Choose Life

10 20 richard burtonToday I am celebrating the life of Sir Richard Burton, the Victorian adventurer and all round embracer of everything that life had to offer. He was born in Devon in 1821 and died on this day in 1890 in Trieste. He packed an astonishing amount of living into his sixty-nine years. He was a British explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, Orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, linguist, poet, fencer, diplomat and spy. He travelled extensively through Asia, Africa and the Americas and spoke at least twenty-nine languages.

His family were pretty nomadic sort of people and while he was young he travelled with them through England, France and Italy and he quickly picked up French, Italian, Neapolitan and Latin. He attended Trinity College, Oxford where he studied Arabic and also learned falconry and fencing. Burton got into trouble almost straight away for challenging a fellow student to a duel for mocking his moustache. He was eventually expelled permanently and he went to India to join the army.

10 20 mizra abdullahIn India he picked up several more languages and became very interested in Indian customs and religious practices. He was considered rather unusual by his army comrades, and was accused of ‘going native’. He even kept a number of monkeys, in the hope that he could learn their language too. When he was sent to survey the province of Sindh, he began to disguise himself and call himself Mizra Abdullah, he managed to fool both locals and his fellow officers. That is when he first became a spy. I don’t know much about what he did because it was a secret. But I do know he was sent to infiltrate a male brothel in Karachi, that was attended by British soldiers, to find out what was going on. Everyone was shocked by the detailed report he produced and thought, perhaps correctly, that he must have been a participant in the practices he described.

10 20 in arabic dressIn the 1850s he undertook several journeys on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society. He went in disguise on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which was an incredibly dangerous thing to do. He also visited the city of Harar, in what is now Ethiopia, which no European had ever entered. After that he was wounded when his camp was attacked by 200 Somali warriors. One of the other officers was killed, a Lieutenant Speke was wounded in eleven places and Burton had a spear thrust through his face. He managed to escape, but with the spear sticking in through one cheek and out the other.

This did not put him off. It didn’t put Lieutenant Speke off either. In 1856 the pair set off in search of the source of the Nile, which was rumoured to spring from a large lake in the African Interior. It was an awful journey. They had most of their surveying equipment stolen and were horribly afflicted by tropical diseases. By the time they reached Lake Tanganyika in 1858 Speke was temporarily blinded and Burton could not walk. The source of the Nile was not even there. Speke later went on to discover it by himself at Lake Victoria after the two quarrelled and separated. As well as his geographical observations, Burton made extensive notes on the language, customs and even sexual practices of the tribes he met with.

In 1861 he married his fiancée, Isabel Arundell and almost immediately left for four years in West Africa. They were reunited in 1865 and spent four years together in Brazil, except for the times when he went to visit a war in Paraguay. Then he was posted to Damascus as consul. It was a troubled time and there was a lot of animosity between Christian, Jewish and Muslim populations. He did his best to smooth things over. It can’t have worked too well, because at one point he was attacked by a hoard of armed horsemen and camel riders sent by the Governor of Syria. He said: “I have never been so flattered in my life than to think it would take three hundred men to kill me.” In 1872 he was posted to Trieste in Austria-Hungary, which he found dull by comparison, but it left him with more time to write and travel.

10 20 kama sutraIn 1863 he had co-founded the Anthropological Society of London, with the intention of providing fellow travellers with information that would give them: “…curious information on social and sexual matters.” For all his adventuring, he is probably best known now as the man who provided the unexpurgated version of ‘One Thousand and One Nights.’ To these he added his own extensive footnotes exploring the nature of sexuality in the Orient. He wrote a particularly long passage about homosexuality. He also published the first translations into English of the Kama Sutra and the Perfumed Garden. The explicit content of these books was terribly shocking to Victorian Society and they would have fallen foul of the Obscene Publications Act, had they not been published privately and by subscription.

There has been some speculation over whether or not he indulged in the acts he described either during or after his extensive travels. He seems like the sort of person who grabbed life with both hands, so I think he probably did and good for him. We’ll never know for sure though as his wife, who was a staunch Catholic, burned all his papers shortly after his death including a new translation of The Perfumed Garden. It was a great loss to his biographers, but she believed she was protecting his reputation.


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