Sir Richard Francis Burton - Born March 19th 1821 – Died October 20th 1890.
The VV must admit that she has long had something of a crush on Sir Richard Francis Burton, a notorious Victorian gentleman who could variously be described as one and all of the following: a soldier, explorer, a writer and poet, a translator, a hypnotist, an oriental scholar, a sexologist and diplomat ~ oh, and a smoker of opium who was said to be so devoted that even when in Africa searching for the source of the river Nile, he took his Indian ‘pipe boy’ whose job (and we won't allow any gossip to mar our hero's name) was to cart around his master’s pipes and smoking paraphernalia).
Richard Francis Burton was the son of an army officer. As a child he often accompanied his parents on frequent trips abroad, which no doubt helped to develop his natural curiosity, his passionate love of travelling and the learning of other languages. When a little older he attended a Richmond preparatory school before going to university at Trinity College, Oxford. There he studied Arabic and also physical pursuits such as fencing and falconry. However, his volatile nature often led to confrontations – including taking part in a duel when another student dared to mock the elaborate style of his moustache.
Leaving Oxford under something of a cloud – and trampling the college’s flower beds while departing in his carriage – Burton followed in his father’s profession and signed up with the army of the East India Company, posted with the18th Bombay Native Infantry who were then based at Gujarat. His facility as a linguist (he was said to speak 29 languages) made him quite invaluable in matters of surveillance during the Indian wars – in other words, he was a spy, and one whose dark and exotic looks were distinctly advantageous. He was very successful in this work, quite prepared to fully immerse himself in the study of Hindu culture - and to such an extent that he was accused of actually ‘going native’ and becoming a ‘white nigger’. One of his appointed ‘tasks’ was to visit male brothels where many of his fellow soldiers were thought to be indulging in unnatural, foreign practices. Well, that may well have been the case, but it soon became widely believed that Burton combined his business with pleasure and took that opportunity to enjoy the delights of the brothels himself – though he never did admit this. However, when once questioned about morality he was reputed to have said, 'Sir, I'm proud to say I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.'
Burton certainly revelled in danger, so much so that in 1853 he took a year’s leave from the Company and undertook a ‘Hajj’ or pilgrimage to Mecca, an adventure for which he disguised himself as an Arab. The consequent account of that, along with all that he had learned about the Islamic faith led to Burton’s great renown.
Sir Richard Burton with the scar on his cheek that was caused by a warrior's spear.
During this time Burton kept many detailed notes regarding the geography and the local populations. He continued to have adventures which included being attacked by more than a hundred warriors, that leading to a permanent scar when the tip of a spear pierced through his cheek.
Isabel Arundell - who became Sir Richard Burton's wife
Back home again in England, his dispute with John Speke became bitter and public. It only came to an end when, in 1864, Speke died in a shooting accident – though some considered it suicide and blamed Burton for the tragedy. After this, Burton joined the Foreign Office as consul in Fernando Po, an island off West Africa. But he did not take along the wife who he'd married in 1861, because it was considered that the climate would not suit her health. But then they had what might be called, even by modern standards, something of an unconventional marriage - and that followed a secret engagement when Isabel's family refused to accept a man not rich, or Catholic - and presumably they might have heard a few other rumours going round.
An illustration from Vikram and the Vampire - a Hindu tale of devilry translated by Burton
The couple were reunited in 1865 when Burton was stationed in Brazil, after which, in 1869, they moved to Damascus and, later, Trieste. It was during this period in his life that Burton wrote prolifically – much about his travels, but also involved in translating classical and Renaissance literature. We must thank him for Vikram and the Vampire which was published in 1870 – a collection of Indian Hindu tales. He brought us the delights of The Arabian Nights. His interest in eastern erotica led to the English versions of the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden.
Isabel Burton in later life
He was knighted in 1886, and this despite all scandals and his open sexual nature. He really cared very little for the prurient Victorian attitude that once led him to his prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. To counteract the inconvenience of that his translations were afterwards privately printed, then distributed to admirers without any fear of legal redress. But later, following his death, and no doubt dreading any more slurs to damage their reputation, Isabel Burton proceeded to burn what remained of her husband’s papers, including those already drawn up for a new translation of The Perfumed Garden in which Burton had wanted to include a chapter on pederasty, otherwise known as the ‘love of boys’.
Isabel and her husband are buried in a Catholic churchyard in West London’s Mortlake, in a tomb in the shape of a Bedouin tent. As another reference to the man, the church has a stained glass memorial window, and many of his personal effects, including paintings and photographs, are kept at the Orleans House Gallery which is situated in Twickenham.