“I have been here 3 days and am generally disappointed. Not a man killed or a fellow tortured…” – Ruffian Dick
|Author of "A History of Farting"|
He was a Victorian rolling stone, always on the move, always searching for new experience. He hated what he called the “slavery of civilisation” and rejoiced in shocking polite society. A young vicar once asked if it was true that he’d killed a man in the Arabian desert. “Sir,” he replied coolly, “I’m proud to say that I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.”
Burton was exceptional from the start. Raised in France and Italy by roaming Anglo-Irish parents, he was an unruly and angry schoolboy who smashed his violin over one teacher’s head. At fifteen, he was caught writing passionate letters to prostitutes. By his late teens, he was experimenting with opium. He went to Trinity College, Oxford, in 1840, already sporting an impressive moustache – and within an hour of arriving had challenged another student to a duel for laughing at it
Nicknamed Ruffian Dick at university, Burton was an impressive-looking bloke: six foot in his socks with a big head and fierce facial features. He had an air of smouldering ferocity about him. His eyes were dark and burning - “panther eyes” one guy called them. The prize-fighter look would later be crowned by a huge, grisly scar on his cheek earned while fighting for his life in Africa, but all that was yet to come for the youthful Ruffian Dick.
Burton could have had a brilliant academic career at Oxford. He had a stunning talent for languages – by the end of his life he would speak twenty-five of them. He was a gifted writer and translator. And he would also go on to make his mark as an explorer, soldier, diplomat, archaeologist and swordsman - not to mention amateur doctor, hypnotist and heroic boozer and brawler.
But dusty old Oxford was no place for Dick. He hated it and felt like an outsider, in his words “a waif, a stray… a blaze of light, without a focus”. So he deliberately got himself chucked out for breaking petty rules, joined the infantry and sailed to India instead.
Dick’s first army job was as a spy in the Sindh, a newly conquered area in the north that’s now part of Pakistan. His role was to collect information on the region’s people and geography. And he really went for it, disguising himself as an Indian and bravely wandering around the streets chatting to unsuspecting locals in flawless Sindhi.
Nothing was taboo for Captain Burton: he smoked opium with addicts, supped bhang (a cannabis drink) with holy men, shagged local women. He took lessons from a snake charmer, tried riding alligators. Then he dived into the homosexual brothels of Karachi.
Dick was ordered into the brothels by General Charles Napier who was worried they were corrupting his troops and wanted to find out more. His enthusiastic young captain didn’t disappoint: Burton filed a shockingly explicit report that must have made military whiskers stand on end.
After many nights hanging out with prostitutes, Dick concluded there were three brothels in Karachi “in which not women but boys and eunuchs… lay for hire”. He listed the prices and services on offer. And he noted that the lads cost twice as much as the eunuchs because – brace yourself for this - “the scrotum of the unmutilated boy could be used as a kind of bridle for directing the movement of the animal”.
Napier took the report at face value and used it to shut down the dodgy meat markets. But others weren’t so pragmatic. Gay sex was for many Victorians a grave sin. And the idea that Burton could write about it so coolly and clinically, without judgment or moralizing… well, what the deuce did he think he was up to?
Many were convinced Dick must have mixed business with pleasure during his undercover operation. Knowing him, he probably did (some historians suspect he was bisexual). Fellow officers already called him “the white nigger” because he hung out with “natives”. Now he was seen as something worse still: a sexual deviant.
So the reward for Dick’s bravery and honesty was humiliation. His army reputation was in tatters. Sick from cholera and fed up with the lot of them, he quit India, returned to Europe and began planning his next dramatic move: a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Non-Muslims have always been barred from entering Mecca and over the centuries many curious Christians and Jews who tried to penetrate the sacred city have been impaled, crucified or sold into slavery. It didn’t bother Burton. With his language skills, he was sure he could pull it off. It was just a question of holding his nerve.
In the spring of 1853, disguised as an Afghan pilgrim, his skin stained with walnut juice, his penis recently circumcised, he sailed to the Middle East and travelled first to Medina, the second holiest city in Islam, before crossing the desert to Mecca itself.
He took with him a small tent, a goatskin water bag, and a bright yellow umbrella to keep off the sun. Hidden beneath his robes were a pistol, a dagger and a secret journal. Hanging from his belt was a large rosary which, if things got hairy, could be “converted into a weapon of offence”.
The journey was a brutal and violent affair. Bedouin bandits attacked the caravan he was travelling with, killing 12 men and several camels. A quarrel between a Turkish pilgrim and an Arab ended with the Turk being stabbed in the gut and left by the roadside for the jackals to finish off. Every day the desert wind blew like the “breath of a volcano”.
Yet here’s the great thing about Burton: despite the hardships and dangers and the constant deadly risk of being exposed as an infidel, he found he was having a rare old time. Life in the desert, he reports, is exhilarating: “Your morale improves… the hypocritical politeness and the slavery of civilisation are left behind you in the city.”
Once inside Mecca, Burton was in heaven. He met pilgrims from every nation. He visited and measured every shrine. He prayed every prayer, performed every ritual. He even had the balls to sketch Islam’s holiest building - the Kaaba – onto his white pilgrim’s robe, putting himself at huge risk of being rumbled. And after six euphoric days he turned around and headed for home.
Burton wasn’t the first non-Muslim to see Mecca and survive; a few plucky Europeans had managed it before him. But none produced such a rip-roaring account of their travels as Ruffian Dick. His “Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Mecca” is part adventure story, part beginner’s guide to Islam. No one in Britain had seen the like of it; it sold like Harry Potter.
Fired up, Burton now turned to Africa. His next goal: to become the first European to visit the forbidden city of Harar in present-day Ethiopia.
Like Mecca, Harar promised death to infidels. Legend held that if an unbeliever penetrated its walls the city would fall within a generation. At first Burton toyed with the idea of trying to enter in disguise. But in Africa he could never pass for a local, so instead he brazenly rode up to its gates alone wearing his British army uniform and simply asked to come in. To his amazement, they said okay.
Harar was a disappointment – a drab, dusty old place, not a patch on Mecca. But there was soon to be action a-plenty. Back at the coast he teamed up with three other British explorers, William Stroyan, G E Herne and John Hanning Speke. And at 2am one morning the men were attacked in their tents by Somalis armed with spears, daggers and war-clubs.
Stroyan was killed in the unexpected raid. Speke was taken prisoner and tortured (he later escaped, bleeding from eleven wounds). Herne got away lightly. But a Somali threw a spear directly into Burton’s face, the weapon entering his left cheek, smashing out his back teeth and part of his palate, and re-emerging from the right side.
Despite having a bloody great javelin sticking out of his head, Burton too managed to get away. He made it to a friendly ship berthed nearby. And there the weapon was removed, his face sewn up and Dick was sent home with a souvenir of Africa – a massive, ugly scar that gave his fierce image an even more sinister edge.
Back in England, Burton’s mind turned to marriage and he proposed to a young Catholic aristocrat called Isabel Arundell. But no sooner had she said yes than he was off back to Africa with Speke, this time to try to find the source of the world’s greatest river, the Nile. Isabel would not see her husband-to-be again for three years.
The Nile was the big one, the greatest prize a nineteenth century explorer could hope for. People had been dreaming of unravelling its mystery since ancient times. Many had tried and died. But so far every expedition sent up the mighty river had foundered in scorching deserts or the vast swamplands of southern Sudan.
Some believed the Nile sprang from great fountains in central Africa. Others thought it flowed from two enormous lakes. Arab stories placed the source among mysterious snow-covered mountains. Basically, no one had a clue.
Burton and Speke would try a fresh approach. Instead of following the river all the way upstream from Egypt in the north, they would march inland from Africa’s east coast. Their route would take them through an enormous unmapped wilderness, across what’s now Tanzania. It was an area ravaged by the Arab slave trade. There would be hostile tribes and tropical diseases. They were going into hell.
The pair were on the march for more than a year and faced appalling suffering in Africa. Both men’s eyes became swollen and infected, Speke’s so badly there were times when he couldn’t see at all. Burton’s legs were paralysed by malaria and he had to be carried by his African porters for months. They endured ulcers, depression, insomnia and repeated bouts of fever and delirium. On his return, Isabel would describe Dick as “a mere skeleton, with brown-yellow skin hanging in bags, his eyes protruding, and his lips drawn away from his teeth…”
Speke, meanwhile, suffered a bizarre injury when a beetle burrowed into his ear and he tried to root it out with a penknife, cutting himself in the process and causing an infection. “It was the most painful thing I ever remember…” he writes, “For many months the tumour made me almost deaf, and ate a hole between the orifice and the nose, so that when I blew it, my ear whistled so audibly that those who heard it laughed.”
Tsetse fly killed their mules, ants with jaws like bull dogs drove them crazy, their bearers deserted in droves – and still the two Englishmen trudged on until, after seven hard months, they found themselves standing beside the mighty Lake Tanganyika.
Burton and Speke were the first Europeans to set eyes on Tanganyika, a whopping fresh-water lake in central Africa, the longest in the world. Surely this was the prize they were after. Surely it only remained for them to canoe round its shore and find a river flowing out to the north. This had to be the Nile’s source.
But it wasn’t. There is no river going north. The Nile doesn’t begin here and the mystery remained unsolved; Burton and Speke had failed.
The two explorers fell out spectacularly after that. On the return journey, Speke left Dick and struck out northwards alone, discovering – almost as an afterthought - another great lake, which he patriotically named Victoria after his hard-to-amuse queen.
Lake Victoria of course is the Nile source – and although Speke had no proof, he knew in his heart he’d cracked it. Burton, however, wasn’t convinced. Their row escalated into a vicious public feud. And several years later Speke was mysteriously killed the day before he was to face Dick in a head-to-head debate on the controversy. Cause of death: self-inflicted shotgun wound.
A court ruled the tragedy was a hunting accident. But Burton was convinced it was suicide and that he was to blame. “The charitable say that he shot himself,” he wrote to a friend, “the uncharitable say that I shot him.”
Burton’s personality was certainly at the heart of the row. Speke was a teetotaller and a prude, a Christian who would get himself in a flap at the sight of a half-naked African woman. He couldn’t handle his wild companion who revelled in the nudity he saw around him and was up for trying anything, the more shocking the better.
Burton sampled every intoxicant on offer in Africa. He discovered first-hand that its women were “well disposed towards strangers of fair complexion, apparently with the permission of their husbands”. He was fascinated by African phallic worship. And he had that weird old-school racist obsession with the size of black guys’ knobs, even going so far as to measure several obliging fellows.
When the warring explorers got home, Speke put it about that Burton was a sicko; that he had gone to the devil in Africa. Good old Isabel didn’t care though. She stuck by her untamed fiancée and the couple were secretly married in January 1861, the groom turning up to the ceremony in a rough shooting coat with a cigar between his teeth.
The newlyweds were together seven months and then Dick was off again, this time taking a job as British consul on Fernando Po, a disease-ridden island off the west coast of Africa. Isabel stayed put: the so-called White Man’s Grave was no place for a lady. But for Burton, it was a perfect springboard for more mad African adventures.
Any excuse to leave official duties and he was away. During his three years in Fernando Po he made countless trips to the mainland where he climbed mountains, hung out with cannibals and searched for gorillas (which some Europeans still believed were a fictitious creature).
He produced five books while he was there covering everything from juju and facial scarring to ritual murder, female circumcision and peculiar sexual practises. By the time he was finished there was probably not a colleague left in the Foreign Office who didn’t consider him weird, if not downright dangerous.
Burton also made two trips to Dahomey, a kingdom famous for human sacrifices and its army of Amazon warrior women. Victorian newspapers were obsessed with the place. But on first seeing the country for himself, Burton suspected half of what had been written was “bunk”.
“I have been here 3 days and am generally disappointed. Not a man killed or a fellow tortured…” he writes with gallows humour. “At Benin… they crucified a fellow in honour of my coming – here nothing! And this is the blood-stained land of Dahome!!”
Things were different on his second visit. Eighty prisoners were killed that time, the king himself decapitating the first victim. But Dick still wasn’t impressed with the Amazon army, concluding that “an equal number of British charwomen, armed with the British broomstick, would… clear them off in a very few hours.”
After Africa, Burton was transferred to Santos, then a swampy backwater on Brazil’s Atlantic coast. Isabel joined him. But he hated it, spending four unhappy years there, drinking hard, writing little and travelling only rarely. “He reminded me of a black leopard, caged, but unforgiving,” wrote a British traveller who met him at this time.
A dream job followed: British consul for Damascus in Syria. This was a chance to recapture his glory days in the East. But Burton made a hash of it, upsetting half the city’s Christians, Jews and Muslims with his flamboyant, my-way-or-the-highway style. After just two years, he was recalled in disgrace.
And that might have been the sum of it for Ruffian Dick. He was now in his fifties. His career was a mess. His next posting was a demotion: consul in the sleepy Adriatic port city of Trieste. He took to pottering around his house in a fez and pointed-toe slippers like an eccentric old gent, bored out of his restless brain.
One afternoon he marched into a room where Isabel was entertaining her chattering lady friends, slapped his latest manuscript down on the coffee table and stomped from the room without a word. It was entitled “A History of Farting”.
But Burton wasn’t at the end of the road just yet. He still had one last great journey in him, a climactic adventure that would be his parting two-finger salute to British “civilisation”. This final journey was different - it was a literary one. With the same fearlessness he’d shown at Mecca and Harar, he now plunged into the forbidden world of Eastern erotica.
It’s a miracle anyone was born at all during the Victorian Age. Sex wasn’t the done thing. Publishers were prosecuted for producing “obscene” books. Oscar Wilde got two years hard labour for “gross indecency”. Even doctors believed masturbation caused heart disease and insanity.
But Dick found prudery offensive. He loved sex and he loved to upset people by talking about it. His friends included decadent poets, pornography collectors and a sadist called Fred Hankey who once asked him to bring a human skin back from Dahomey (even Burton drew the line at that one).
So, in one last great act of defiance, Dick set about publishing a series of sex guides to open British eyes to the joys of shagging. These were translations of the “pillow books” used by lovers in Asia for hundreds of years, including India’s famous “Kama Sutra”. Any of them could have landed him in jail.
As every schoolboy knows, the Kama Sutra contains more acrobatics than Billy Smart’s Circus. Burton’s translation has illustrations of all that stuff plus tips on aphrodisiacs, spanking, oral sex, you name it. Nothing’s cut from the explicit original. It was the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day 1884.
Burton avoided prosecution by publishing his sex guides anonymously. The Kama Sutra became one of the most pirated books in the English language. On a roll, he then decided to produce a no-holds-barred translation of the “Arabian Nights”.
Earlier English versions of the “Nights” had cut out its cruder, earthier tales and concentrated on the family-friendly stuff - Ali Baba, Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor. Not Burton. His massive 16-volume edition of the ancient collection restored all the saucy stories to their original glory.
Dick also daringly added essays outlining his thoughts on homosexuality, pornography and the sexual education of women. He spiced up his text with hundreds of footnotes on everything from lesbianism and harems to incest and hashish. And to cap it all, this time he put his name on the front cover.
It’s mad stuff for the 1880s and the Pall Mall Gazette was appalled, calling the book a “revolting obscenity”. The Echo declared it “morally filthy”. The Boston Daily Advertiser memorably found it “offensive and not only offensive, but grossly and needlessly offensive”.
But to Dick’s surprise, other newspapers praised his “Arabian Nights”, saluting his courage, skill and impressive knowledge. Thirty years after his “Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Mecca”, he found himself with another hit on his hands. The vice squad didn’t come knocking. And when a knighthood followed, the lifelong rebel thought someone must be pulling his leg.
Sir Richard Burton died shortly after that, in 1890, aged sixty-nine. And as with so much about his life, the story of how it came to an end is a bizarre one.
Dick woke gasping for breath at 4am one October morning at his home in Trieste. Isabel summoned a doctor who diagnosed a heart attack but could do nothing to save him. She sent for a Catholic priest and by the time he arrived it looked like Burton was dead.
But Isabel wouldn’t accept it. She insisted her husband was only unconscious. Then she told the priest he was a secret convert to Rome (which seems about as likely Dick bumping into the Pope at Mecca). And she persuaded the clergyman to administer the Catholic Last Rites to the dying over Burton’s clearly lifeless body.
It wasn’t till 7pm that night – more than twelve hours later - that she finally accepted he was gone and that she was “alone and desolate for ever”.
If Isabel’s behaviour that day was odd, what she did next was unforgivable. Within a fortnight of Burton’s death, she had burned nearly all his papers: intimate diaries, notebooks, letters and manuscripts. Forty years of work by a brilliant man up in flames.
She did it, she said, to protect public morality. She saw her husband’s interest in sexuality as purely scientific, but feared others would read his journals “for filth’s sake”. Her God might take a dim view of that and be reluctant to let Dick through the Pearly Gates.
Determined to save his immortal soul, Isabel requested a series of masses for Burton. Two Catholic funeral services were held. Then the scandalous old ruffian, the wild wanderer who spent his life shocking the pious and offending the saints was tamely laid to rest in a Catholic cemetery in the suburbs of west London. Burton’s friends and family were outraged; some never spoke to Isabel again.
* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post on this blog, but have started a new one called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow me on Twitter @historynuts or at facebook.com/historynuts. Thanks again!
Brodie, Fawn, The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton (London, 2002)
Kennedy, Dane, The Highly Civilised Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World (Harvard, 2005)
Burton, Sir Richard, To the Holy Shrines (extracts from Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah) (London, 2007)
Mountains of the Moon, Momentum Pictures, 1989