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BURTON, Sir Richard Francis

Born: March 19, 1821 in Torquay, Devonshire, England

Died: October 20, 1890 in Trieste, Austria- Hungary

His penchant for exploring, his talent with language and his curiosity for foreign customs, particularly sexual ones, combined to make Sir Richard Francis Burton a fascinating man and writer, but one who often offended the Victorian sensibilities of his contemporaries.

Burton, although born in England, was raised in numerous European towns and received an irregular education. He had a reputation as one of the best swordsmen in Europe, and was known for his experience with alcohol and prostitutes. By the time he entered the University of Oxford, he could already speak Italian, Greek and Latin, and continued on to learn Arabic on his own initiative. Although popular with his peers, Burton disliked England and was expelled from Oxford for a breach of conduct in 1842.

At this point he joined the eighteenth regiment of the Bombay Native Infantry, where his proficiency with languages facilitated his rise through the ranks, and his acquisition of more than twelve additional languages. Over the years he became fluent in twenty-five languages and fifteen dialects. He worked in Sind, India for seven years, learning many native customs and eventually adopting several Islamic principles. Burton documented his experiences when he returned to England in 1846 after contracting cholera, but the books sold poorly, possibly due to their encyclopedic style. Burton introduced many issues foreign to Victorian England and emphasized that Western culture could learn the practices of others; however his writings on Eastern and African cultures could at times be quite disparaging.

Burton continued on with his traveling and exploring, with perhaps his most notable trip recorded in his text Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah. After perfecting his Arabic, and disguising himself as an Afghan pilgrim, in 1853 he was able to enter these holy cities and mosques that few Europeans had ever seen. The Royal Geographical Society funded this adventure.

The following year Burton and fellow explorer John Hanning Speke gained entry to another generally forbidden location, Somaliland, where both were wounded. Burton's 1856 text First Footsteps in East Africa recounts this trip, apparently minimizing Speke's role and beginning a feud between the two men. After serving in the Crimean War, Burton returned with Speke to Africa in 1858 in search of the source of the Nile which Speke found alone while Burton was suffering with malaria.

In 1860 Burton traveled to America and wrote about the social customs of the Mormons of Salt Lake City in The City of Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California. Burton's fascination with the sexual and moral implications of polygamy is reminiscent of his earlier interest in the homosexual brothels of Karachi, which he infiltrated and reported on in some detail.

After a long courtship, Burton married Isabel Arundell whom he had met years earlier during a sick leave. He then served as a member of the British diplomatic service, and was stationed in Brazil, Dimashq, and Trieste. In 1886 he was knighted. Although Burton did less exploring in these later years, he continued to write, publishing some of his more objectionable erotic translations, such as the Kama Sutra of Vatsayana, under the company name The Kama Shastra Society in order to avoid law suits.

Between 1885 and 1888 and at his own expense, Burton published in sixteen volumes the efforts of over twenty-five years: his definitive translation of the Oriental stories Tales of the Arabian Nights. It is for this work that Burton is most well known. Many of his diaries and manuscripts were burned after his death by his wife Isabel, who opposed Burton's interest in Eastern sexual and sensual practices.