Richard Burton: Even a spear through his face could not stop this Explorer Extraordinaire
There are men, and then there are men like Richard Francis Burton who the rest of us men want to be like. He was tough, intelligent and an explorer in his heart and head, fully committed to pushing the boundaries of himself and the world around him. He was unstoppable and there’s a lot to be learned from him.
Born in 1821, Richard Burton was a child of his environment. The fact of his father being a British Army Colonel meant that he and his family traveled a great deal, especially between France, Italy, and England. He was an independent child and grew up into a tough young man.
He was eventually expelled from Oxford’s Trinity College for attending a steeplechase race against school rules. He wasn’t one to apologize for his exploits.
In 1842, he joined the East India Company, which was owned by the British army, and for the next seven years was a captain stationed in India and later in Pakistan.
He had an affinity for language and by the time he was 30 he could speak 29 different languages. He liked to study local activities, taking on and mastering those that appealed to his nature, such as handling live cobras and developing a daily yoga practice.
He was often accused of ‘going native’ by his peers as he studied the local cultures closely. However, his skill in being able to assimilate with local cultures made him a perfect fit as a spy for the British Army. Often he was disguised as a Persian named Mirza Abdullah, and his ability to hold to the character was so good he was able to fool even his closest friends.
When he moved on to Pakistan, his interest in religion changed from Hinduism to Islam, and this is thought to have sparked his first adventure with a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Burton left his post and spent two years in England and France busily planning his pilgrimage. He also at this time studied the sword. His skill was so great he was able to defeat renowned fencing opponents quickly and decisively.
In 1853, he disguised himself as a wandering Dervish and set out for Mecca. He crossed the “Empty Quarter”, the world’s largest contiguous desert, with a small group of men. He was in constant peril, and it would have meant his life if anyone discovered he was a “Westerner”.
The journey started badly, with a brigand attack that killed 12 of his men, and eventually ended on September 11, 1853, when he entered Mecca. He authored an account of his journey in, A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, which brought him fame when it was published.
In 1855, he was back in disguise as an Arab merchant traveling through Africa to the city of Harar. He was the first white man to enter this city and spent ten days as a guest of the Prince.
Before he arrived there, he was attacked by Somali warriors in the Horn of Africa as they overtook his camp. He came away from the battle with a spear through his top jaw, receiving a scar he proudly wore and which can be clearly seen in many of the paintings for which he sat.
Burton’s last adventure was an attempt to find the source of the mighty Nile River. He joined with John Hanning Speke, a British aristocrat, and they went off on their “safari”. They hiked for over two years through the jungles of central Africa.
They encountered unknown wild tribes and some cannibals and experienced tropical diseases and fevers. They eventually arrived in Ujiji where they found Africa’s Great Lakes. Speke was temporally blind at this point, and Burton considered the journey a failure. They were unable to find the source of the Nile.
In Burton’s later years he worked as a diplomat for England and continued his smaller adventures. He got struck by lightning and survived, tried to find gorillas, and canoed down fierce rivers. He was a man who couldn’t keep still.
He wrote more about his adventures and experiences, managing to author over 40 books on numerous subject including human behaviour, travel, falconry, fencing, sexual practices and ethnography. He also translated The Arabian Nights into English, introducing the now popular Aladdin to the English-speaking world.
Eventually, his hard life took its toll when at 50 he caught a chill from sleeping in snow and came down with a fever from which he never fully recovered. His country had not forgotten him, however, and in 1886 he was anointed Knight Commander.
He continued to write with his wife at his side until 1890 when he died of a heart attack at the age of 69. He was one of the greatest adventurers of his time.
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