Who Was Burton?

In a word, Richard Francis Burton was a contradiction.

Burton was perhaps one of the most brilliant men in an era of brilliant men, yet throughout his life he was unable to harness his prodigious mental abilities in any direction that did not interest him, even when there were immediate and important gains to be had. He was one of history's most courageous and intrepid explorers, but he seemed to care more for the act of exploration than for any exploitation of the effort. He was repeatedly handed opportunities of a lifetime, only to dismiss, squander and misuse them.

Burton's life seems consumed by a craving for understanding, a desire for wealth in any form (especially gold) and acceptance by his queen, his nation and his peers. Except in limited form, he never attained any of these goals — all too often because he sabotaged his own efforts. He spent the last thirty years of his life as a consul in the British ambassadorial service, a position for which he was roundly unsuited and in which he repeatedly came close to disgracing himself.

Yet for all that, Burton was an astonishingly accomplished man whose legacy of exploration, adventure, writing and translation seems too vast for any collection of five men, let alone one. Already a fluent speaker of several European languages at twenty, he learned two difficult Asian languages (Gujarati and Hindustani) in a short time to serve as a translator, and perhaps as a spy, for the British Army in India. He learned Arabic and visited the forbidden cities of Harar and then Mecca in an era when it was death for a non-Muslim to set foot there, and came away safely both times to write lengthy and detailed accounts of the journeys.

He headed an expedition to find the source of the Nile river, becoming with John Hanning Speke the first European to penetrate deep into East Africa and sight not one, but two immense lakes. (Which led to one of the great setbacks of his career when, on faulty evidence, Burton chose the wrong lake as the Nile source, while Speke, on other faulty evidence, chose the correct lake. The battle between the two men and the two lakes raged until conclusively settled almost twenty years later — it was Speke's Lake Victoria that sourced the Nile, not Burton's Tanganyika. Burton's reputation among his fellow explorers never fully recovered.)

Burton then traversed the wilds of the United States (including Utah, the west and San Francisco) just before the Civil War, extensively explored Western Africa, traversed South America and later explored Syria and other parts of the Middle East while accompanied by his wife. (An unlikely candidate for marriage and considered by some almost wholly unmarriagable, his marriage at 40 to a refined younger woman from an aristocratic family became a legendary pairing of love, companionship and mutual adventure.)

Amidst all this, he turned out book after book — one or several for each journey, each erudite to a fault, stuffed with observations, meteorological and other measurements, working grammars for languages he encountered (and learned!) and ethnological notes still referred to today. He wrote a book on falconry in India, a book on bayonet training, another book of sword exercises, and a book of offensive, libelous doggerel that his new wife tried to suppress. No few of these books touched on sensitive topics, often sexual, that were either omitted from the final publications (or their first reprints) or included only in dignified Latin comprehensible, in theory, only to those learned enough not to be titillated or shocked.

His consulate positions in the bight of Africa and Brazil served as bases for his explorations into West Africa and South America, but his long absences and dismal performance lost him both positions and nearly all other opportunities. Against the odds, he was given the position in Damascus, Syria, a region in which his languages and experience should have made him ideally suited. After all too short a time, his lack of political skill and finesse with the city's opposed factions resulted in him being all but run out of town.

In his final long and at least minimally successful tenure as consul at Trieste (now on the northeast tip of Italy; then part of Austria), he continued to turn out books, mostly translations of Arabic and Persian classics — including the massive and magnificent seventeen-volume translation of the interwoven Arabic folk tales known as Alf Layla wa LaylaThe Thousand Nights and a Night — or, after a subsequent popular abridgement, as the Arabian Nights.

In the end, Burton never gained more than modest financial security, and left Isabel with a need to press forward with final book contracts and raising public subscriptions to pay for his tomb and burial and her modest lifestyle after his passing. His reputation among his peers in the Royal Geographical Society and elsewhere was badly damaged by his long battle against Speke and the source of the Nile, and many of his genuine accomplishments were ignored or dismissed. His nation quite forgot him in his long absence from the country and the headlines. While his queen finally saw fit to recognize his life achievements, it was with a relatively paltry KCMG (Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George), which is frequently awarded to British Ambassadors, but which permitted the Burtons to style themselves Sir Richard and Lady Burton and little else.

Although Burton was the victim of abysmal bad luck at several critical points in his life — his father's decision to move back to France when he was about to set out on the usual English road to success of Eton/Harrow and Oxford/Cambridge; the illness that prevented him from accompanying Speke on the side expedition that would discover Lake Victoria; the Somali attack that scarred his face and nearly killed him — the primary cause of Burton's lack of traditional success was Burton himself. For every time fate dealt him an unkind card, there was a time (or two) that Burton himself threw in a winning hand to chase the next wild goose. Time and again he contrived to insult and offend the one person who could most help him to his next goal, or, when provoked, could do the most to obstruct him. More than once he managed to put himself in the wrong place or defend the wrong point. The man who had been a rowdy and uncontrollable “beast” in his youth does not seem to have ever learned the value of patience, humility and politics.

As for understanding... it is easy to see Burton's life as a search for understanding. His endless travels and explorations, his repeated immersions in exotic religious practices, his study of many forms of folklore and poetry... clearly, this is a man who was searching for something. Edward Rice, perhaps making too much of too little, called it a search for gnosis, secret religious knowledge. Whether that is accurate or not, it does not seem that Burton ever found the understanding he sought; his last writings are as long on questions and short on conclusions as his earliest.

If there is a concise answer to this essay's title question, it lies in a broad acceptance of Richard Francis Burton as a whole: the good and the bad, the admirable and the shameful, the strengths and the weaknesses, the virtues and the vices. Who was Burton? He was a man — a man quite unlike any other we know, but who even from this great remove of time I believe is worth knowing... and knowing well.

Page Updated 2008-07-22

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