While on an expedition in 1855, Sir Richard Francis Burton was lying in his tent on the remote Horn of Africa when roughly 200 Somali warriors attacked his camp. It was around two in the morning, and Burton and his 42 comrades were bombarded with flying spears. A master swordsman, Burton grabbed his saber and tried to fight off the approaching assailants in the dark. In the confusion, he turned to strike ,only to hear the familiar voice of his ras–the expedition’s Somalian captain–cry out. Burton stalled, and during the brief pause an eager warrior stepped up and speared him through the face. But Burton, like a mad grizzly, continued to fight and eventually escaped… with the javelin still lodged in his jaw.
In later years, after gaining notoriety for his epic globe-trotting adventures, the imposing, darkly handsome Burton would proudly brandish his spear-hewn battle scar, often sitting for photographs and portraits with his damaged left cheek turned toward the artist.
Born in 1821 to a British Army colonel, Burton was a delinquent “gypsy eyed” child, raising hell while traveling with his family between France, Italy and England. Fiercely independent with an inherent disdain for authority, he balked at formal education. Forced to attend Oxford’s Trinity College by his fed-up father, Burton showed up sporting a mustache and looking for trouble. In the first few days he challenged an upperclassman to a duel for laughing at his facial hair, but the terrified boy nervously declined. College didn’t last long. He was eventually expelled for attending a steeplechase race against college rules and refusing to apologize afterward.
Burton joined the British army’s East India Company in 1842 and spent the next seven years as a captain stationed in India and later Sindh, Pakistan. He absorbed native languages (by his early 30s he spoke 29) and at one point kept a menagerie of monkeys, from which he claimed to pick up 60 “words.” He also studied the Hindu religion with a Nagar Brahmin, becoming a snake priest (literally handling live cobras) and developed a daily yoga practice of Pranayama and the 84 asana postures.
Though Burton’s intense cultural studies annoyed other Victorian-era officers who accused him of going native, his uncanny ability to assimilate made him the perfect spy for the British army. Disguised as a Persian named Mirza Abdullah, Burton would not break character for days–frequently fooling his own close confidants while on classified missions.
In Pakistan, Burton’s interests switched from Hinduism to Islam, sparking a fascination that would inspire his first major adventure–a pilgrimage to Mecca. After becoming a self-proclaimed “master-Sufi,” Burton left his post in the east and spent two years in England and France, planning his pilgrimage while also embarking on an exhaustive study of the sword. People flocked to see his fencing matches, where he would defeat renowned, armor-clad opponents while wearing nothing more than slacks and a cotton shirt.
In 1853, Burton, disguised as a wandering Dervish, set out for Mecca in a land only “open to the adventurous traveler.” The trip involved crossing the famed “Empty Quarter”–the world’s largest contiguous desert and at the time still a blank white space on the map. The journey was dangerous, to put it lightly, with the risk of certain death if discovered as a westerner. So Burton armed himself with a small pistol under his cloak and carried a Quran containing three hidden compartments, where he stored a compass, watch, money, and note-taking material. The arduous pilgrimage, which began with an attack by brigands that killed 12 men in his caravan, ended on September 11, 1853, when Burton entered the city of Mecca. He emerged unscathed and authored an account of the adventure, A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, which brought him instant fame abroad. His reasoning for the trip? To “prove, by trial that what might be perilous to other travelers was safe to me.”
Burton would continue to prove that point for the rest of his life. He was back in disguise in 1855 as an Arab merchant, this time trekking to the African city of Harar. No white man had ever passed through the city’s gates until Burton made the breach, where he stayed for 10 days as a guest (or prisoner, some argue) of the prince–then considered to be the most dangerous man in East Africa.
Burton’s last major expedition was an attempt to find the source of the Nile. He teamed up with a British aristocrat named John Hanning Speke and the two embarked on a great “safari”–a term Burton introduced to the English language. The journey turned into a full-on epic. Plagued by fever and tropical disease, the explorers spent nearly two years in the jungles of interior Africa. They encountered wild indigenous tribes, such as the cannibalistic Wabembe, whose eyes, Burton noted, “seemed to devour us.”
The explorers hiked hundreds of miles until they arrived in Ujiji, where they found Africa’s Great Lakes. Burton became the first European to “see” the world’s longest freshwater lake (Speke was temporarily blind), but ultimately, Burton considered the expedition a failure. The source of the Nile had eluded the explorers, though Speke later claimed its discovery–sparking controversy and a legendary rivalry.
Burton spent his later years working as a diplomat for England and continued to pursue exotic challenges. He searched for gorillas in the Congo (and found cannibals instead), got struck by lightning, and bagged peaks in the Cameroon Mountains. In Brazil, while working out of the port town of Santos, he canoed down the São Francisco River, running rapids no man had previously survived.
He also wrote incessantly. Though Burton’s pen was probably not quite mightier than his sword, it was a close second. He authored more than 40 books on his exploits, many of which became classics. He also translated the Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights into English–introducing stories such as “Aladdin” to the western world.
Old age eventually tracked Burton down. In his 50s, while on a climbing trip in the Alps, he chose to sleep in the snow to harden himself (as he had done in the past), but came down with a fever instead. His wife, Isabel, nursed him back to health, but it was clear Burton’s days of hardcore adventures were over. He continued to write prolifically up until his dying day, though his failing health often found him “dipping his pen in everything but the ink,” according Isabel.
Burton died of a heart attack in 1890 at the age of 69…but not before his country anointed him a Knight Commander in 1886.
Photos courtesy of burtoniana.org.
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