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.

He went on to become very deeply involved with the Royal Geological Society, for whom he made many discoveries about local cultures and history in what were then considered to be distant and exotic realms. An expedition to Zanzibar was launched in1856 to look for the source of the River Nile. But the trip was badly fated. Burton and his fellow journeyman, the explorer John Hanning Speke, both suffered badly from disease. In the end Speke almost went blind and Burton was so ill he could hardly walk. Much of their equipment was stolen, as well as vital living supplies, and the two men disagreed so much on where the source of the Nile might be that they finally agreed to part and continue their journeys home alone.

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.


  1. He sounds like a wonderful character. I'm definitely going to have to read more about him and I've just nipped over to Amazon and downloaded Vikram and the Vampire for free.

  2. I'm following you Rachel. Off to get a copy of Vikram and the Vampire...

  3. What an amazing life he created. You've done such a terrific job of distilling what must be an incredible amount of material on him. Really enjoyed it, it reads beautifully.

  4. Tiene usted un blog muy bonito e interesante, entrar en el es disfrutar de preciosas imágenes y de historia.
    Un abrazo.

  5. What a amazing life he leads that's really great.You always genious cause when i read your article really i feel too much glad,your writing skill is very nice and article also informative.thanks many many thanks for share its.if anyone interest about the musicle software or beat making software review this then just visit this site..Thank you again.

  6. Your articles are fascinating, I nominated you for a Gargie Award. http://rosesandvellum.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/gargie-award-and-very-inspiring-blogger.html

  7. I have a third edition two volume set of The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton published in 1897.My paternal great-great grandfather, Lord Pirbright had them in his personal library. They are an interesting read.Apparently Lady Isabel was fairly besotted with Sir Richard; according to her, she managed their dismal financial affairs, used family and social connections to promote his interests...and trekked after him whenever she scrape together the means to do so

  8. Thanks to all...and Meg, how fascinating.

  9. Great stuff. I never tire of reading about the magnificent Sir Richard!

  10. Thank you, Simon...such a character!

  11. can proudly say he was my great great great uncle

  12. Whoever you are, Anonymous - those are some genes to have in your blood!

  13. If you are interested in finding our more about Burton:

    Following the £3.8 million development project Transforming Orleans House, there is now a new Study Gallery at Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham showcasing nearly 100 works from the Richmond Borough Art Collection. This includes the Burton collection of paintings, photographs and objects donated to the nation by his widow Isabel, as well as some later acquisitions donated by author Mary Lovell. These are displayed in specially designed pull-out drawers and cupboards and are on permanent public display. Orleans House Gallery is open Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm and admission is free. The collection is now online and can be viewed here: https://www.orleanshousegallery.org/collection/

    There are also a number of Burton Collection items on display, including Burton’s boots, meteorite, bone necklace and a drawing by Letchford on his deathbed in the fascinating exhibition Collection Curiosities which runs until 25 November.

    1. Thank you. A wonderful resource. And a beautiful place to visit too.