Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, British military officer, diplomat, explorer, geographer, linguist, translator, ethnographer, and fencer.

Burton's accomplishments are far too numerous to list here, but include the first English translation of The Arabian Nights, some of the first serious study of native peoples in Africa, South Asia and South America, extensive exploration of Africa in search of the source of the Nile, and a visit to Mecca at a time when the city was forbidden on pain of death to non-Muslims (he successfully disguised himself as an Egyptian doctor for the trip).

Burton is said to have numerous languages with native fluency, and was also reputed to have been the best fencer of his day in Europe. He figures prominently as a character in Phillip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series.

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, b. 1821, d. 1890.

Soldier and spy of the British Empire, explorer and cartographer of the Sind and Punjab (India and Pakistan), the Far East (China) and the Middle East, scholar/translator of Islamic & Indian literature and erotica, author of The Kasidah. British contemporary of Queen Victoria, Karl Marx, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Babbage and William Thompson, aka Lord Kelvin.

Burton came from a military family posted in through Mediterranean Europe (France, Rome, Naples, Spain) and in 1840 took up school at Oxford where he began to study the East, Latin, Greek and Arabic. He met John Varley, an amateur astrologist and occultist, which may have sparked his interest in Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, "De Occulta Philoshia" in particular, as well as Portuguese soldier-poet Luis Vaz de Camões and 14th century Spanish scholar Abraham Abulafia of Saragossa1.

In 1842, Burton was expelled from Oxford and in June that year boarded the ship John Knox for a four month voyage to India where his father had purchased his commission in the East India Company, which was already preparing ahead for the international struggle over the Eastern Question; the Portuguese have failed to hold their colonies, the French had lost the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars and the Dutch were retreating to concentrate their holdings in South Africa and Indonesia.2

Burton was first stationed in Baroda on the Malwa plateau (with eight other officers of the 18th Bombay Native infantry) guarding Company cropland on the river Vishwamitra. During this posting Burton was put through drilling, Hindustani language and jungle hunting while also studying fencing and gymnastics. By the summer of 1843, Burton is promoted to interpreter and ordered to report to Karachi to serve under General Napier3, who planned to move troops along the border with Afghanistan to counter the Russian Czar's designs on Central and South Asia, where there was expected 'katl-am' ('open blood' in Arabic).4

A secret alliance was struck between The Company, on behalf of Burton and Imam Agha Khan (Fatimid prince and Isma'ili Persian), after his troops were driven from Iran and Afghanistan by the Shah in 1842. In the Imam's tent-city, Burton was first exposed to the culture of the Middle East directly. A quote from his journal:
"...the tents are filled with the bustle of daily life, chatter of voices, song, quarrels, the Muslim five a time day call to prayer, slaves being beaten, sheep being slaughtered, the chatter of messengers, caravans and agents, high officials and dancing girls..."
Burton began now to even dress and speak as an Isma'ili5, absorbing the stories which he related to the Kabbalic texts he studied at Oxford, especially numerology and Natiq6 eschatology. By 1884-45, the struggle for the Sind region along the Punjab began to escalate and Burton was dispatched to gather intelligence, under the guise of a trader, laborer or dervish. In February of 1847, however Burton contracted a serious fever after nearly three years covert work. In 1849, after being passed over for a linguist position, and after seven years in India, still sick with lingering fever and eye infection, Burton packed up his "sugar cane, opium, hemp, tobacco, sulfur, indigo leaves, kohl, dyes and shawls" and heads back to Karachi, then Bombay, then England. His next year is spent in recovery and with family, as he plans for his Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca.)

In April 1853, Burton boarded a steamer for Egypt (he'd already let his hair grow in the Persian style) and once in Alexandria could pass himself off as a 'murid' or 'faqir' (pilgrim or poor faithful), until locals heard that he was an 'shykh' healer and he was forced to flee. by the end of May, he was en route to Cairo, where he visited the local gulshan (literally 'rose garden'), a dervish convent, where he learned of the Qutb, or Seal of the Saints.7 After a brawl in Cairo, Burton flees with a part of Beduins, who cross the Suez desert and sail down the Canal to Yambu, in Arabia, on the Red Sea. By mid-July, the same group and Burton move by caravan to Medina, resting place of the Prophet Mohammed at the Gate of Pity.

In September 1853, Burton departs Medina. The desert tribes of the Benu-Harat have begun a war which prevents him from traveling through unmapped Arabia, and instead moves with a spice caravan carrying 2000, banded together as defense against bandits, en route to Mecca. Burton and the pilgrims arrive there mid-September, where he wanders round the Ka'aba8 and the great Square. Once the ritual was undertaken, Burton leaves again with the caravan to Jeddah, where he contacts a British consul, Charles Coe, who books him back to Cairo. It is there in 1853 that Burton hits upon the idea for the Nile expedition, which he undertakes with John Hanning Speke.
  1. the namesake of Jan Potocki's Manuscript found in Saragossa (occult novel with Chinese-box structure set in 1739, written by a man who believed he was turning into a werewolf) and the name of the computer in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.
  2. the entire region from the steppes of Central Asia to the Indian Ocean had, through the colonial period, bubbled up into a sea of conflict between the Sikhs, Sindhis, Baluchis, Afghans, Persians and the East India Company which sought to exploit the primary commodity at the time, opium. This later led to the Opium Wars in China (1839-43) as the port of Bombay alone in 1844 exported $4M of Malwa opium to China.
  3. Napier was an unusual Colonial commander in that he viewed the Company activities in the South as war, not commerce, writing in his journal : "The English were the aggressors in India, and, although our Sovereign can do no wrong, her Ministers can; and no one can lay a heavier charge upon Napoleon than rests upon the English ministers who conquered India and Australia, and protected those who committed atrocities ... our object in conquering India, the object of all our cruelties, was money ... every shilling has been picked out of blood."
  4. See the Crimean War
  5. "Conceal! they tenets, thy treasure and thy travels," was an Isma'ili proverb, where in a widely nomadic culture, it was considered rude (or at least incredibly unwise) while abroad to espouse beliefs and boasts in a land where you were a guest and stranger.
  6. the Natiqs were seven figures, literally, 'the Utterers' who spoke God's truth : Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and the One yet to Come, and between each were a series of Seven Mutes, who were to complete the work of each.
  7. an inner sanctum of Sufi doctrine which adheres to belief in a Mutawalli, chief of living saints, who can move instanteously from 'gulshan' to 'gulshan', and who guides the Qutb, a group of 300 saints who preserve the order of the Universe.
  8. The Ka'aba itself is a black stone situated in the southeast corner of a giant curtained shrine, around which the Tawaf is practiced, where the stone is circles four times (3 laps running, one walking).


  • Rice, Edward. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton : the secret agent who made the pilgrimage to Mecca, discovered the Kama Sutra, and brought the Arabian nights to the West (NY : Scribners, 1990.)
  • Abeokuta and the Camaroons Mountains : an exploration Richard F. Burton ; 2v. (London : Tinsley Brothers, 1863)
  • Goa, and the Blue Mountains : or, Six months of sick leave Richard F. Burton. (London : Richard Bentley, 1851)
  • The Jew, the gypsy and el Islam by Captain Sir Richard F. Burton (NY : Herbert S. Stone & Company, 1898)

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