The Extraordinary Life of Sir Richard Francis Burton

Day 316 of Colourisation Project – March 19

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Born this day, March 18 1821, intrepid explorer and English scholar, Sir Richard Francis Burton, was a larger-than-life Victorian figure; a captain in the army of the East India Company, he was a man who wore many hats including those of geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, proto-anthropologist, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer and diplomat. He was all of this and more, much more than time or purpose allows me here.

Richard Francis Burton

Photographer: Rischgitz ~ Sir Richard Francis Burton 1864 ~ Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Known for his travels and explorations within Asia, Africa and the Americas, he was the first European to discover Lake Tanganyika and the first non-muslim to penetrate hitherto-forbidden Muslim cities.

His life’s accomplishments are the stuff of legend. In 1853 risking certain death, Burton disguised himself as an Islamic pilgrim and trekked to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. He even underwent the Muslim tradition of circumcision to minimise the risk of being discovered. If his true identity as a European Christian had been exposed, the penalty would have been death. Burton published an account of his pilgrimage in a three-volume book which became an immediate sensation in England elevating his status to that of folk hero.

Burton had an extraordinary gift for languages and the written word; according to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian, and African languages and numerous dialects fluently. He wrote and translated extensively and is probably best known for his uncensored 16-volume edition of the Arabian Nights (1885–88), the translation of which, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica “was so exceptional for its fidelity, masculine vigour, and literary skill that it has frightened away all competitors.” It is widely considered the definitive edition.

A prolific and erudite writer, Burton wrote numerous books and scholarly articles covering all sorts of topics including, human behaviour, travel, falconry, fencing, sexual practices, and ethnography. He published 43 volumes on his explorations and almost 30 volumes of translations. His books were uniquely endowed with an abundance of footnotes and appendices containing remarkable observations and unexpurgated information.

A virtuoso in the field of translation, Burton translated classical and Renaissance literature; he annotated six volumes of poetry by Portuguese poet, Luís Vaz de Camões, a volume of Neapolitan Italian tales by Giambattista Basile, Il Pentamerone, as well as Latin poems by Catullus.

He held a deep interest in the ethnology and languages of the non-European cultures he encountered in Asia, Africa, and North and South America, spearheading the burgeoning field of anthropology. One area that particularly fascinated him was the erotica of the East. This time risking prosecution and imprisonment, he translated and secretly printed the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana (1883), Ananga Ranga (1885), and The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefzaoui (1886), thereby furtively introducing the sexual wisdom of the ancient Eastern manuals on the ‘art of love’ to a rather stuffy Victorian Britain. Attracting controversy wherever he went, his frankness in his writings of course offended many.

A true intellect, an expert swordsman and horseman and a secret agent for the British Empire, he participated in ‘The Great Game’, a strategic rivalry between the empires of Britain and Russia….but that’s another story.

In later life he served as British consul in Fernando Po, (the modern island of Bioko in Equatorial Guinea), Santos in Brazil, Damascus in Syria and Trieste in Italy.

Burton was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was knighted by Queen Victoria in February, 1886.

He died in 1890 of a heart attack in Trieste at the age of 69.


“The more I study religions the more I am convinced that man never worshiped anything but himself.”   Richard Francis Burton

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