Featured image - Sir Richard Francis Burton

I first discovered Sir Richard Francis Burton in the sci-fi book series, “Riverworld,” lent to me by my best friend Ben, with him telling me how cool it was after he read it. In this 5-book saga, author Philip José Farmer puts fictional characters next to historical ones, Burton being the main protagonist and the most charismatic. In reading the books, I found Burton quickly becoming one of my favourite literary heroes of all time. And while I was reading, I knew Burton was a real character, but didn’t know much about the guy.

  • Story Alex
  • Edit Daniel
  • Illustrations Wikimedia
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  • The Arabian Nights
  • Sir Richard F. Burton

Ten years later, I found myself reading a lot more travel literature and I stumbled upon the list of the books being published in the “Penguin Great Journeys” series. This collection was again discovered by Ben, because of the beautiful cover design by David Pearson. This collection covers 2,500 years of travel by the most famous adventurers and explorers of all time: From Herodotus to Ernest Shackleton via James Cook.

Great journeys cover

As you can guess our friend Richard is also on board with “To the Holy shrines”, a sample of his work from “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah”. I have to admit that it’s the only thing I’ve read written by him, but I’ve found myself fascinated by the person and have started reading books about him. The whole point of this article, of course, is to show you how awesome he was!

I won’t bore you with the whole history but what you need to know is that Burton was – among things – an English soldier, explorer, writer, ethnologist, spy, sexologist, linguist, poet, swordsman and diplomat born in 1821. He traveled the world, wrote a lot, killed people, scandalized Victorian society and rocked a bad-ass beard by the end of his life. As you can see there’s a lot to tell about the man, where it would be only stupid to attempt to sum it up in a single article. So here, I just want to tell you a few facts to show why we consider Burton as a model and precursors to what is – a century later – the Hejorama philosophy.

Sir Richard Burton in the desert

Sir Richard Burton, the master of disguise.

Burton basically spent his entire life travelling. That started early when he moved to France with his parents. Later, after being expelled from College, he joined the army to go to India. Then on the account of the Royal Geographical Society, he explored various part of the world before becoming part of the English Diplomatic service, being assigned to work on different continents until his death.

The one thing I appreciate the most in the way Burton traveled, is that he would always try to get as close as possible to the locals. That’s one very important aspect of travel for Hejorama as emphasized in our Manifesto. Burton spoke many languages and continued learning new ones until he died. He probably had a special talent for language, but in the end I think it’s just a question of will. That’s one thing he considered really important and never thought of staying somewhere without trying to learn the language. That’s unfortunately something people don’t do a lot these days.

I’ve always liked learning languages because I think it’s better to communicate with people in their native language and they always appreciate the effort. But that’s hardly the case of my fellow ‘Frenchies,’ who sometimes think that everyone should speak French. That might also have to do with the fact that English has become the predominant international language in the world, where knowing a little would usually be enough to get around in most places. I want to keep on learning new languages! That reminds me of Benny from website FI3M who is fluent in 8 languages and regularly learns new ones over a 3-months period immersed in a country. A sort of modern version of the linguist Burton.

Burton the explorer would not only learn the local languages, but he also carefully studied the habits of the local people, their culture and religion. In “To the Holy shrines”, Burton tells how he we went on pilgrimage to the Meccah, at a time when it was strictly barred to all non-Muslims. For that, he disguised himself as a Persian dervish and indeed succeeded in travelling across Egypt to reach his destination, completing the pilgrimage. He was almost discovered once, but managed to clear himself and avoided the fate of any non-believer trespassing: death. This is truly captivating adventure that he documented very well.

Mosaique Burton

Sir Richard Burton, the master of (s)words

Burton was also a proficient writer and translator. He kept notes of all his observations on local cultures made during his travel. The stories of his adventures are fascinating, but I’ve found even more amazing his analysis of the people and culture surrounding him. His books are filled with footnotes giving loads of details and observations that are useful to understand the whole context of the time and place of the action. He also wrote more technical articles about fencing and swords that were also richly illustrated.

If there was Internet at that time I think, this adventurer would have been a superstar travel blogger, probably with more followers on Twitter than Kanye West. Most of the topics he discusses in his travel writings are still what today’s travel bloggers write about. For instance, in “To the Holy shrines” he details the expenses of “a bachelor residing in Cairo”. Pretty much in the same way that Wes does on his Johnny Vagabond blog in Asia.

Infographic - cost calculation

But to the contrary of most of the modern travel bloggers, Burton didn’t shy away from the scandalous topics and had a great interest in sexuality and erotic literature.

1001 nights - small

Sir Richard Burton, the master of scandal

“Sir, I’m proud to say I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.” – Richard Burton

During in travels, Burton also took time to study the sexual practices of the people he encountered and wrote about it in his books. He even used to go undercover in brothels and produced detailed reports of the activities going on there. Some would say that the reports where so detailed that Burton probably took an active participation in the mentioned activities. Who said it was forbidden to align work and pleasure?

Did you know he was the first to translate the Kama Sutra to English? This is a man of good will and intention if you ask me. Although, I always thought it was all about the pictures in this book but it’s still quite nice of him to make it available to the English speaking world. Especially considering that the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 punished with jail sentences those who would dare to publish these kinds of works. For this reason he created the Kama Shastra Society, where he could print and circulate any books he wanted. One of the most famous editions was the “The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night” featuring those cool stories we all know like “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” or Ali “Baba and the Forty Thieves”. But you probably didn’t know that actually most of the other stories where quite explicit and you wouldn’t tell them to your kids as a bed time story.

You can find online the full text version by Burton here. Apparently Burton made it more sex focused when he translated and was a lot criticized for that. He liked a naughty Scheherazade apparently…

Further readings

Alex