Richard Francis Burton (1821-90)


b. Tuam, Co. Galway [var. Hertfordshire]; son of a Colonel Burton, being Irish, and an English mother of Neterville descent; paternal grandfather rector in Galway; he matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, where he was noted for duelling, riding, smoking, gambling, and experimenting with various forms of wildness; eventually sent down; obsessive aptitude for languages, especially Arabic; joined the Indian Army in 1842;
set off from Bombay, 1842, having learned Hindustani; his friendship with Indians and his mistresses earned him the sobriquet of ‘white nigger’ about brother-officers; acquired Persian, Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Maratha, Gujerati, and other dialects; eventually fluent in 19 languages; received consular appointment, India, 1861; converted to Tantric Brahmanism, then Sikhism, then Islam;
kept native mistresses and learned to use the Indian sword and lance; his departure from the Army precipitated by the reaction of a Colonel Napier to the uncomfortably accurate account he gave of boy brothels in Karachi in a report; sight of Lake Tanganyika, 14th Feb. 1858; sighted Victoria Nyanza, but was beaten by his companion Speke in bringing news to the Royal Geographical Society;
m. Isabel Arundell, 1861; Personal Narrative (1855); Book of the Sword (1884); trans. 1001 Stories of Arabian Nights (1885-88), with a “terminal essay” detailing history and practice of homosexuality; posthumous incl. trans. of ‘Catullus’ and ‘Pentamerone’; involved in publication of Kama Sutra; also The Perfumed Garden of ‘Cheik [for Sheik] Nefzaoui’; issued revised edn. of Arthur Leared’s Morocco and the Moors [1876] (1891);
his Sindh Revisited is a well established school text in Pakistan; his wife’s adventures in N. Africa are told in The Wilder Shores of Love; d. in Trieste, where he was consul. CAB ODNB JMC OCEL OCIL

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Individual titles incl. To the Gold Coast for Gold: A Personal Narrative [with Verney Lovett Cameron] (London: Chatto & Windus 1883), xii, [2], 354pp.; vi, 381, [1]p., ill. [2 folding maps; col. frontis.], 20 cm. [see extract. See also Frank McLynn, ed., Of No Country: An Anthology of the Works of Sir Richard Burton (1991).

On Internet ....
The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885-88), trans. by Richard F. Burton
—available at [online].
Note: The text as given at these links is virtually unformatted, with line-breaks per 12 words [average]. Reference numbers appear as text only and the corresponding footnotes do not appear on same page. (This is a job for an online editor with a Burton interest!)

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  • Fawn Brodie, The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode 1967), 390pp. [see details];
  • Frank McLynn, Burton: Snow upon the Desert (1990);
  • Mary S. Lovell, A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton (London: Little, Brown 1998), 910pp.;
  • Dane Kennedy, The Highly Civilised Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World (Tindal Street Press 205), 246pp. [see review, TLS, 9 Dec. 2005].

Bibliographical details
Fawn Brodie, The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode 1967), 390pp.; Do. (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1971), 505pp.; Do. (NY: Norton 1984), 390pp., 16pp. pls.; Do. (London: Eland 1990), 390pp., and Do. (London: Eland 2002), vii, 464pp.

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Frank McLynn
, ed. Of No Country: An Anthology of the Works of Sir Richard Burton (1991) [selected]; ‘travelled to Mecca disguised as an Afghan doctor; travelled with John Hanning Speke in Somaliland, wounded in an attack on camp where he was wounded in the face by a spear, leaving an extraordinary scar; many languages; ed. Oxford where he was treated with phenomenal stupidity; married a Catholic, also of Irish extraction, who shared his passion for adventure’ [viz., Wilder Shores of Love].

Amit Chaudhuri, reviews of Christopher Ondaatje, Sind Revisited: A Journey in the Footsteps of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton 1842-1849 (London: HarperCollins [?1996]), 351pp.; gives Herefordshire as Burton’s birthplace; discusses his career [as above] and his influence on Kipling; notes that he married the faithful and staunchly Catholic Isabel Arundell in 1861; the author of the book has followed Burton on his travels, though usually assisted by local police and businessmen and copiously luncheoned; his style (‘everywhere my attention was grabbed ...’) is not admired. (Times Literary Supplement, 26 July, 1996, p.11.)

Malise Ruthven, ‘A Very Curious Marriage’, review of Mary S. Lovell: A Rage to Live: A Biography Richard and Elizabeth Burton (1998), in Times Literary Supplement, 25 Dec. 1998, p.3; documents fully the author’s attempt to show that their private life was happier than supposed from readings of his sexuality as homoerotic and predatory, and critical of previous works by Brodie and McLynn; photo of Burtons at Madeira in 1863.

Michael Saler [prob. Sadleir] , ‘Eminence to Spare’, review of Dane Kennedy, The Highly Civilised Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World in Times Literary Supplement, 9 Dec. 2005), p.23: ‘[...] Burton’s career also demonstrates that the Victorians’ attempts to define and fix difference could be used to undermine their own sense of cultural superiority. He did not hesitate to compare Evangelicalism with non-Western religions, usually to the detriment of the former, contemporaries were shocked to find him praising polygamy and Islamic traditions providing women with certain freedoms difficult to attain in the West. And he became a crusader for sexual freedom in the 1880s, a “harbinger of the modern sexologists”, according to Kennedy. Burton used his translations of the Kama Sutra, The Perfumed Garden, the Arabian Nights, and other texts to show that the Oriental world encouraged a greater degree of sexual fulfilment for both women and men than was possible in the puritanical Occident. [...] Burton’s experiences are used as a springboard to provide cogent insights into “Orientalism”, the emergence of biological conceptions of race and the countervailing forces of cultural relativism, the tensions between armchair geographers and explorers,the debates between science and religion (Burton practised mesmerism and investigated spiritualism), and the gradual transition from Victorian to modern ideas about sexuality. / Kennedy argues that in many respects Burton presaged our own modernistic concerns about the instabilities of hierarchical oppositions and the contingent construction of cultural difference. At times, though, his Burton seems too contemporary, even postmodrn. Burton, he writes, was reluctant “to commit to a stable and readily identifiable identity” because he enjoyed “transcending the conventional boundaries of religion and race”. Untutored in the postmodernism discourses of hybridity and mimicry, Burton’s contemporaries would simply have said he was inconoclastic. [...] Lytton Strachey was right not to include him as an Eminent Victorian when he could just as easily be pegged as an Eminent Modern. [End]’

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Preface to Arabian Nights (1885): ‘[...] In accordance with my purpose of reproducing the Nights, not virginibus puerisque, but in as perfect a picture as my powers permit, I have carefully sought out the English equivalent of every Arabic word, however low it may be or “shocking” to ears polite; preserving, on the other hand, all possible delicacy where the indecency is not intentional; and, as a friend advises me to state, not exaggerating the vulgarities and the indecencies which, indeed, can hardly be exaggerated. For the coarseness and crassness are but the shades of a picture which would otherwise be all lights. The general tone of The Nights is exceptionally high and pure. The devotional fervour often rises to the boiling point of fanaticism. The pathos is sweet, deep and genuine; tender, simple and true, utterly unlike much of our modern tinsel. Its life, strong, splendid and multitudinous, is everywhere flavoured with that unaffected pessimism and constitutional melancholy which strike deepest root under the brightest skies and which sigh in the face of heaven: Vita quid est hominis? Viridis floriscula mortis; Sole Oriente oriens, sole cadente cadens.’ [Cont.]

Preface to Arabian Nights (1885): ‘[...] with the aid of my annotations supplementing Lane’s, the student will readily and pleasantly learn more of the Moslem’s manners and customs, laws and religion than is known to the average Orientalist; and, if my labours induce him to attack the text of The Nights he will become master of much more Arabic than the ordinary Arab owns. This book is indeed a legacy which I bequeath to my fellow countrymen in their hour of need. Over devotion to Hindu, and especially to Sanskrit literature, has led them astray from those (so called) “Semitic” studies, which are the more requisite for us as they teach us to deal successfully with a race more powerful than any pagans - the Moslem. Apparently England is ever forgetting that she is at present the greatest Mohammedan empire in the world. Of late years she has systematically neglected Arabism and, indeed, actively discouraged it in examinations for the Indian Civil Service, where it is incomparably more valuable than Greek and Latin. Hence, when suddenly compelled to assume the reins of government in Moslem lands, as Afghanistan in times past and Egypt at present, she fails after a fashion which scandalises her few (very few) friends; and her crass ignorance concerning the Oriental peoples which should most interest her, exposes her to the contempt of Europe as well as of the Eastern world. When the regrettable raids of 1883-84, culminating in the miserable affairs of Tokar, Teb and Tamasi, were made upon the gallant Sudani negroids, the Bisharin outlying Sawakin, who were battling for the holy cause of liberty and religion and for escape from Turkish task-masters and Egyptian tax-gatherers, not an English official in camp, after the death of the gallant and lamented Major Morice, was capable of speaking Arabic. Now Moslems are not to be ruled by raw youths who should be at school and college instead of holding positions of trust and emolument. He who would deal with them successfully must be, firstly, honest and truthful and, secondly, familiar with and favourably inclined to their manners and customs if not to their law and religion. We may, perhaps, find it hard to restore to England those pristine virtues, that tone and temper, which made her what she is; but at any rate we (myself and a host of others) can offer her the means of dispelling her ignorance concerning the Eastern races with whom she is continually in contact.’ [See full copy of the Burton’s Foreword, along with some other critical material relating to the later translation by John Payne and the relation between the two - attached].

Sir Richard Francis Burton [with Verney Lovett Cameron], “The Sá Leonite at Home and Abroad” [chap.], in To the Gold Coast in Search of Gold: A Personal Narrative

In treating this part of the subject I shall do my best to avoid bitterness and harsh judging as far as the duty of a traveller - that of telling the whole truth - permits me. It is better for both writer and reader to praise than to dispraise. Most Englishmen know negroes of pure blood as well as “coloured persons” who, at Oxford and elsewhere, have shown themselves fully equal in intellect and capacity to the white races of Europe and America. These men afford incontestable proofs that the negro can be civilised, and a high responsibility rests upon them as the representatives of possible progress. But hitherto the African, as will presently appear, has not had fair play. The petting and pampering proces, the spirit of mawkish reparation, and the coddling of high-strung sentiment so deleterious to the tone of the colony, were errors of English judgement pure and simple. We can easily explain them.

The sad grey life of English, the reflection of her climate, has ever welcomed a novelity, a fresh excitement. Society has in turn lionised the marmiton, or assistant-cook, self-styled an “Emire of the Lebanon”; the Indian “rajah”, at home a munshi, or language-master, and the “African princess”, a slave-girl picked up in the bush. It is the same huner for senstation which makes the mob stare at the Giant and the Savage, the Fat Lady, the Living Skeleton, and the Spotted Boy. ([...] Introd.)


The gorebellied children are the pests of the settlement. At early day they roar because they awake hungry and thirsty; they roard during the day when washed with cold water, and in the evening they roar because they are tired and sleepy. They are utterly spoiled. They fight like little Britons; they punch their mothers at three years of age; and, when strong enough, they “square up” to their fathers. (q.p.)

Available at Google Books - online; accessed 221.0.2012

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Dictionary of National Biography
[ODNB]: Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), born Tuam, Co. Galway, educated privately and Trinity College, Oxford; learned Arabic through introduction to Spanish scholar; rusticated; joined army, 1842; round Cape, June; landed Bombay; consular appointment, India, 1861; passed exams in Hindustan; joined the Indian Army in 1842; good graces of Charles Napier; Sindh survey; commission to wander in India; attached to private teachers, ‘like a white nigger’ acc. brother officers; Burton travelled to Mecca, Arabia; wrote report on private life of Indian natives for Napier, prob. interfered with advancement; Africa, Russia; twice tried to engage in Sikh War; acted as British consul in Brazil, Damascus, and in Trieste, where he died; returned to England, 1849, with large collection of MS; linguistic publications in London schol. journals; brought out in 1851 several Sind books; also work on falconry in the Indus Valley and military works; maître des armes (fencing); met future wife at Boulogne; travelled to Arabian in disguises, including Al Hajj traveller Ab[d]ullah; 17 July-23 Sept., many travel books include Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah 3 vols. (1855-56), 4 edns.; returned to India, 1856; Crimea 1855 leave of absence, with Speke on Nile; pioneering trip to Harare; wounded in attack on camp in Somaliland; sight of Lake Tanganyika, 14th Feb. 1858; sighted Victoria Nyanza; estranged from Speke on difference over source of Nile; Royal Geog. Medal; engagement not recognised by wife’s family; rapid run across N. America, producing book on City of the Saints (1861); m. Isabel Arundell, 1861, in Catholic chapel, 22 Jan.; families reconciled; his interest in erotica leads to translations of the Kama Sutra (1883), The Perfumed Garden (1886), and The Arabian Nights (1885-88).

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Dictionary of National Biography: There is a separate ODNB entry on his wife Isabel Arundell (1831-1896) - of Catholic family; descended from hereditary count of Papal Empire; m. Burton at Boulogne; mixed marriage permitted by Cardinal Wiseman; sec. and aide de camp of husband; except Arabian Nights [?err. for Kama Sutra]; author of Inner Life of Syria (1875, 1879), Arabia, Egypt, India (1879); devised method of Arabian Nights and deserves credit for financial success; constant efforts to further his career, regarding him as greatest Englishman of his time; devoted nurse in his last year; cottage in Mortlake; wrote biography; autobiography, ed. W. H. Wilkins in 1897, called Romance of Isabel Lady Burton; civil list pension; d. Baker St.; sole executor; burnt mss. of Scented Garden; destroyed his private diaries; permitted his trans. of Pentamerone and his verse rendering of Catullus (1894); commission memorial ed. of her husband’s better-known works; Life of Burton by Lady Burton, 2 vols. 1893; ed. version by Wilkins (1898).

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Justin McCarthy, gen. ed., Irish Literature (Washington: Catholic Univ. of America 1904), gives extracts incl. ‘A Journey in Disguise,’ from Personal Narrative [to] El Medinah.

Peter Harrington Books (Cat. 2005) lists Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah (London: Brown, Green & Longmans 1855-56), 1st edn., presentation copy; 3 vols.; contemp. half tan calf [£25,000].

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Proto-Dracula? Burton’s long canine teeth make him a candidate for consideration as a model of the title character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Barbara Belford, Bram Stoker, 1996, p.239 & ftn.) See also the following contribution by Victoria Hooper at Bookdrum > Dracula - online [accessed 01.10.2017]:

Sir Richard Burton
Jonathan Harker’s first meeting with Count Dracula: “The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking"
Bram Stoker wrote a book about his beloved friend Henry Irving, titled Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. In it, he records the time they met Sir Richard Burton, a Victorian explorer, writer, soldier and diplomat. Bram Stoker was struck by Burton’s ‘iron’ appearance, and the description given seems to match some of Dracula’s traits. Could Bram Stoker have been influenced by Richard Burton when creating the cruel, steely Count?
“But the man riveted my attention. He was dark, and forceful, and masterful, and ruthless. I have never seen so iron a countenance.” (p.224.)
“The predominant characteristics were the darkness of the face - the desert burning; the strong mouth and nose, and jaw and forehead - the latter somewhat bold - and the strong, deep, resonant voice. My first impression of the man as of steel was consolidated and enhanced.” (p.225.)
Compare the picture of Richard Burton [left] to this description of Dracula: “His face was a strong - a very strong - aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive ... The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking ... the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin.”

And, after Richard Burton remorselessly describes what it is like to kill a man: “As he spoke the upper lip rose and his canine tooth showed its full length like the gleam of a dagger.”- describing Richard Burton. (p.229.)

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James Joyce: Joyce owned an Italian translation [of Arabian Nights] in Trieste and the Sir Richard Francis Burton 1919 edition in Paris. (Brandon Kershner, ‘Ulysses and the Orient: in “ReOrienting Joyce”’, JJQ Special Issue, Winter-Spring 1998, p.273; quoted in Brad Bannon, ‘Joyce Coleridge and the Eastern Aesthetic’, in JJQ, Spring 2011, p.500.)

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