“Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton” by Edward Rice


Richard Burton, British. Occupation: Adventurer, Linguist, Author. Intensely driven by a compulsion to explore the unknown and then write it up in books.

He started out traveling all over Europe as a boy and young man. Then he was off to India as a soldier with the East India Company. He didn’t see much military action, but carried out numerous “secret missions” for Gen. Napier. (Unfortunately, they were apparently so secret that nothing really remains to document what he did; a shame.) Wherever he went, Burton liked to mingle with the natives, seemingly trying to become one of them by participating in their rituals, learning their language, and … sleeping with their women. Burton completely rejected traditonal Victorian morality. This and other character traits (I never got the impression of Burton as a “nice guy”) undoubtedly ruffled some feathers with those back home.

Burton also seemed to be seeking for some sort of missing spirituality in his life. He had great interest in immersing himself in the “mystical” aspects of the cultures and religions he studied. At one point he joined a Hindu snake cult and later a group of Sufi Muslims. Disguised as a native, he became a hajji by making the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the first Europeans to (illicitly) do so and then live to write about it.

Still not done with adventuring, he journeyed through eastern Africa, searching for the source of the Nile with the (comparitively) bumbling and boorish Speke.

Burton was quite popular due to his books and his skills were ackowledged by the British government, although many seemed to be wary of him as somewhat of a loose cannon or a foreigner himself, despite his British birth. Some of these misgivings forced him out of a choice diplomatic post in Damascus, and saw him shuttered away in a much “safer” post in Trieste. The days of adventure were mostly done; he passed the time continuing to write and translate, particularly erotic works (see above re: Victorian morality…)

In somewhat less exotic circumstances, Burton also visited Salt Lake City to investigate the Mormons.  He wrote a book about it, and was apparently not unimpressed with Brigham and the Saints.  He also described Mormonism as at least as mature and fleshed out as any of the other religions he knew.

Interesting fellow who traveled far. I hope he found what he was looking for.

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