes and tropical diseases. They may not have realized it, but they were marching into Hell.
Burton and Speke trekked for more than a year and suffered greatly in Africa. Both men’s eyes became swollen and infected, Speke’s so badly that there were times when he couldn’t see at all. Burton’s legs were paralyzed by malaria and he had to be carried by his African porters for months at a time. The two men endured ulcers, depression, insomnia and repeated bouts of fever and delirium. On his return, Isabel described Burton as “a mere skeleton, with brown-yellow skin hanging in bags, his eyes protruding and his lips drawn away from his teeth.”
Speke, meanwhile, had suffered a bizarre injury when a beetle had burrowed into his ear and he had tried to root it out with a penknife, cutting himself in the process and causing an infection. “It was the most painful thing I ever remember,” he wrote, “for many months the tumor made me almost deaf, and ate a hole between the orifice and the nose, so that when I blew it, my ear whistled so audibly that those who heard it laughed.” Tsetse flies had killed their mules, ants with jaws like bulldogs drove them crazy, their porters deserted them in droves — but still, the two Englishmen trudged on. After seven hard months, they found themselves standing beside the mighty Lake Tanganyika.
Burton and Speke were the first Europeans to set eyes on Tanganyika, the longest fresh-water lake in the world, located in central Africa. Surely this was the prize they were after. They expected to canoe around its shore and find a river flowing out to the north. They were certain Tanganyika was to be the Nile’s source. But it wasn’t. There wasn’t a river flowing north. The mystery remained unsolved. Burton and Speke had failed.
The two explorers fell out spectacularly after that. On the return journey, Speke left Burton and struck out to the north alone, discovering — almost as an afterthought — another great lake, which he patriotically named Victoria after his difficult-to-amuse queen.
Lake Victoria, of course, turned out to be the Nile’s source, and although Speke had no proof, he knew it in his heart. Burton, however, wasn’t convinced. Their row escalated into a vicious public feud. Several years later Speke was mysteriously killed the day before he was to face Burton in a head-to-head debate on the Nile controversy. Cause of death: self-inflicted shotgun wound. A court ruled the tragedy was a hunting accident but Burton was convinced it was a suicide and that he was to blame for it. “The charitable say that he shot himself,” Burton wrote to a friend, “the uncharitable say that I shot him.”
Burton’s personality was certainly at the heart of the row. Speke was a nondrinker and a prude; a Christian who would get himself in a fluster at the sight of a half-naked African woman. He couldn’t handle his wild companion who was up for trying anything – the more shocking the better – let alone a companion who reveled in the nudity he saw around him. Burton sampled every intoxicant on offer in Africa. He discovered first-hand that its women were “well disposed towards strangers of fair complexion, apparently with the permission of their husbands.” He was fascinated by African phallic worship. And he had a strange, old-school, racist obsession with the size of black men’s penises — he even went so far as to measure several obliging fellows.
When the warring explorers returned home, Speke spread word that Burton was a sicko — that he had gone to the Devil in Africa. Isabel didn’t care, though. She stuck by her untamed fiancé and the couple was secretly married in January 1861. Burton turned up to the ceremony in a rough shooting coat with a cigar between his teeth. The newlyweds were together for seven months before the traveler was off again, this time taking a job as British consul on Fernando Po – a disease-ridden island off the west coast of Africa. Isabel stayed behind. The so-called White Man’s Grave was no place for a lady. But for Burton, it was a perfect springboard for more mad African adventures.
During his three years in Fernando Po, Burton made countless trips to the mainland where he climbed mountains, hung out with cannibals and searched for gorillas (which, at the time, some Europeans believed to be fictitious creatures). He produced five books while he was there, covering everything from juju and facial scarring to ritual murder, female circumcision and peculiar sexual practises. By the time he was finished, there was likely not a colleague left in the Foreign Office who didn’t consider him strange, if not downright dangerous.
Burton also made two trips to Dahomey, a kingdom famous for human sacrifices and its army of Amazon warrior women. Victorian newspapers were obsessed with the place, but upon first laying eyes on the country for himself, Burton suspected half of what had been written was nonsense. “I have been here three days,” he wrote, “and am generally disappointed. Not a man killed or a fellow tortured. At Benin, they crucified a fellow in honor of my coming — here: nothing! And this is the blood-stained land of Dahomey!”
Things were different on his second visit. Eighty prisoners had been killed, the king himself decapitated the first victim. But Burton still wasn’t impressed with the Amazon army, concluding that “an equal number of British charwomen, armed with the British broomstick, would clear them off in a very few hours.”
After Africa, Burton was transferred to Santos, then a swampy backwater on Brazil’s Atlantic coast. Isabel joined him. But he hated it, spending four unhappy years there, drinking hard, writing very little and traveling only rarely. “He reminded me of a black leopard, caged, but unforgiving,” wrote a British traveler who had met him at the time. A dream job followed: British consul for Damascus in Syria. This was a chance to recapture his glory days in the East. But Burton made a mess of it, upsetting half the city’s Christians, Jews and Muslims with his flamboyant, my-way-or-the-highway style. After just two years, he was recalled in disgrace.
And that might have been the sum of it for Richard Francis Burton. By then, he was in his fifties. His career was a mess. His next posting was a demotion: consul in the sleepy Adriatic port city of Trieste. He took to pottering around his house in a fez and pointed-toe slippers like an eccentric old gent, bored out of his restless brain. One afternoon he marched into a room where Isabel was entertaining her chattering lady friends, slapped his latest manuscript down on the coffee table and stomped out of the room without a word. It was entitled, A History of Farting.
But Burton wasn’t at the end of the road just yet. He still had one last great journey in him, a climactic adventure that would be his parting two-finger salute to British civilization. This final journey was different — it was a literary one. With the same fearlessness he’d shown at Mecca and Harar, he plunged into the forbidden world of Eastern erotica.
It’s a miracle anyone was born at all during the Victorian Age. Sex wasn’t the the thing to do. Publishers were prosecuted for producing obscene books. Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor for “gross indecency”. Even doctors believed masturbation caused heart disease and insanity. But Burton found prudery offensive. He loved sex and he loved to upset people by talking about it. His friends included decadent poets, pornography collectors and a sadist, named Fred Hankey, who once asked Burton to bring a human skin back from Dahomey (but even Burton drew the line at that one).
So, in one last great act of defiance, Burton set about publishing a series of sex guides to open British eyes to the joys of shagging. These were translations of the “pillow books” used by lovers in Asia for hundreds of years, including India’s famous Kama Sutra. Any of them could have landed him in jail. As every schoolboy knows, the Kama Sutra contains more acrobatics than Billy Smart’s Circus. Burton’s translation included illustrations of all that stuff plus tips on aphrodisiacs, spanking and oral sex. Nothing was cut from the explicit original. It was the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day in 1884.
Burton avoided prosecution by publishing his sex guides anonymously. The Kama Sutra became one of the most pirated books in the English language. On a roll, he then decided to produce a no-holds-barred translation of Arabian Nights. Earlier English versions had cut out its cruder, earthier tales and concentrated on the family-friendly stuff — Ali Baba, Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor. But Burton’s massive 16-volume edition of the ancient collection restored all the saucy stories to their original glory. Burton also daringly added essays outlining his thoughts on homosexuality, pornography and the sexual education of women. He spiced up his text with hundreds of footnotes on everything from lesbianism and harems to incest and hashish. And to cap it all, he put his name on the front cover.
It was mad stuff for the 1880s. The Pall Mall Gazette was appalled, they called the book a “revolting obscenity.” The Echo declared it “morally filthy.” The Boston Daily Advertiser memorably found it “offensive and not only offensive, but grossly and needlessly offensive.” But to Burton’s surprise, other newspapers praised his Arabian Nights, saluting his courage, skill and impressive knowledge. Thirty years after publishing hisPilgrimage to El Medinah and Mecca, he found himself with another hit on his hands. The vice squad didn’t come knocking. And when a knighthood followed, the life-long rebel thought someone must be pulling his leg.
Sir Richard Burton died shortly after that, in 1890, at the age of 69. And as with so much about his life, the story of how it came to an end is fittingly a bizarre one.
Burton woke gasping for breath at 4am one October morning at his home in Trieste. Isabel summoned a doctor who diagnosed a heart attack but could do nothing to save him. She sent for a Catholic priest and by the time he arrived it looked like Burton was dead. But Isabel wouldn’t accept it. She insisted her husband was only unconscious. Then she told the priest he was a secret convert to Rome (which seems about as likely as Burton bumping into the Pope at Mecca). She persuaded the clergyman to administer the Catholic Last Rites over Burton’s clearly lifeless body. It wasn’t until 7pm that evening — more than twelve hours later — that she finally accepted he was gone and that she was “alone and desolate forever.”
If Isabel’s behaviour that day was odd, what she did next was unforgivable. Within a fortnight of Burton’s death, she had burned nearly all his papers: intimate diaries, notebooks, letters and manuscripts. Forty years of work by a brilliant man went up in flames. She did it, she said, “to protect public morality.” She saw her husband’s interest in sexuality as purely scientific, but feared others would read his journals “for filth’s sake.” Her God might take a dim view of that and be reluctant to let Burton through the pearly gates.
Determined to save his immortal soul, Isabel requested a series of masses for Burton. Two Catholic funeral services were held. Then Burton, the scandalous old ruffian, the wild wanderer who spent his life shocking the pious and offending the saints (acting opening as an Athiest) was tamely laid to rest in a Catholic cemetery in the suburbs of west London. His friends and family were outraged; some never spoke to Isabel again.