Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A short biographical sketch by Archie Phillpotts

Next Tuesday we will host the first of three Burton Medal award lectures. To coincide with this occasion we are delighted to publish the following essay by Archie Phillpotts comprising a biographical sketch of Sir Richard Burton and reflecting on the significance of his complex personality and career.



Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton –

A short biographical sketch

Archie Phillpotts


At one o’clock in the morning of a Sunday in September 1851, an Englishman disguised as a Pathan holy man entered the forbidden city of Mecca under the cover of stars. Ritually purified and dressed in the pilgrim attire of a white ihram, Captain Richard Francis Burton found himself in the middle of an elaborate deception. He was surreptitiously taking part in the Hajj – the sacred pilgrimage Islam requires of every adult – and had he been discovered at any point, he would have been executed on the spot. Mecca was no place for a kafir, barred as infidels were from the sacrosanct city. The explorer would later write that with detection his death was all but certain – “nothing could save a European exposed by the populace….”


Mere entrance to the city was not enough for Burton. It is a measure of his iron nerve that the following day he walked straight into the teeming Masjid al-Haram, the Sacred Mosque of Mecca. Borne on a tide of pilgrims, he made for a square structure that sits in the middle of the mosque’s open court: the Ka’aba. This building, literally translated as ‘The Cube’, is the very epicentre of Islamic worship, the place that all Muslims direct themselves towards in prayer. During the Hajj, a constellation of believers from across the Islamic world are drawn, as if by gravitational pull, to this structure and the sacred black rock that is embedded within it. Burton was one of the first Westerners to set foot in this sanctum sanctorum of Islam, remembering:


“looking at the windowless walls, the officials at the door, and a crowd of excited fanatics below…. [with] feelings of a trapped-rat description. A blunder, a hasty action, a misjudged word, a prayer or bow, not strictly the right shibboleth, and my bones would have whitened the desert sand.”


Despite the precariousness of his situation, Burton had the self-assurance to record the rough dimensions of the Ka’aba with a pencil on his ihram while the other worshippers were distracted by prayer. These notes, along with other observations of the Hajj, were later smuggled out of Mecca in a carry-case usually reserved for the Qur’ān. They would form the basis of Burton’s classic expeditionary account – Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah (1855-56) – which became a bestseller in Victorian Britain and sealed his notoriety as a household name.


This journey to Mecca alone would have ensured Burton’s immortality as a high adventurer. He was lionised as one of the few European men to infiltrate a handful of Oriental cities which were forbidden to foreigners and which had long held the West in their thrall – Peking in China, Lhasa in Tibet, Timbuktu in Mali, Harar in Ethiopia, and Medina and Mecca in Arabia. Burton had already visited Medina on the way to Mecca and would eventually reach Harar as well. And yet remarkably, these expeditions only represented a fraction of a life that blazed incandescently with geographic odyssey and an immersion in remote traditions and cultures. Who was this brave traveller who risked his life not only for accolade and glory but also, more importantly, for the satiation of his own intellectual curiosity?


Burton’s physique certainly suggested an unconventional individual. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne described his dark eyes as having “a look of unspeakable horror” that gave their owner “an almost unearthly appearance…. with the brow of a god and the jaw of a devil.” His left cheek sported a long and jagged scar – the memento of a wound from a Somali raider who had driven his lance through Burton’s face, knocking out four molars and a portion of his palate in the process. The disfigurement only added to his imposing presence: over six feet tall with a high forehead, forked black beard, and skin the complexion of mahogany. His weathered face bore testament to a life that had been distributed in pieces around the world.


The son of a peripatetic lieutenant colonel in the British army, Burton’s early years were spent travelling across Europe. This rootless existence gave the young man a long-lasting disdain for domesticity that he clung to even in adulthood. His penchant for rebellion also became apparent at an early age. One memorable episode witnessed an unfortunate music tutor push his delinquent pupil too far: all children, the teacher opined, were beasts…. but Richard was an arch-beast among them. In a fit of rage, the indignant young Burton broke the violin upon his master’s head. This aversion to education continued into his teenage years; he was happiest when learning to drink, whore, and cause chaos in the more depraved parts of the European cities he was staying in.


Burton briefly studied at Trinity College, Oxford before being rusticated for the crime of attending an illicit steeplechase in the countryside. He took leave of his sclerotic tutors while riding his carriage over the neat flowerbeds of Trinity’s lawn, sounding a tin trumpet and blowing kisses to the passing shop-girls. Although Burton escaped the constraints of Oxford’s very English cage, the university left him with a fascination for Arabia and oriental languages. Acquaintance with Victorian luminaries like Thomas Arnold, Benjamin Jowell, and John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman also impressed on him a deep respect for the realm of the mind.

After rustication, he joined the army of the East India Company, bribing his way into the 18th Regiment of the Bombay Native Infantry. He served on the subcontinent for seven years under the renowned general Sir Charles Napier. Posted to the newly-conquered province of Sindh in north-western India (now Pakistan), he acquired the linguistic, ethnographic, and surveying skills that he would later put to use as an explorer of Africa. Between 1853 and 1855, he visited Mecca and Medina, followed by an equally dangerous trip to the legendary walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. A brief stint followed as the commander of Turkish irregular cavalry during the Crimean War, and then in 1857 he led an expedition into uncharted East Africa to discover the source of the White Nile, by all accounts the holy grail of mid-nineteenth century exploration. Together with his companion, John Hanning Speke, they reached the great lakes of East Africa and became the first white people in modern times to view Lake Tanganyika, the source of the Congo river. In 1861, the British Foreign Office secured Burton’s considerable talents for a less-than-satisfactory position as consul to Fernando Po, a small Spanish island off the West African coast. The dire, fever-ridden islet acted as a springboard for further trips into Africa, most notably to Gabon in search of gorillas and also the Fan people who were rumoured to be cannibals. The consulship of Santos, Brazil followed, then the prestigious posting to Damascus in the Middle East, and finally Trieste, in northern Italy, where he died in 1890.


Burton’s was a life that was intrinsically tied up with three prominent themes of the nineteenth century: natural history, exploration, and imperialism. His career was coterminous with the height of the British Empire, and a study of his employment under the East India Company and the Foreign Office is a study of British global influence at its peak. Indeed, the talents of explorers were frequently exploited by nations in the advancement of their foreign aims: in Burton’s case, the consolidation and expansion of British imperial power. On the famous expeditions that set out to unlock the secrets of geography and science, Victorian explorers – very often with institutional backing from learned societies and professional bodies – carried the ulterior objectives of reconnaissance for the state, and would have been seen as acting representatives for the “civilizing” mission of British culture abroad. Burton’s trips to Mecca and Central Africa, for example, were financed by the Royal Geographical Society – founded in 1830 as a central organ in colonial exploration – while his clandestine activities in the Sindh were carried out against the backdrop of the Great Game with Russia. Tangled in a web of intrigue, he became a pawn in the titanic geo-political chess match that was being played out across the board of Central Asia. Incidentally, it is intriguing to note that Burton reputedly served as the inspiration for the fictional British agent Colonel Creighton in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the book that did so much to popularize the phrase the “Great Game”.


Although history remembers him as one of the nineteenth century’s most famous explorers, this narrow recognition does a disservice to Burton’s other talents. He could, at various points in his life, lay serious claim to being an Orientalist, diplomat, geographer, anthropologist, linguist, translator, cartographer, ethnographer, spy, soldier, poet, and travel writer. He was, in the very truest sense of the word, a polymath. And as polymaths are wont to do, he observed the world around him through the different prisms of his wide-ranging expertise. But whereas such geniuses are often content to remain fixed in one place – while their imaginations soar unanchored – Burton was exceptional in his compulsion to explore. He summed this up in a letter to his friend, the poet and politician Richard Monckton Milnes, written during preparations for an expedition of the lower Congo in 1863:


“Starting in a hollowed log of wood—some thousand miles up a river, with an infinitesimal prospect of returning! I ask myself: “Why?” and the only echo is “damned fool! . . . the Devil drives!”


It was this curious impulse that propelled Burton into the unknown. In this, he joined the ranks of a strange breed of Englishman – with the likes of Drake, Raleigh, Gordon of Khartoum, Bokhara Burnes, Shackleton, T.E. Lawrence, and Mallory – who sought out silent and alien places in pursuit, not of the physically obtainable, but of a far more valuable knowledge about themselves.


This implacable desire not only governed Burton’s geographical wanderings but also his internal life. For just as he was set apart from other polymaths by a proclivity for exploration, so he was set apart from other explorers by an extraordinary intellectual energy and curiosity. At the core of this was a quest for “gnosis” – or secret knowledge – that drove him to jemmy open cultures and traditions which were hermetically sealed against outsiders. His search led him to initiations in alchemy, the Jewish mystical sect of Kabbālah, Roman Catholicism, an ancient Indian sect known as the Nāga (snake) Brāhmins, Tantrism, Sikhism, and several versions of Islam before he finally settled on Sufism.


Burton’s entrance into these arcane sects was facilitated by a chameleon-like capacity to dissolve into his surroundings at will. His talent for mimicry of manner, his black hair and swarthy features allowed him to pass for a native throughout his life (he was always fond of speculating, and encouraging the notion, that dark Gypsy blood flowed through his veins). He mastered the religion and lore of places he visited, speaking the regional dialect as a local would. Indeed, perhaps the sharpest arrow in Burton’s quiver was his capacious linguistic aptitude. Estimates vary, but by one count he learned 25 languages so well as to be considered fluent, while proficiency in a further 15 dialects raised that number to 40. He was without doubt one of the great linguists of his time.


Polyglotism aside, Burton was also expertly versed in the art of dissimulation. At one point in his Indian career, for example, we find him incognito in Karachi, ostensibly as a local shopkeeper, but really operating as an intelligence officer for the East India Company army. In his book Falconry in the Valley of the Indus (1852), Burton remembered his fabricated guise:


“[With] a long beard, face and hands, arms and feet, stained with a thin coat of henna, Mirza Abdullah or Bushire – your humble servant – set out upon many a trip. He was a bazzaz, a vendor of fine linen, calicoes, and muslins; such chapmen [pedlars] are sometimes admitted to display their wares, even in the sacred harem, by “fast” and fashionable dames…. Thus he could walk into most men’s houses quite without ceremony…. He secured numberless invitations, was proposed to by several papas, and won, or had to think he won, a few hearts”


It is remarkable to think that in disguise Burton could even circumvent the usually impregnable purdah – the practice in certain Muslim and Hindu societies of screening women from men or strangers. Such was Mirza Abdullah’s success that Burton was to repurpose the Pathan persona throughout his life; it was this mask that he wore on the pilgrimage to Mecca.


This virtuosity for deception allowed Burton to blend into other societies not only for the purpose of intelligence gathering, but also to satisfy his unquenchable thirst for cultural observation. He was an early pioneer in the ethnographic field – his method of systematically studying native practices and beliefs while maintaining a dispassionate but involved participation foreshadowed some of modern anthropology’s data-gathering techniques. Throughout his life, Burton carefully collected anthropological observations as a lepidopterist might gather beautiful and exotic specimens of butterfly. These were meticulously documented in his voluminous publications; there were over 40 works on the countries he visited recording the minutiae of local mores and customs: lore, ritual, sexual habit, pharmacopoeia, physiology, and anything else that seized his attention.


This was a man who knew what it was to be ahead of his time – his unconventional views on religion, race, marriage, and sex were progressive to the point that they are more identifiable with modern, tolerant attitudes rather than those which belonged to the nineteenth century. It is not surprising therefore that a whiff of scandal always seemed to ghost Burton wherever he went. One notorious example was his report – long-since lost – on the homosexual brothels of Karachi. The young intelligence officer had been charged, under the order of Sir Charles Napier, with the investigation of illicit activities of British troops in the Sindh. The ensuing account of pederasty, presented in fulsome and semi-pornographic detail, scandalized the Indian government: whispers claimed that he had overstepped the mark by taking part in, and perhaps even enjoying, what he had been assigned to investigate.


Burton’s honour also suffered at home. His translations of erotic classics like the Kāma Sūtra (1883), The Arabian Knights (1885), and The Perfumed Garden (1886) earned him the enmity of the Victorian censor. Such delicate subjects were considered offensive and his interest in sexual behaviour constantly threatened Burton with prosecution for obscenity. No matter; he was an unrepentant controversialist who took delight in outraging polite drawing-rooms – a young vicar once asked if it was true that he’d killed a boy in the Arabian desert; “Sir,” Burton impassively replied, “I’m proud to say that I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.”  Unsurprisingly, he was never wholly accepted in his country of birth. Nor indeed was he ever really comfortable in it: his own society ostracized him while cynically finding room for his considerable talents in official posts. In India, his brother officers cruelly dubbed him “Ruffian Dick” (amongst other more unsavoury sobriquets) and accused him of straying from the acceptable path even while he carried out dangerous and important assignments on behalf of the army’s high command.


Burton’s reputation as a curio of history – a quintessential Victorian explorer of the nineteenth century – falls well short of his true character. Any critical examination of his life must take into account the polygonal appeal of his expertise and interests as a thinker, soldier, writer, and traveller – to merely compartmentalise him into just one of these disciplines is a mistake. His genius lay in his universalism. Such brilliance in a range of endeavour rarely, if ever, exists anymore; modern society, and the realm of the professional, demands specialization in a chosen field, not several, nor a dozen. Burton’s life, therefore, serves as a lesson in intellectual curiosity: we should always strive, as he ceaselessly did, to expand the bounds of our knowledge over the rich and variegated plains of human experience.