He was an explorer, soldier, diplomat and scholar, both celebrated and despised. He was able to speak close to 30 languages and wrote 50 books and hundreds of articles. A popular biography, one of many, from the 1960s breathlessly described him as “the fabulous lover, daring explorer, prolific author who went where he pleased and did what he liked.”
Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)—not the famous 20th-century Welsh actor—was born two centuries ago in Devon on March 19, 1821. If and when this elder, unrelated, Burton is remembered today by the general public, it is likely for a handful of broad-brush strokes: sneaking into Mecca in disguise, searching for the source of the White Nile, and, maybe, translating of the Arabian Nights. But even those three images are complicated, and that is not the whole story.
In an era we now call the Victorian and consider staid and strict, Burton was a walking contradiction and incongruity. Born in England but raised by his Anglo-Irish family in France and Italy, he would spend most of his life outside his homeland. Patchily educated by continental tutors, he did what he liked as a boy—carousing, fencing, horse-riding, learning languages and general mischief. Having been sent to Oxford by his family to become a clergyman(!), Burton lasted less than two years before engineering his own expulsion. From the university to the military and the consular corps, his would be a life-long experience of barely repressed insubordination and stubbornness. After leaving Oxford, his father bought him a commission in the Army of the East India Company (cheaper than a regular commission) and his seven years in India would be his university.
Part of the colonial ruling class, Burton became as much an outsider in India as he had been at Oxford but was able to spend time doing what he liked best, learning languages and foreign cultures. He came first in army-wide examinations for proficiency in languages ranging from Hindi to Farsi. While Burton knew more than most of his fellow officers about the societies and cultures in which he immersed himself, that didn’t mean that he was any less arrogant about the superiority of the British. As one biographer wrote “nowhere in all his vast travels was Richard ever destined to find a place that met with lasting unqualified approval.” In India he also began to acquire a bad reputation, nebulous and damaging, for both sexual immorality and bureaucratic disobedience that would follow him his entire life.
In 1853 Burton was not the first westerner to go to Mecca in disguise, but in an age of British explorers daring bold deeds (and writing about it) it made him a public figure. He was not universally celebrated; some in England found the idea of an Englishman pretending to be both a Muslim and a native very distasteful. In retrospect, although the “personal pilgrimage” to Mecca had an element of danger, one is struck by the general tolerance of the Muslims who accompanied him, some of whom thought there was something “off” about their fellow pilgrim but welcomed him just the same.
Did Burton actually become a Muslim? If so, he would have been a very heterodox one, this profane omnivorous magpie of a writer had a deep interest in most religions. Language, religion and sex were three of his greater passions. Often intolerant and critical of Christianity, his sympathy for Islam would be a constant in life. In a late, posthumous work he lauded Muhammad as a great reformer in a debased age, praising the creed’s “noble simplicity” and rejecting the common 19th-century Western view that Islam was in terminal decline.
Burton’s Mecca journey was followed by “first footsteps” into Somalia that almost cost him his life and then the third of his great expeditions, the effort to find the source of the White Nile, along with John Hanning Speke, which led to bitter controversy. He had a gift, not just for languages, but for making enemies who would seek to sabotage him again and again. But he also had many life-long friends who would help him (Burton’s often maligned, aristocratic, Catholic wife Isabel Arundell Burton was one such helper). In 1886, this “desperately learned” doubter and melancholy rebel, who constantly chafed at authority, was knighted by Queen Victoria. Little did she know that Sir Richard, Her Britannic Majesty’s Consul in Trieste, was at the same time a secret purveyor of risqué translated erotica.
Burton as portrayed in Alan Moorehead’s 1960 The White Nile—“a romantic and an Arabist”—inspired my own career when I first read that book, as a teenager growing up in Miami. In summing up Burton’s writings, Moorehead could also be summing up the man: “very strange. He contrives to be pedantic, exuberant, malicious, learned and highly colorful all at the same time.” By sheer coincidence, I was able to serve as an American diplomat in two of the places, Malabo and Damascus, where Burton was British Consul.
Although he was a very well-known figure in the Victorian era, a “grand old barbarian” as he described himself, Burton’s posthumous career has been spectacular. A dozen biographies of varying quality appeared in the 20th century and there are at least two more already now in the 21st. Most tend to be largely sympathetic and uncritical towards what is seen as a pioneering, iconoclastic figure. Around the time I was reading Moorehead, science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer published his award-winningTo Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first of his Riverworld series of novels. In the first volume a revived Burton battles an afterlife Hermann Goering in an alternate universe. William Harrison’s 1982 novel Burton and Speke led to the well-regarded (but box-office flop) 1990 Bob Rafelson film Mountains of the Moon. George Macdonald Fraser’s great creation Harry Flashman is a comic amalgam of Burton and other Victorian figures.
The real Burton can be much more unpleasant than the Burton of my callow youth. The often-indigestible books he produced without fail for decades can certainly pall. There is sometimes cruelty and arrogance in his writing unbecoming in a man so well read and experienced in the ways of the world, much vociferous passion but little compassion. In our brave new world of cancel culture, Burton would be an obvious target of the woke clerisy as a symbol of both imperialism and white supremacy.
But this was a man who was already notorious in his own time for all sorts of reasons other than imperialism and white supremacy. He was an imperialist, sure, but one who often derided his own country’s imperial policies (yet who claimed to be ready to put things right if given a gunboat and a roving commission). He has no statues to tear down. His voluminous works contain intolerant views of Africans, but also of most other ethnic and religious groups, including his own. Some recent scholars have criticized him as an Orientalist, supposedly guilty of sexualizing Western images of the East in his translation of the Arabian Nights. But he defended Islam from this very thing, writing that “those who best know El Islam instead of charging it with sensuality, lament its leaven of asceticism.” Rather than being a symbol of the failings of the traditional old world, Burton’s many crackpot prejudices are emblematic of the “scientific” and modern “highly civilized” racism of the 20th century.
And yet despite all that, there is still something very attractive in the scornful old rogue: ferociously devouring languages, incessantly scribbling by candlelight in the tropics, keeping disease at bay by drinking daily half a bottle of port, an adventurer fiercely in search of something he never found. One knowing Christian missionary described the supposedly scandalous Burton as “a sheep in wolf’s clothing,” who intentionally shocked to amuse and attract (Burton also was not above exaggerating or massaging episodes of his life). That same Evangelical Christian described Burton in Damascus as “shielding the weak from cruelty and protecting the poor from oppression.” Amidst the dross, there are still treasures scattered throughout his work.
Half a dozen of his books still hold up well. I treasure one of Burton’s shortest and earliest books, Falconry in the Valley of the Indus, which is still as fresh and clear today as a Himalayan stream. Burton’s first chapter in his book on his mission to the Cannibal King of Dahomey is a lovely paean to the island of Bioko (then called Fernando Po and part of today’s Equatorial Guinea) and its native African Bubi people. Burton was conflicted and deeply flawed, as we are, but he knew himself. He could have been writing autobiographically when he described a Portuguese explorer thus: “He was a good linguist, and good linguists are often bad characters, mostly too clever by half.”
Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).