Richard Francis Burton

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Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (March 19, 1821 – October 20, 1890)

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (March 19, 1821 – October 20, 1890) was an English explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, ethnologist, linguist, poet, hypnotist, fencer and diplomat. He was known for his travels and explorations within Asia and Africa as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian, and African languages.

Burton's best-known achievements include traveling in disguise to Mecca, making an unexpurgated translation of The Book of One Thousand Nights and A Night (the collection is more commonly called The Arabian Nights in English because of Andrew Lang's abridgment) and the Kama Sutra and journeying with John Hanning Speke as the first white men guided by the redoubtable Sidi Mubarak Bombay to discover (for himself and his contemporaries) the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile. He was a prolific author and wrote numerous books and scholarly articles about subjects including travel, fencing and ethnography.

He was a captain in the army of the East India Company serving in India (and later, briefly, in the Crimean War). Following this he was engaged by the Royal Geographical Society to explore the east coast of Africa and led an expedition guided by the locals which discovered Lake Tanganyika. In later life he served as British consul in Fernando Po, Damascus and, finally, Trieste. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded a knighthood (KCMG) in 1886.

The Kama Shastra Society

Burton had long had an interest in sexuality and erotic literature. However, the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 had resulted in many jail sentences for publishers, with prosecutions being brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice (Burton referred to the society and those who shared its views as Mrs Grundy). A way around this was the private circulation of books amongst the members of a society. For this reason Burton, together with Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, created the Kama Shastra Society to print and circulate books that would be illegal to publish in public.

One of the most celebrated of all his books is his translation of the The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (more commonly known in English as The Arabian Nights because of Andrew Lang's abridged collection) in ten volumes, (1885) with six further volumes being added later. The volumes were printed by the Kama Shashtra Society in a subscribers-only edition of one thousand with a guarantee that there would never be a larger printing of the books in this form. The stories collected were often sexual in content and were considered pornography at the time of publication. In particular, the Terminal Essay of the Nights was one of the first English language texts to dare address the practice of pederasty which he postulated was prevalent in an area of the southern latitudes named by him the "Sotadic zone." Rumors about Burton’s own sexuality were already circulating and were further incited by this work.

Perhaps Burton's best-known book is his translation of The Kama Sutra. In fact, it is not really true that he was the translator since the original manuscript was in ancient Sanskrit which he could not read. However, he collaborated with Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot on the work and provided translations from other manuscripts of later translations. The Kama Shashtra Society first printed the book in 1883 and numerous editions of the Burton translation are in print to this day.

His English translation from a French edition of the Arabic erotic guide The Perfumed Garden was printed as The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefzaoui: A Manual of Arabian Erotology (1886). After Richard's death Isabel burnt many of his papers, including a manuscript of a subsequent translation, The Scented Garden, containing the final chapter of the work, on pederasty. It is interesting to note that Burton all along intended for this translation to be published after his death, to provide a competence for his widow, and also, as a final gesture of defiance against Victorian society.

Scandals in the life of Richard Burton

Burton pictured later in life.First, Burton's writing was unusually open and frank about his interest in sex and sexuality. His travel writing is often full of details about the sexual lives of the inhabitants of areas he travelled through. Burton's interest in sexuality led him to make measurements of the lengths of the sexual organs of male inhabitants of various regions which he includes in his travel books. He also describes sexual techniques common in the regions he visited, often hinting that he had participated, hence breaking both sexual and racial taboos of his day. Many people at the time considered the Kama Shastra Society and the books it published scandalous.

Biographers disagree on whether or not Burton ever experienced homosexual sex (he never directly acknowledges it in his writing). Allegations began in his army days when General Sir Charles James Napier requested that Burton go undercover to investigate a male brothel reputed to be frequented by British soldiers. It has been suggested that Burton's detailed report on the workings of the brothel may have led some to believe he had been a customer.

Burton was accused by some of murdering the boy who caught him urinating in European fashion on the trip to Mecca. Burton denied this, pointing out that killing the boy would almost certainly have led to his being discovered as an imposter. Burton became so tired of denying this accusation that he took to baiting his accusers. A doctor once asked him, "How do you feel when you have killed a man?" Burton retorted, "Quite jolly, what about you?" When asked by a priest about the same incident Burton is said to have replied "Sir, I'm proud to say I have committed every sin in the Decalogue."

These allegations coupled with Burton's often-irascible nature were said to have harmed his career and may explain why he was not promoted further, either in army life or in the diplomatic service. As an obituary described: "...he was ill fitted to run in official harness, and he had a Byronic love of shocking people, of telling tales against himself that had no foundation in fact." Ouida reported that "Men at the FO [Foreign Office]... used to hint dark horrors about Burton, and certainly justly or unjustly he was disliked, feared and suspected... not for what he had done, but for what he was believed capable of doing..." Whatever the truth of the many allegations made against him, Burton's interests and outspoken nature ensured that he was always a controversial character in his lifetime.

Selected writings of Richard Francis Burton

Burton also wrote a great number of journal and magazine pieces, many of which have never been catalogued. Over 200 of these have been collected in PDF facsimile format at burtoniana.org.



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