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Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton by Edward…
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Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1990)

by Edward Rice

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The real Richard Burton, not the actor. A man who tried very hard to realize his potential, and came breathtakingly close. I haven't read his translation of the "Arabian Nights" yet, but it's on my shelves. Rice gives a good performance as a biographer, and moves the tale along. Do read it. "The Mountains of the Moon", taken from Burton's life is a watchable movie. Burton could be a difficult companion, but if you could keep up, in some manner, you had a good time. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Aug 27, 2013 |
According to its own claims, the most thorough life of Burton as of the time of its publication; basically sympathetic. My own feelings are mixed. He was certainly brave and intelligent but also sometimes selfish, and I think probably unfair to Speke. Still, I have been fascinated by him most of my life.
  antiquary | Aug 26, 2013 |
Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) is one of my longstanding heros, and an adventurer for the ages. He made a career of exploration during the mid-1800s when much of the world was surprisingly (to me) still very alien, unfamiliar, and exotic. Another reviewer compares him to Indiana Jones, and it's not a bad comparison. While cowboys were taming the wild frontier of the American West, this Brit was playing rough-and-tumble individualist in the Old World.


He was showered with medals and peerage for his services to the British Empire, exploring and studying little-known areas of the realm- most notably, he led the expedition which definitively proved that Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile River. That enterprise was in 1856, and it kind of blows my mind that the source of the Nile River was not known as recently as ten years before the [American] Civil War, but sure enough: here is a map of Africa from that period. Check out how much was still unexplored!

Pretty wild, huh? Now read this book to get a sense of how hostile, foreign, and completely unknown those territories were. At practically every turn, Burton et al were beset with poorly-studied diseases (malaria, grusome intestinal parasites, yellow fever, etc). One of his guides went blind from black fly-borne "river blindness" (oncocircosis), which happens when a parasitic worm infests the eye.


In addition, encounters with indigenous peoples were a continual source of apprehension. as often as not, the locals were hostile, but even when they weren't communication with them was extremely difficult. Trying to learn the local languages on their journey was practically impossible for Burton's expedition, since tribes living only 30 miles from one another might speak languages which were not only unintellegible to one another, but which might be from completely different language families! As supplies dwindled, finding and preparing safe and edible food also became a problem, as was keeping an adequate supply of potable water. Navigation in the uncharted wilderness consisted mainly of using a compass to avoid going in circles. Beyond that, it was essentially a headfirst plunge into the Great Unknown.
Crazy stuff.

For most people, a trek like that would be the gutsy-est achievement of a lifetime. No so for Burton. After hearing stories about Mecca, he decided he wanted to go see the place for himself. One minor obstacle: non-Muslims are not admitted to the city. Undeterred, he decided to go undercover. This required not only an impressive proficiency in Arabic, and a mastery of local custom so he wouldn't stand out, but also considerable skills in disguise, and a thorough memorization and understanding of the Quaran. Apparently pilgrims to Mecca were (are?)frequently quizzed on the Quaran, as a measure to prevent gate crashers like Burton. A stranger who missed a few questions could face expulsion from the city at best... and more likely something along the lines of execution. Here are some images of RFB in full disguise mode:

Doing something like this does admittedly raises questions about one's judgment, but it is an impressive feat to pull off. Even if Burton was slightly insane, he was obviously pretty smart. Gathering from these pages, he spoke several different dialects of Arabic, as well as some Indian languages (Hindi, Gujarati) and some assorted others. It must be nice to be that bright, but how'd Burton ever have the opportunity to learn those langugages in the first place? And what motivated him? Haha- this is my favorite part. The oldest and most powerful motivator of all! It started in his early 20's, while serving as a British army officer in India. While all his officer buddies would hang around with each other, drinking and playing games in their insular little clubhouse, the ever-curious Burton ventured outside the compound, and soon discovered that he had quite a taste for TEH LOCAL LAYDEES. Apparently the feeling was mutual. Yeah, Burton had it bad, and his writings are filled with sometimes-lurid, always-funny accounts of this one or that one, and what position he liked and how and when and where he liked to do it with who... etc. After the first few chapters of this book, it should come as no surprise that RFB would later go on to provide the first (and some still say best) English translations of the Kama Sutra, The Arabian Nights, (Arabian erotic guide) The Perfumed Garden, and numerous minor works of erotica -most of which were banned in his lifetime under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. So.. yeah, he was basically a dirty old man, but in the field of being a dirty old man, those are some pretty impressive achievements! I should also clarify that dispite the prevailing condescending attitudes of his peers during that era of colonialism, Burton had a profound respect for the indiginous peoples of the lands he was exploring. It wasn't just about getting some; he wrote adoringly and at length about Indian and Arabian art and architecture. While the scholarly value of some of these writings was grudgingly admitted, there was often a tension in Burton's interractions with his fellow countrymen (and countrywomen), who derided his immersion in other cultures as a propensity to "go native" - a term which carried connotations of weak or disreputable character, despite his lauded service as an explorer, scholar and diplomat for the Crown. Man, dirty old men can't get respect, no matter what they do! He eventually married a British woman (to whom, all sources agree, he was faithful) and settled down at the end of his life in England, where tales of his wild and "native" exploits engendered a continuing mix of awe and distaste into his old age. Overall, it probably hampered his social standing, but if this bothered him, he didn't leave any record of it. I doubt it did, given his ruggedly independent and somewhat solipsistic earlier life.

If the incredibly rich, fascinating adventures and impressive literary contributions I've described so far haven't already convinced you that Richard Francis Burton was all kinds of awesome, let me tell you what his dearest lifelong hobby was...


....FALCONRY!!!!

(Richard Francis Burton boycrush) ( )
1 vote BirdBrian | Apr 3, 2013 |
After Mary Lovell's biography, it is not certain that the work's hypothesis is valid. ( )
  JayLivernois | Jul 25, 2012 |
Extraordinary book of an extraordinary life. Edward Rice can not hide his admiration for Richard. F. Burton. Very well documented without being tiring. I can recommend this book, and actually it is one of my favorite presents to give to people. ( )
1 vote cdagulleiro | Mar 11, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060973943, Paperback)

Describes the life of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, who explored India, the Near East, and Africa, went to Mecca, discovered the Kama Sutra, and introduced the Arabian Nights to the West. Reprint.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:30:30 -0400)

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