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Burton, Sir Richard Francis

Category: Explorer or adventurer

Richard Burton painted by Frederic Leighton ca. 1872-1875

Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (19 March 1821 – 20 October 1890) was a British explorer, geographer, translator, travel writer, poet, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, linguist, fencer, and diplomat. He was known for his travels and explorations in Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures.

Burton 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 and was the first European to see Lake Tanganyika.

In later life, he served as British consul in Fernando Pó, Santos, Damascus and, finally, Trieste. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded a knighthood (KCMG) in 1886.

Burton and sex

One of Burton’s principle claims to fame were his female conquests and his interest in sex – of all sorts.  Burton was later accused of pederasty and homosexuality [then a crime in the UK], but he was just fascinated by sex – of all sorts. 

Burton's writings are unusually [for their day] 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 even 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.

Burton in appearance was strikingly magnetic. Lesley Blanch, in one study, described him as 'a darkling Heathcliff, indescribably alluring to the Victorian miss'.

Arthur Symons
He was Arab in his prominent cheek-bones. He was gypsy in his terrible magnetic eyes-the sullen eyes of a stinging serpent. He had a deeply bronzed complexion, a determined mouth, half-hidden by a black moustache which hung down in a peculiar fashion on both sides of his chin. His face has no actual beauty in it; it reveals a tremendous animalism, an air of repressed ferocity, a devilish fascination. There is an almost tortured magnificence in his huge head, tragic and painful, with its mouth that aches with desire, with those dilated nostrils that drink in I know not what strange perfumes.'

Sir Richard Francis Burton

by Ernest Edwards, published by Alfred William Bennett
albumen print, published 1865

When he was young his family travelled between England, France, and Italy. Burton showed an early gift for languages and quickly learned French, Italian, Neapolitan, and Latin, as well as several dialects. During his youth, he was rumoured to have carried on an affair with a young Roma (Gypsy) woman, even learning the rudiments of her language, Romani.

Wilfrid Blunt 1867:

'His dress and appearance were those suggesting a released convict rather than anything of more repute. He reminded me by turns of a black leopard, caged but unforgiving, and again with his close cut poll and iron frame of that wonderful creation of Balzac's, the ex-gallerien Vautrin, hiding his grim identity under an Abbe's cassock. He wore, habitually, a rusty black coat with a crumpled black silk stock, his throat destitute of collar, a costume which his muscular frame and immense chest made singularly and incongruously hideous, above it a countenance the most sinister I have ever seen, dark, cruel, treacherous, with eyes like a wild beast's. . . . In his talk he affected an extreme brutality, and if one could have believed the whole of what he said, he had indulged in every vice and committed every crime. . . .  He had a power of assuming the abominable which cannot be exaggerated. I remember once his insisting that I should allow him to try his mesmeric power on me and his expression as he gazed into my eyes was nothing less than atrocious. . . . [Nevertheless] the ferocity of his countenance gave place at times to more agreeable expressions, and I can just understand the infatuated fancy of his wife that in spite of his ugliness he was the most beautiful man alive


Indian life

the scar was caused by a spear that pierced
both cheeks during his African travels

Burton was not merely oriental to look at. He was oriental in thought. Following a rough education first on the continent and later at Oxford, he went to Bombay in 1842 as an ensign in the Indian army. From Bombay he moved to Baroda in Gujarat and in 1844 he was posted to Sind. There he was seconded from the army to do survey work and this brought him into daily touch with Indian life. For this he had quickly developed a deep relish.

He threw himself into languages. He learnt Hindustani, Sindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian and in 1844, aided by two Persian tutors, he began moving in Indian society in disguise. He also opened three shops in Karachi, the better to glean information. Burton went Indian, and, as a result, came to know Indian life with startling intimacy. And included in this were his “sexual adventures”.  He ‘installed’ an Indian girl as his semi-permanent mistress – and there are even passages in his fragments of autobiography which list the pros and cons of such an arrangement.

Basically Sir Richard Burton had a general interest in the whole place of sex in Indian life. He believed that to understand an alien culture, certainly an oriental one, it was necessary to know how a people lived and this could only be done by discovering their ‘intimate concerns’.


Sir Richard Burton - Terminal Essay to the Arabian Nights:
To assert that such lore is unnecessary is to state, as every traveller knows, an ”absurdam". Few phenomena are more startling than the vision of a venerable infant, who has lived half his long life in the midst of the wildest anthropological vagaries and monstrosities, and yet who absolutely ignores all that India and Burmah enacts under his very eyes. Against such lack of knowledge my notes are a protest; and I may claim success despite the difficulty of the task.  In this matter I have done my best, at a time too when the hapless English traveller is expected to write like a young lady for young ladies, and never to notice what underlies the most superficial stratum. And I also maintain that the free treatment of topics usually taboo'd will be a national benefit to an "empire of Opinion" whose very basis and buttresses are a thorough knowledge by the rulers of the ruled.'

He wrote:

In 1845, when Sir Charles Napier had conquered and annexed Sind . . the veteran began to consider his conquest with a curious eye. It was reported to him that Karachi, a townlet of some 2,000 souls and distant not more than a mile from camp supported no less than three bordels in which not women but boys and eunuchs, the former (i.e. the boys) demanding nearly a double price, Iay for hire. …………… Being then the only British officer who could speak Sindi, I was asked indirectly to make enquiries and report upon the subject; and I undertook the task on the express condition that my report should not be forwarded to the Bombay Government.


Accompanied by one  Mirza Muhammed Hosayn of Shiraz, and dressed as a merchant, ‘Mirza Abdullah the Bushiri’ (Burton) passed “many an evening” in the townlet visiting said establishments and obtained the ‘fullest details’ which were duly dispatched to Government House.

Unfortunately his very detailed research found its way with sundry other reports to Bombay and resulted in his ‘summary dismissal’.  He returned to England preceded by his reputation.

His name was placed as the translator of the Kama sutra, but in fact the Kama sutra was not translated by him.  His reputation, however, helped enormously to raise its profile in the west.  Burton thus helped to start to break down the repression and prudery that was part of Victorian and to perhaps a lesser extent European life.   

It is clear this was one of his stated aims in helping promote the book.  In the 1860s Burton had founded the Anthropological society , which grew eventually to over 500 members, whose aim was to rescue the information travellers obtained on social and sexual matters and enable it to be printed.  But “hardly had we begun when ‘respectability’, - that whited sepulchre full of uncleanness, - rose up against us.  ‘Propriety cried us down with her brazen blatant voice and the weak kneed brethren fell away”.


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. 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.

The actual organiser and editor of the translation of the Kama sutra was the gentle rather unassuming Arbuthnot.  A humane and kindly man, he had undertaken the task of translation principally to improve the lot of women, to show men how much better they needed to be treated.  In Burton, however, he recognised not only a useful promoter of the book, but a front for himself, a larger than life personality behind whom he could hide. 

Burton’s friendship with Arbuthnot, which began in 1855, lasted his whole life.  In 1885, when dedicating the fourth volume of the Arabian Nights to Arbuthnot, Burton referred to a friendship which by then had 'lasted nearly a third of a century'. In 1890, Burton died and his widow wrote saying that she was keeping for Arbuthnot Burton's gold chain as a memorial since he was 'his best friend'.  Alone of all his friends, Burton called Arbuthnot by a pet-name, 'Bunnie'. Until 1879, when Arbuthnot retired to Guildford and at last married, their friendship depended on letters.

Journey to Mecca and other adventures

In 1853, motivated by his love of adventure, Burton got the approval of the Royal Geographical Society for an exploration of the area, and he gained permission from the board of directors of the British East India Company to take leave from the army. His seven years in India had given Burton a familiarity with the customs and behaviour of Muslims and he prepared to attempt a Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca and, in this case, Medina). It was this journey, undertaken in 1853, which first made Burton famous.  Although Burton was certainly not the first non-Muslim European to make the Hajj his pilgrimage is the most famous and the best documented of the time. He adopted various disguises including that of a Pashtun to account for any oddities in speech, but he still had to demonstrate an understanding of intricate Islamic traditions, and a familiarity with the minutiae of Eastern manners and etiquette. Burton's trek to Mecca was dangerous, and his caravan was attacked by bandits (a common experience at the time).

W G Archer – Preface to the Kama sutra

In exciting and fascinating Victorian society, Burton appeared as the ardent traveller, the pilgrim to Mecca, the explorer of the Nile, the penetrator of dense tropical highlands, the grim adventurer, fighting his way out of ambushes, the savage outsider. …Burton communicated a frisson, an almost surrealist shock. His travels may well have fulfilled some private need. They may also have been the working out of the supposed Arab or gypsy strain in his blood. ….. Each visit to a country drove Burton to write a travel book, to record in words his journeys and experiences. His books were sometimes roughly, even awkwardly written, but they also contained passages of vivid description or brilliant rhythmical prose.

The Kasidah and other works

an illustration to Arabian Nights

Many of his best known books were considered risqué or even pornographic at the time they were published and were published under the auspices of the Kama Shastra society.

As already stated some of these were not even translated by him, he simply lent his name to them.  The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana (1883) (popularly known as the Kama Sutra), for example is one.

One of the most celebrated of all his books is his translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (commonly called The Arabian Nights in English), in ten volumes, (1885) with six further volumes being added later. The volumes were printed by the Kama Shastra Society in a subscribers-only edition of one thousand. The stories were considered pornography at the time of publication.

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).

But there is one book of poems that stands out in all the books actually written by him and that is a book said to have been composed on his return journey from Mecca - The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî (1870).  The Kasidah has been cited as evidence of Burton's status as a Bektashi Sufi.

Deliberately presented by Burton as a translation, the poem and his notes and commentary on it, contain layers of Sufic meaning, that seem to have been designed to project Sufi teaching in the West.

Introduction to the Kasidah
This was written by Sir Richard Burton under the pseudonym of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî after his return from Mecca in 1854. Observant readers will note that the Kasîdah contains many references to 19th Century scientific and philosophical concepts, most notably the evolution of species. Nonetheless, it is a Sufi text to the core, and one of the few instances of Burton writing in the first person about his belief system, albeit under the cloak of pseudonymity. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a Kasidah is a classical Arabic or Persian panegyric.


Burton died in Trieste early on the morning of 20 October 1890 of a heart attack. His wife Isabel who was Catholic, persuaded a priest to perform the last rites, although Burton himself was not a Catholic.


Isabel never recovered from the loss. After his death she burned many of her husband's papers, including journals and a planned new translation of The Perfumed Garden to be called The Scented Garden, which she regarded as his "magnum opus". She believed she was acting to protect her husband's reputation, and that she had been instructed to burn the manuscript of The Scented Garden by his spirit.

The couple are buried in a remarkable tomb in the shape of a Bedouin tent, designed by Isabel in the cemetery of St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church Mortlake in southwest London.


We have selected extracts from the Kasidah.  The full text can be found on the sacred texts website.



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