Richard Francis Burton was born near Elstree, Hertfordshire, on March 19, 1821, the son of an army colonel. As a boy he accompanied his parents on their frequent travels about the European continent.
Burton later attended Oxford University, where he was known as "Ruffian Dick" for his long moustaches and penchant for challenging students to duels; he was eventually expelled for attending horse races. He was overjoyed at leaving Oxford; he found the dons and fellow students notably dull, and exited with a flair: he drove his horses and carriage over the flower beds while blowing a trumpet.
At 21 Burton joined the army of the East India Company and was posted to the Sindh, where he lived with the Muslims and learned several Eastern languages and dialects, including Iranian, Hindustani, and Arabic. (He mastered Arabic and Hindi and, during his eight-year stay, became proficient also in Marathi, Sindhi, Punjabi, Telugu, Pashto, and Multani. In his travels in Asia, Africa, and South America, he learned 25 languages, with dialects that brought the number to 40.
As an intelligence officer assigned to go undercover in the souks and bazaars of the Sindh, Burton perfected his language ability and disguises and brought information back to his commanding officer, the renowned Sir Charles Napier. One assignment required him to investigate male brothels, where he reported that many of the customers were British officers. His report was hushed up and he came under close scrutiny after Napier was dispatched from India. Ill with cholera and under the cloud of his report, he returned home, at the age of 29.
After those seven years in India he returned to recuperate with his mother and sister in France, where he wrote four books on India in the next three years and planned his next adventure: entering Mecca disguised as a Muslim hajj. This feat, which if he were discovered would have resulted in his summary execution by beheading or crucifixion, was not the first time that a non-Muslim had breached the holy city. But Burton wrote about his trip, where he posed as an Afghaniphysician , Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Mecca.
Before returning in triumph to England, Burton set out to to enter the forbidden Muslim city of Harar, ostensibly to establish horse trading routes. All non-believers who had entered this Somalian city before Burton had been executed, and in this Burton became the first white man to enter and leave alive. He wrote about this as First Footsteps in East Africa.
On leave again in 1854, Burton went again to Somaliland in eastern Africa with John Speke to find the source of the Nile. Their party was attacked by Somali tribesmen; Speke was seriously injured and Burton's jaw was pierced by a spear. He returned to England to recuperate, when the Crimean War broke out. After his recovery, in July 1855, he went to the Crimea to volunteer in the war against Russia. Burton trained Turkish irregulars at the front in the Dardanelles, but saw no action himself.
The war over, on a second expedition in Africa with Speke (1857-58), Burton discovered Lake Tanganyika in 1858. Speke -- correctly-- believed Victoria to be the source of the Nile. He returned to England to become famous as the discoverer of the Nile, but the dispute over the source led to a bitter feud between them that ended only when Speke accidentally shot himself on a hunting trip.
In 1860 Burton made an overland trip to Utah to visit the Mormons and their leader. This meeting with Brigham Young and extensive reporting on polygamy was reported in The City of the Saints (1861). Shortly after his return from the United States, in January 1861, he secretly married the aristocrat Isabel Arundell , the daughter of an aristocratic (and Catholic) family.
Burton joined the British Foreign Office as a consul to Fernando Po, a Spnaish island off the coast of West Africa. From there he travelled to the African continent often, resulting in five books that were popular for his description of tribal rituals, cannibalism, and what were to the British reading public, bizarre sexual customs. His preoccupation with all facets of African cultures led the British home office to be wary of him.
He was posted next as consul to Santos, Brazil. As usual, he wrote books about the area The Highlands of Brazil and began his extensive translation of Camoens, the Portuguese poet, and of Hindu folk-tales. But Burton loathed Brazil and began drinking heavily, whereupon his wife petitioned the home office to transfer him to the Middle East, to Damascus.
In Damascus Burton was successful and happy for a time, but as usual, discontent set in, which Burton always found difficult to suppress. His wife created additional troubles by her religious proselytizing that, coupled with Arab intrigue, led to his dismissal.
In 1872 Burton was assigned to Trieste as consul. He wrote extensively there: travel Iceland, India, and Africa, archaeology Italy, his own poetry The Kasidah, and translations of Italian, Roman, Persian poetry, and six volumes of Camoens. He brought the erotica of the East in an unexpurgated form The Perfumed Garden,The Ananga Ranga, and The Kama Sutra of Vatsayana to the staid Victorian world, shocking and outraging them. Burton received some measure of acclaim in his later years. Queen Victoria awarded him the honor of Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George for his service to England.
Burton died in Trieste on October 20, 1890. Immediately following his death, his wife burned his diaries and current manuscripts, and followed that up with her own whitewashed version of his life, depicting him as a good Catholic, faithful husband, and wronged and misunderstood adventurer. Rebuffed as unfit to be buried in Westminster Abbey with Livingstone, Burton was later buried at Mortlake in London
FROM their folded mates they wander far,
Their ways seem harsh and wild:
They follow the beck of a baleful star,
Their paths are dream-beguiled.
A VIEWLESS thing is the wind,
But its strength is mightier far
Than a phalanxed host in battle line,
Than the limbs of a Samson are.
THE RIVER widens to a pathless sea
Beneath the rain and mist and sullen skies.
Look out the window; ’t is a gray emprise,
This piloting of massed humanity
THE CROCUSES in the Square
Lend a winsome touch to the May;
The clouds are vanished away,
The weather is bland and fair;