…Sir Richard Burton, no not that one –
This one –
Born in 1821, Richard Francis Burton was something of a celebrity in his own time. Think of the typical idea of the Victorian male:
- Manliness was a virtue, a form of control over maleness, which was considered brutish.
- The Victorian man liked to form secret societies, such as the Masons.
- He was not only the head of the household; his duty was not only to rule, but also to protect his wife and children.
- Working was manly; whether working-class males in heavy industry, or middle-class males, upper class males could become involved in philanthropic works or other enterprising actions.
- Sport! They watched it, read about it, did it. Sports and cold showers; to keep the ‘little man’s’ desires in check and to prove his worth – to be ready for attack. E. M. Forster, apparently said that this “then led to “well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds, and undeveloped hearts”.
- And most of all, Victorian man was British. And proud of it! The expansion of the Empire became entangled in what it meant to be a man, and so he served the Queen, he hunted creatures to near extinction; he pioneered and subordinated non British peoples. He was top man, the dog’s bollocks, king of the world (with little k.)
Burton fits some of this characterisation; however, his views on the rest of the world and in particular Islam and women were light years ahead of his fellows. He was ‘sent down’ from Oxford (meaning he was kicked out), after a series of mischievous events. He took it well, bid his tutors farewell and headed cheerily off to become more than they could ever imagine.
RFB was not only an explorer, he was a geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. He seemed to excel at everything he did. I cannot think of anyone else alive or historical who was so accomplished. He was extraordinarily open-minded for a man of his time:
Burton did not think of women as inferior to men. He was very much interested in sexuality and erotic literature – his accurate translation of ‘The Book of a Thousand and One Nights’, is full of steamy sex scenes. He translated the ‘Kama Sutra’, the most famous book in the world on sexual techniques to this day.
He slept with woman of all race, colour and creed (males too some reports say), he smoked opium, drank cannabis drinks with holy men, he hung about with prostitutes with no particular judgement on their profession. He took a spear to the face, when his and Speke’s encampment was attacked one night in Africa, and survived. He was spy in India. An Afghan pilgrim in the Middle East; he had himself circumcised so he could pass as native, one of the few white men to have entered Mecca in disguise. He spoke a fair number of languages too – fluent in 29!!! I can barely speak my native one right. And on and on his adventures go.
I first heard about RFB in my teens I think. Then later on a friend who was interested in him lent me a book, ‘Sir Richard Burton’s Travels in Arabia and Africa.’ I read and studied it, sort of. But what really enticed me to discover more about the great man was a work of literary fiction.
‘The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi’, by Mark Hodder. The first of four books in Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne Adventures. In this alternative 19th century, Hodder really brought Burton to life for me – the outrageous behaviour, that British stoicism partnered with emotional passion, a huge, physical, Brainiac of a fist-fighter paired with the slight, red-headed, waif-like Algernon Swinburne; poet.
Two real persons from history partnered up for some beautifully written and roistering, boisterous adventures. And so I began my love affair with Ruffian Dick; I even wrote him into one of my own short, Steampunk stories, in which my protagonist, Lucy Lockhart encounters more of Ruffian Dick than the average English woman did!
Burton was adventurous of mind as well as body. He seemed to fear nothing. He did not judge other cultures as his fellow Victorians did (and some of us still do today), he was bold, brave, liked a laugh and a drink, and he was devoted to the love of his life, his wife; Isabel. His energy, enthusiasm, his curiosity for the people and world around him should be held as an ideal to work for today I think.
Sir Richard Francis Burton died, 20 October 1890.
This August, I hope to make my own mini pilgrimage from the North, to London to visit his tomb at Saint Mary Magdalen Church, Mortlake.
‘The same superficial view of holding woman to be lesser (and very inferior) man is taken generally by the classics; and Euripides distinguished himself by misogyny, although he drew the beautiful character of Alcestis.’ RFB. On Arab womanhood in 1001 Nights.
‘Women, all the world over, are what men make them; and the main charm of Amazonian fiction is to see how they live and move and have their being without any masculine guidance.’ RFB. On Arab womanhood in 1001 Nights.