--Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton
Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton’s personal devil was curiosity. Go back to the original Greek definition of genius. The toga-wearin’ philosophers of classical civilization characterized genius as an individual thing, each man, or each brilliant man, each gifted man, had his own, and this gift of the gods or the fates was referred to as a “daemon.” There is a story of one of the great poets (I forget which one, and it may vary depending on the version of the story) encountering his own daemon, whereupon he discovers that it was the daemon, not the man himself, who had crafted the poet’s greatest works. That’s the kind of devil that dogged Burton, a genius of curiosity. He was possessed of an overwhelming hunger to, as they said in Star Trek, “boldly go where no man had gone before,” to know what no man had ever known, or to regain knowledge that had been lost to time. This devil drove the man, and it is for the betterment of the world that it did so.
Sir Richard Burton is likely the most important man to history that you’ve never heard of. I’d never heard of him, not until my late teens, when I chanced to watch a movie called Mountains of the Moon, which recounts one of (but only one of) Burton’s great adventures. I was instantly smitten. Richard Burton would become my greatest hero, my role model. I stop short of saying an object of worship—we don’t want no idolatry, here—but certainly an object of hero worship. Why, you ask, do I love the guy so much? To answer that question, it is necessary to educate those of you ignorant of this great man’s biography.
(Note: I don’t blame any of you who haven’t heard of Burton before now. I blame the holes, like a sieve, in our modern-day educational process. It’s not your fault if your high school History teacher or college Western Civ professor neglected to make mention of him. It may not even be their fault. But it’s somebody’s fault. Maybe it’s John Speke’s fault. But more on that in a moment.)
You may have never heard of Burton. But it’s a guarantee you’ve heard of his work. Ever hear of The Arabian Knights? (Or, to be more precise, The Thousand Nights and a Night, which is the original title.) This anthology is where we get the stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Sinbad, among numerous others. Sure you’ve heard of it. It was Burton who discovered the Nights, translated it and introduced it to western society. How about the Kama Sutra? Yeah, everybody’s heard of that one. Same deal. It was Burton who brought it to us.
(By the way, if you ever buy a copy of either of these texts, whether for your own reading pleasure or because some teacher required you to—or, in the case of the Kama Sutra, just to satisfy your puerile curiosity or to look at the dirty pictures—make sure you get the original translations by Burton, not one of the later, inferior ones. There have been some since, but none are equal to Burton’s. Burton’s skills as a linguist are unmatched. They were in his day and remain so in the years since. The man spoke 29 languages fluently. TWENTY-FREAKIN’-NINE!!!)
Ever use the word “safari?” It was Burton who invented that word.
Ever use the word “safari?” It was Burton who invented that word.
It was also Burton who discovered the source of the Nile River. Since the days of the ancients, the great civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome had wondered at the origin of this most vital of rivers. Legend said they had their birth somewhere in the deep interior of Africa, in the fabled “Mountains of the Moon.” Many men had gone off in search of them. If any man ever discovered the secret, that man had never returned. Burton discovered Lake Tanganyika (and by extension, Lake Victoria, which is the true headwaters of the Nile), but while he lay convalescing in Africa from a fever, his expedition partner and one-time friend, John Hanning Speke, rushed back to England and claimed all the glory for himself—the bastard. Today, if you were to look up in a book (or google it) to see who discovered the headwaters of the Nile, that source will say it was Speke. More charitable ones will say that Speke swiped the credit. Those latter will at least mention Burton, if not give him the credit he deserves. But had it not been for Sir Richard, that discovery would not have happened, period.
Let’s see, what else? Oh, yeah. Burton probably inspired the character of Count Dracula. The physical appearance, that is. (Dracula, like Burton, was, as I’m sure you all know, a real person.) Burton and Bram Stoker were friends, and Stoker was known to have written about how impressed he was with Burton’s dark good looks and piercing eyes, his almost menacing face, and his curiously pointed canine teeth. Some literary historians maintain that Stoker based his iconic character on his friend, the actor Henry Irving. But if you look at Irving, then look at pictures of Burton, then read Stoker’s description of the vampire Count, you tell me which one resembles it more closely.
Soldier; ethnographer; cartographer; linguist; poet; swordsman; writer; translator; secret agent for the British Crown; military tactician; master of disguise; philosopher; philanderer (later turned devoted husband); mystic; archaeologist; “amateur barbarian” (he called himself); “blackguard” (enemies called him); explorer; knight—Burton was all of these. Take Indiana Jones, if he lived in our world, J.R.R. Tolkien and Lawrence of Arabia. Throw in a dash of Sir Galahad. Put them all in a giant blender and puree. The result would be—actually, the result, literally speaking, would be a big mess. But metaphorically speaking, the result would be Richard Burton.
Burton was as much a man of action as a man of intellect. (And what an intellect he must have possessed. He could learn a new language in a matter of weeks; days, sometimes. He wrote dozens of books—several at the same time!) In a skirmish with natives on one of his earlier expeditions to the Dark Continent, one of the attacking tribesmen threw a spear that completely transfixed Burton’s face, going in one cheek and coming out the other. Burton pulled the spear loose and kept fighting. (The encounter also left him with a matching set of really cool, manly scars.) Burton could have stepped right out of a larger-than-life Victorian novel, but he refused to be confined by, and delighted in scandalizing, rigid Victorian society (much to the occasional embarrassment of his loved ones). Expelled from Oxford as a young man for bad behavior (organizing a gambling ring and then telling the authorities there to go someplace hotter than Australia when he got caught), he spent much of his life as an alcoholic, drinking at times a pint of whiskey a day. On occasion he abused opiates. Yet these flaws only serve to further endear him to me. All great heroes must have their weaknesses to be truly heroic. And Burton gave new meaning to the term “functional alcoholic,” considering his ridiculously high level of accomplishments. The chemicals, alcohol, opium and tobacco, may have shortened his life, but he still lived to almost 70 years of age, which was quite elderly for the times. And he kept right on working, writing and translating, until his last breath.
Burton also possessed skills for disguising himself that would rival those of Lon Chaney, Hollywood’s legendary “Man of a Thousand Faces.” How good was he? He assumed the identity of an Arab traveler and undertook the Hajj, or ceremonial pilgrimage, to the two forbidden cities, al-Medina and Mecca, where he examined the legendary Black Stone, the object most sacred to Muslims worldwide, an offense that meant death to any outsider—and he didn’t get caught. Burton was no vandal, though; it was his all-consuming thirst for knowledge that led him there. Of course he wrote a book about his exploits. Two, in fact. Burton again went undercover to become a Dervish (You’ve all heard of the Swirling Dervishes, right? Wild mystics known to spin around and around, dancing with razor-sharp scimitars in hand.) because he thought he might gain a little “gnosis”—secret knowledge—from them. All spiritual belief systems had pieces of the puzzle, Burton theorized, some bit of knowledge worth the knowing. Burton would visit the Mormons in Utah and attempt to infiltrate their number for the same reasons. He didn’t go to Utah undercover, though, and Burton’s reputation kept the Latter Day Saints from accepting him into their congregation. (Brigham Young was said to be quite fond of Burton, however.) And, naturally, Burton wrote a book about his trip to the southwest, too.
Sir Richard lived the kind of life I have only dreamed about. Saw the kinds of places I dream of seeing. He may never have achieved pervasive fame or great wealth, but he was successful, and he earned respect. No, make that commanded respect. Even from those who hated him. Explorer of ruins and of jungles, a man as proficient with a rapier as with a quill, a prodigious mind in the body of a swashbuckler straight out of escapist fiction. That’s Richard Burton. One of a kind? Without question. For all that, though, history is filled with the exploits of great men. Why Burton, then? Why did I latch onto him and not others? Why is he so special to me? Who knows. The devil drives.
In closing, it irritates the hell out of me that, unless we are speaking of a scholar, one with an interest in specified History, or someone lucky enough to have seen the obscure Mountains movie, if anyone today has heard the name Richard Burton, it is of the actor they think. The guy, one of the score, who married Elizabeth Taylor. Whenever I mention Burton in conversation, with one or two exceptions when I’m speaking with one of my friends who shares my passion for History, I have to specify: “The explorer, not the actor.” That bugs the pee out of me. Don’t get me wrong, now. Burton the latter was indeed a fine actor. Top notch. But he isn’t worthy to polish the boots of the Captain.
Everything I do, then, is in some scaled down way an attempt to emulate Captain Sir Richard. I write fiction instead of academic works, fantasy instead of autobiography, prose instead of poetry; I can’t speak even a second language (although I do know a few words in Latin and Elvish). But every time I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I think of his enormous output of letters. When I stuff my brain with every fact I can get hold of, it is because of his example. As for those grand adventures he lived through, I try to make the most of my little ones, in that same spirit of courageous audacity he displayed. And some day, some day, I will have my big one.
To conclude, Sir Richard is THE MAN. I’ve only scratched the surface with the feats I’ve recounted here, the things he did. I encourage each of you to read more. There are several excellent biographies out there. (The best is by Edward Rice, in my opinion.) And check out Mountains of the Moon. Patrick Bergin (so slimy and evil as Julia Roberts’ abusive husband in Sleeping with the Enemy) is excellent in his portrayal of Burton, and the movie is gorgeously filmed. It just might make you a mark for Sir Richard the way it did me. I hope so. He deserves the recognition.
Guess I’ve done my part, then. I’ll sign off now and get back to work. After all, if I want to be like Sir Richard, I have a lot of catching up to do. A whole lot.
Drive on, devil. Drive on.