Sir Richard Burton: Knight of the Orient

For years Sindbad, the Sailor, Alladin's Magic Lamp and Alibaba and Forty Thieves have delighted generation of readers, young and old alike.. These tales are part of a vast collection of stories One Thousand and One Nights, popularly known as Arabian Nights.

Written hundreds of years ago in Arabic, these tales of the exotic East largely remained unknown to the English-speaking world until Sir Richard Francis Burton first translated them into English in appealing style in 1885.

While the tales of Arabian Nights are no doubt thrilling, the life of Sir Richard himself reads like a story more sensational and exciting than the tales he translated.

Sir Richard Francis Burton
Sir Richard Francis Burton

In The Exotic East

Richard Burton was a versatile genius.

In addition to being an incredible linguist – he is said to have commanded 29 languages – Burton was a writer, explorer, geographer, orientalist, fencer, soldier and diplomat, all rolled into one.

Born in 1821 in the family of an Irish colonel , Richard had an innate affinity for learning languages. So when his father was posted to different countries in Europe, young Richard picked up a number of languages and when he went to Oxford, he studied Arabic there.

However,Richard got the chance of his lifetime to see the exotic east as it was when he joined the East India Company Army and went to Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1842.

His swarthy complexion, coupled with his mastery over various Eastern languages helped him pass as an Arab, Persian or Afghan without detection. At times he disguised himself as a native shopkeeper in Karachi and as a vendor of fine linen in countryside.

Burton in Arab Dress
Burton in Arab Dress

Perilous Adventures

Burton's military duties must have been rather light because in 1853 he obtained a leave of absence and embarked upon a most hazardous and un-heard of adventure – pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina! The danger lay in the fact that no non-Muslim is allowed in these sacred cities of Islam. A slightest slip would lead to discovery which carried the penalty of death. But Burton passed the test with flying colors, disguised as Haji Abdullah of Afghanistan.

It is believed that Burton's knowledge of Arabia, its language, customs and religion was so deep that sometimes he was consulted for solving knotty disputes even. It was in Arabia that he heard the famous tales of the Arabian Nights which were to make him immortal.

As if the Haj pilgrimage wasn't enough, Burton entered Somaliland in the garb of an Arab merchant. Even though the Sultan of the land had sworn that no foreigner would ever set his polluted foot in his capital Harar, Burton stayed there with a retinue of servants for more than 10 days and even was a guest of the Sultan for some time.

After Somaliland, the next item on the adventure list of Richard Burton was the Crimean War from where he returned to England after one year.

Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria as seen from the shores of the Speke Resort in Kampala, Uganda.
Lake Victoria as seen from the shores of the Speke Resort in Kampala, Uganda. | Source

Quest For The Source of Nile

His future wife Isabel whom Burton had met in 1851 thought now at last the time had come when her long-enduring love would be requited by marriage. But her hopes could not be fulfilled yet. The marriage had to be postponed indefinitely because Burton had stumbled upon another ambition. He aimed to determine the source of the River Nile, a mystery that had baffled explorers for centuries.

June 14, 1857 saw a small scantily-provided expedition headed by Richard Burton leave Zanzibar. Burton and his companion Capt John Speke had to face mysterious fevers, paralytic attacks and spells of blindness on the way. But the end to the journey more than compensated the afflications suffered by the explorers. After eight harrowing months, Burton reached the shores of Lake Tanganyika which no European had seen till then.

For thirty days, Burton sailed the Lake Tanganyika in canoes fashined from trunks, braving storms. When he found that the source of the Nile still remained to be discovered, he returned to the coast after giving detailed instructions Capt Speke for carrying on the quest.

Six weeks later Capt Speke returned drunk with excitement – he had at last solved the mystery of Nile - he had found its source, a vast body of water which he named Lake Victoria.

Burton - in later life
Burton - in later life

Diplomatic Career

In course of his diplomatic career, Burton was sent to Damascus in 1869 as British Consul. Once again he was in the land he knew and loved with all his heart. He at once began to explore the mountains, monuments, mosques and cities of Syria, collecting precious geographical date.

But the happiness of Burton was short-lived. Burton's friendship with Arabs soon turned into animosity. One of the reasons cited for this is said to be the conduct of his wife Isabel. It is believed that Isabel Burton a fanatical Christian, had embarked upon a Quixotic task of converting Muslims to Christianity. If true, this was an activity which was sure to antagonize the Muslim Arabs.

While what is ascribed to Isabel may or may not be based on fact, the area was certainly in some turmoil at the time with considerable tensions between the Christian, Jewish and Muslim populations. Burton did his best to keep the peace and resolve the situation but this often led him into trouble with one group or another.

According to Burton at one time he luckiily escaped an attack by hundreds of armed horsemen and camel riders which were sent to kill him. The result of all this was that fearing for Burton's safety the Foreign Office recalled him from Syria and posted him to Trieste (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1871.

Arabic manuscript of Arabian Nights dating back to 1300s
Arabic manuscript of Arabian Nights dating back to 1300s
A scene from the Arabian Nights
A scene from the Arabian Nights

A Master Tale-Teller

Burton's restless spirit could not let him settle down to the dull routine of a consular office though at the same time he could not hope for an opportunity to explore the exotic East any more. The work he had to do as a consul did not excite him. So to combat the boredom he had turned to writing. Here the copious notes that he had taken during all the years of wandering and exploring came to his aid.

His translation of Arabian Nights appeared in 1885. At that time the Anglo-Saxon prejudice was high against explicit books which were looked upon more as pornography than works of art. Even then his work comprising 16 volumes of marvelous tales translated literally and with copious annotations was received as a masterpiece.

Encouraged by the success of Arabian Nights, Burton set about translating another Arabic work – Cheikh Nefzaoui's The Perfumed Garden. Burton had published the translation of the same work in 1886. However the work he had commenced upon now was to be titled The Scented Garden, Men's Hearts to Gladden and was to be more detailed and possibly more revealing.

Here Burton was overtaken by fate.

He did not live to see his magnum opus published. He died on October 20, 1890, just a day after he had finished the last page.

But the cycle of fate had not run its full course. A blow was still to come.

When Lady Burton (Burton was knighted in 1886 in recognition of 25 years of diplomatic service) came across the manuscript of the last book of her husband, she was horrified by its indecency. Even an offer of £ 6300 – a princely sum in those days – did not induce her to let it be published. Instead she set a match to the pages and thus deprived the world of a masterpiece of a master writer.

Sir Richard's Tent-shaped Tomb

Eternal Traveler 's Last Camping Ground

Burton died in Trieste early on the morning of 20 October 1890 of a heart attack. However his body was brought to England and buried in Mortlake, London.

Burton was a compulsive wanderer having travelled over Asia and Africa extensively. He even had a chance to roam over a part of Latin America. when he was posted to Brazil in 1865 as a British Consul at Santos. Once there, Burton traveled through Brazil's central highlands, canoeing down the Sao Francisco river from its source to the falls of Paulo Afonso.

Sir Richard Burton's tent-shaped tomb in Surrey is a fitting monument to this eternal traveler's unquenched wanderlust..

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Comments 6 comments

Laila Rajaratnam profile image

Laila Rajaratnam 7 years ago from India

Surefire,such an amazing story!I had never bothered to check out the story behind the famous Tales!You have described the story of Sir Richard Burton so very interesting and captivating!Thanks for sharing this and enlighteneing us!


Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 6 years ago from South East Asia

A great man who I have long admired. Thanks for your hub. I have linked to it today as well as voting up.


surefire profile image

surefire 6 years ago Author

@Peter Dickinson

Thanks for your kind words as well linking and thumbs up.


Lady Guinevere profile image

Lady Guinevere 6 years ago from West Virginia

Wow I don't believe tht I missed this one. At first glance I thought it was about the actor Richard Burton of whom I am related, but no... this man was a greater man. It would have been nice to read that book that his wife burned. People get too wrapped up in the body for some reason.


surefire profile image

surefire 6 years ago Author

@Lady Guinevere

My feelings exactly like lots others who also would have relished that book by this master.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.


Orleans House Gallery 5 years ago

Orleans House Gallery announces Journeys

- Stories of the World: London to transform London’s museums through its biggest ever youth engagement project -

Orleans House Gallery launches Journeys, which has involved more than 80 local young people from the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and is part of the Cultural Olympiad project, Stories of the World: London. This project is transforming 23 London museums across 17 boroughs by drawing on the skills, energy and enthusiasm of young Londoners to help them tell the story of London as a world city.

Journeys: Stories of the World will see the gallery hosting an exhibition to celebrate the culmination of this year-long project. Taking the personal effects of explorer Sir Richard Burton as inspiration, the exhibition investigates the theme of journeys through contemporary art interventions created by local young people and artists from around the world.

The exhibition will include inspiring artwork created by local young people in response to Burton’s travels, and work by internationally-renowned contemporary artists including Piyali Ghosh, Maha Malluh and Gerard Quenum. Free to the public from 29 January - 22 May 2011, visitors to the exhibition will be able to enjoy paintings, photograms, film, animation, and sculpture as well as intriguing artefacts from Burton’s expeditions.

Stories of the World: London is part of London 2012 Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World and is the biggest youth engagement project ever undertaken by UK museums. The project is giving young people the unique opportunity to work with museum staff from across all departments and to explore, reinterpret and be inspired by museums collections, giving a new perspective on the stories that they tell us about our place in the world.

In London, the project is led by Renaissance London and will see 1,000 young people, aged 14 – 24, involved. Inspired by the museum collections, young people will create artworks, films, performances, music, poetry, fashion shows, podcasts – and culminate in four major exhibitions in 2012 at the lead museums of Museum of London, Geffrye Museum, Horniman Museum and London Transport Museum. Stories of the World: London will reach a million people from 2009 to 2012.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson said: “Key to the success of 2012, in cultural as well as sporting terms, will be inspiring young people – to get involved, to aim high and to do the best they can. London has an incredibly rich variety of museums, from the world-renowned to smaller, local treasures. Stories of the World will put young people in the driving seat giving them a chance to curate exhibitions and collections – bringing a fresh perspective to the telling of our city's and our nation's history.”

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