Sir Richard Francis Burton is best remembered for his explorations around the world, primarily in Africa and Asia, and for collecting an incredible amount of knowledge regarding culture and language. Over the course of his life, Burton reportedly mastered at least 26 different languages, possibly even 40 if distinct dialects are taken into account. Along with dabbling in pipe smoking, Burton was a linguist, soldier, writer, spy, explorer, fencer, and diplomat — among many other titles and accolades. He was a remarkably talented and curious man, always seeking to learn about anything he could and he accomplished more in his first four decades of life than most do during their entire lifetime.
Burton, born in 1821, was the oldest of three children and because his father was an officer in the British Army, the family traveled extensively throughout his youth. However, his parents hired tutors to ensure the children kept up with their education. They would travel to England, Italy, and France and Burton was immensely talented at learning languages with French, Italian, and Latin being some of the earliest Burton learned. Despite being an intelligent child, Burton was fiercely independent and viewed himself as an outsider, balking at formal education and possessing a disdain for authority.
Although he was a seemingly natural contrarian, Burton enrolled at Trinity College, Oxford in 1840 to continue his academic studies and begrudgingly attempted to fulfil his father's wish that his son become a bishop. While he showed great promise as a student, Burton was allegedly antagonised by his teachers and peers and at one point challenged an upperclassman to a duel for laughing at his moustache. Burton had few friends at Trinity College and dedicated his time to learning Arabic while also partaking in fencing and driving tandem in his spare time.
Unhappy and desperate for a way to leave college, Burton along with a group of students planned to attend a steeplechase, a horse race where competitors jump various obstacles and was an event the school forbade students from attending. The college learned about it and when it was time for punishment, Burton expected to be suspended with the possibility of reinstatement, but due to his cavalier attitude and refusal to apologize for attending the forbidden race, Burton was permanently expelled. As a final gesture of defiance, Burton took his horse and carriage on a long and circuitous route out of Oxford, trampling a myriad of flower beds along the way.
In 1842, Burton enlisted in the army of the East India Company, surmising that he was "fit for nothing but to be shot at for six pence a day." During his time stationed in India, Burton continued his studies, shifting his focus to Hindu culture and became a proficient speaker in the region's various languages and dialects. He also notably had a large menagerie of domesticated monkeys that he kept in the hopes that he would learn their language.
Burton's peculiar habits and concentrated cultural studies were considered unusual by his fellow soldiers, many accused him of "going Native" due to him actively participating in Indian culture and religion. But his impressive linguistics skills and ability to seamlessly assimilate with local cultures made him an ideal spy for the British Army, often going days without breaking character and even fooling confidants when on classified missions. Along with participating in clandestine operations, Burton was renowned for his fighting skills and earned the nickname "Ruffian Dick" because he had "fought in single combat more enemies than perhaps any other man of his time." He would spend several years in India before obtaining permission from his superiors to take sick leave from the army due to inflammation in his eyes, spending two years in England and France. It was during this period that he wrote his first book, continued to refine his fencing skills, and met his future wife, Isabel.
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.
Burton also continued to explore his fascination with culture and religion by developing his most ambitious idea yet — attempting a pilgrimage to Mecca. This was something that Burton conceived while stationed in India but over course of his leave from the army, he was able to formulate a plan. He obtained funding from the Royal Geographical Society for his bold, unprecedented adventure with the stipulation that he would receive payment only if he survived the trip, but he received a small stipend to help him get started. Burton laboriously prepared to understand the intricacies of Islamic traditions, familiarizing himself with Eastern manners and etiquette before leaving for his hazardous journey.
One of the motivating factors for Burton was his goal to "prove, by trial that what might be perilous to other travelers was safe to me." If it was discovered he was a Westerner, it would mean certain death for the explorer. "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," Burton later wrote.
A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah
He began his dangerous journey in 1853, disguised as a sheikh named Mirza Abdullah and joined a caravan headed to Mecca. His adventure was nearly cut short when a group of marauders attacked the caravan, killing a dozen of the pilgrims before they managed to push them back. Once he reached Mecca, Burton donned the appropriate Ihram clothing to visit the venerated Holy Sites. He navigated his way through crowds of people, making his way toward the Black Stone and theorized it was some sort of meteorite. Before completing his journey, Burton visited the Kaaba, located in the Great Mosque of Mecca and followed the proper prayer steps to come out unscathed. Throughout his journey, Burton took extensive notes and drew various sketches of the landmarks and scenery he encountered. He would go on to recount his experiences in A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, offering a detailed account of Arab culture and solidifying his reputation as a keen observer. Burton later described his expedition, saying, "I have been exposed to perils, and I have escaped from them ... and my heart is moved with emotions of gratitude that I have been permitted to effect the objects I had in view."
Pipe smoking would be referenced in his book, with Burton referring to the Arabic word "kayf," to describe the peacefulness of taking in the scenery and seeking a tranquil state of mind:
"In the East, man requires but rest and shade: upon the banks of a bubbling stream, or under the cool shelter of a perfumed tree, he is perfectly happy, smoking a pipe, or sipping a cup of coffee, or drinking a glass of sherbet, but, above all things, deranging body and mind as little as possible. The trouble of conversations, the displeasures of memory, and the vanity of thought being the most unpleasant interruptions to his Kayf."
Ever the restless adventurer, Burton, disguised himself as an Arab merchant and set out in 1855 to become the first modern European known to have entered the city of Harar in present-day Ethiopia, a dangerous center for the slave trade that was notoriously hostile to outsiders. His trip was funded by the Royal Geographical Society, with the goal of the expedition being to explore the interior of Somalia and surrounding areas but Burton had also hoped to discover the large lakes that he heard about from Arab travelers.
Burton, still in disguise, would spend ten days as the Prince's guest, although some theorized Burton was held as a prisoner. "I was under the roof of a bigoted prince whose least word was death; amongst a people who detest foreigners; the only European that had ever passed over their inhospitable threshold, and the fated instrument of their future downfall," Burton would later write about his stay.
His journey through the African continent continued with one night in particular showcasing Burton's fearlessness and determination. While camped in a remote area on the Horn of Africa, Burton and his party were attacked by a large group of Somali warriors in the middle of the night, with various accounts placing the number between two or three hundred men. Burton, who was a master swordsman thanks to years of fencing, grabbed his sword to fight off the attackers in the darkness. During the ensuing fight, Burton was speared through the left side of his jaw with a javelin, reportedly destroying his soft palate and four of his back teeth and creating a scar that's readily visible in many subsequent photographs. He continued fighting but was forced to retreat with the javelin still lodged in his jaw.
After heading back to England to recuperate, Burton's next adventure in 1856 was again funded by the Royal Geographical Society to survey the African Great Lakes with the hopes of discovering the source of the Nile River. He was joined by John Hanning Speke, a British aristocrat, and they embarked on their "safari," a word Burton introduced to the English language.
They would hike for over two years throughout central Africa while batting tropical diseases and fevers, encountering cannibalistic tribes, and simply trying to survive. After hiking hundreds of miles, Speke and Burton arrived in Ujiji and reached the African Great Lakes in 1858. Burton would be the first European to see Lake Tanganyika, the world's longest freshwater lake, since Speke was temporarily blind from illness. They continued onward, with Speke recovering while Burton became sick and required rest. Speke would eventually reach another lake, naming it Lake Victoria after the Queen and claimed it was the source of the Nile. Burton pressed Speke for proof of his claim but he was unable to convince Burton, who ultimately deemed the disaster-ridden expedition to be a total failure. Years later, they were set to formally debate Speke's unsubstantiated claim but the day before the debate, Speke died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound he suffered while hunting and was attributed as an accident though Burton claimed it was suicide.
In the East, man requires but rest and shade: upon the banks of a bubbling stream, or under the cool shelter of a perfumed tree, he is perfectly happy, smoking a pipe, or sipping a cup of coffee, or drinking a glass of sherbet, but, above all things, deranging body and mind as little as possible.
The later years of Burton's life were significantly quieter compared to his early life, serving as an English diplomat to what is now Bioko in Equatorial Guinea, but he continued to seek out adventure when he could. He explored the West African coast, canoed down fierce rivers, attempted to find gorillas, and was struck by lightning during one outing. In recognition of his service and accomplishments as an Englishman, Burton was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1886. He dedicated his final years to writing and translating various works of foreign literature with his most famous being an English translation of One Thousand and One Nights, before succumbing to a heart attack in 1890 at the age of 69. His mausoleum, designed by his wife Isabel, is a dedication to his adventurous lifestyle and is shaped in the style of a Bedouin tent with Isabel being buried there as well when she passed away six years later.
Sir Richard Francis Burton was a tireless traveler who constantly sought adventure, presenting invaluable knowledge to various fields and was a significant contributor to several other studies. His legendary accomplishments continue to inspire modern day adventurers while his cultural investigations were far ahead for their time and never seemed to obtain the appreciation they deserved. He led a fascinating life that many could only dream of, achieving remarkable feats if only just to prove to himself he was capable of them.
Tomb of Sir Richard Burton