Turtle Bunbury

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Sir Richard Francis Burton was one of the most eccentric and brilliant explorers the world has known. During the 19th century, this intrepid scion of Co. Galway discovered Lake Tanganyika, translated the ‘Kama Sutra’ into English, mastered 29 languages (including that of the Simian monkey) and became only the second non-Muslim to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. An unflinching critic of British colonial policies, he was also one of the most controversial figures of his day.

Burton’s grandfather, the Rev. Edward Burton was a gentleman’s son from Westmoreland (now Cumbria) in England. He arrived in Tuam, Co. Galway, during the 1770s and became Vicar of Annaghdown on Lough Corrib.[i] He settled in Newgarden House, just outside Tuam, with his wife Maria.

The explorer frequently boasted that his grandmother descended from the Countess de Montmorency, a mistress of Louis XIV, who fled Paris with a baby boy hidden in a basket of flowers and settled in Ireland. The child’s name was Louis Drelincourt and, according to Richard, he was not only Maria Burton’s grandfather but also the French King’s son.[ii]

Richard’s father, Joseph Netterville Burton, was born in Tuam in 1795, the third of ten children. Contemporaries described him as ‘a tall, handsome man with sallow skin, dark hair, and coal-black eyes’.

In March 1820, 25-year-old Joseph, by then an officer in the 36th Regiment, married Martha Baker, ‘the accomplished but plain daughter’ of a wealthy English gentleman.[iii] However, just four months later, Joseph was reduced to half-pay when, summoned to testify in an adultery trial against Britain’s Queen Caroline, he refused to do so. The Burtons moved to Torquay, Devon, where their son Richard Francis Burton was born in March 1821.

Like his more famous son, Joseph Burton was a Quixotic, wandering soul.[iv] In 1823, he moved with his wife and son to a chateau near Tours in France where Richard’s sister Maria and brother Edward were born.[v]

Richard and his siblings grew up in Tours, where they attended a school run by an Irish teacher called Clough. One of their school trips was to go see a woman being guillotined.

The Burtons were wild children, forever terrorizing the neighbourhood while their father lost himself in chemistry experiments, producing bucket after bucket of a pungent and ultimately useless liquid he erroneously believed to be citric acid.

In 1829, the boys were sent to boarding school in London where Richard rapidly became one of the key trouble-makers, at one time racking up thirty-two ‘affairs of honour’ as schoolyard duels were known. He loathed England and was delighted when, following a deadly outbreak of measles, his father relented, brought him back to France and placed him under a tutor.

The family later moved to Italy where the brothers took to eating opium and mastered the arts of gambling, drinking and lovemaking.[vi] Richard fell in love with the daughter of a French baron, followed by a string of dark Italian beauties. However, when their father discovered that he and Edward had visited ‘a house of poor reputation’, he horsewhipped them both.

Richard also had an affair with a Romany gypsy woman, managing to learn ‘the rudiments of her language’. He was already showing a gift for languages and spoke French, Italian, Neapolitan, and Latin, as well as several dialects.

In 1840, Joseph enrolled his eldest son at Trinity College Oxford in the vain hope that he might become a clergyman. Things got off to an awkward start when a fellow student mocked his Italian moustache. Richard challenged the man to a duel and arrived brandishing a red-hot poker. It is assumed his opponent fled.

Study bored him. Instead he learned how to fence, taught himself Arabic and befriended Tom Hughes, author of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’.[vii] However, his college career came to an abrupt end when he was summoned before the college dignitaries for attending the Oxford horse-races against college rules. When Burton reprimanded the dons for treating students like children, he was expelled.

His father secured him a commission as an Ensign with the Bombay Native Infantry and he sailed for Bombay in 1842.[viii] Burton was instantly smitten by the sounds and smells of India.

He applied himself to a serious study of the continents’ history, culture and, above all languages, studying Hindustani, Gujarati, Punjabi and Sanskrit for anything up to twelve hours a day. His fellow officers took to calling him “The White Nigger.”

By 1845, he was working as an undercover agent in Karachi for Sir Charles Napier, the Governor of Bombay who had spent his childhood in Celbridge, Co. Kildare.[ix] Burton later wrote how Napier assigned him he task of investigating rumours that senior British officers were frequenting a brothel in Karachi where the prostitutes were young boys.

Burton let his black hair grow long and groomed a venerable beard. He stained his limbs with henna, opened a nick-nack shop in Karachi and began calling himself Abdullah of Bushire. Everyone fell for the disguise, including a well-connected but ‘decayed beauty’ named Khanum Jan who provided him with vital information.

However, shortly after Burton produced his report on the Karachi brothels, Napier was posted elsewhere. When Napier’s successor espied the report, which may have named several of his friends, he tore it up. Already derided for ‘going native’, Burton’s popularity with his fellow officers reached a new low.

‘Ruffian Dick’, as the officers now called him, continued his studies of India’s culture, learning about Yoga and magic and customs such as circumcision, both female and male. But he broke his heart when he fell in love with ‘a beautiful olive, oval-faced Persian girl of high descent … her eyes were narcissi, her cheeks sweet basil’ only for her to take ill and die the same year.

In 1847, he found solace with a menagerie of forty tame simian monkeys whom he taught how to eat like humans. He also learned how to converse with the monkeys and produced the world’s first Simian Dictionary which was tragically destroyed in a fire some years later.

In 1853, he obtained the backing of both the Royal Geographical Society and the British East India Company to travel in the Middle East. That same year, the 32-year-old made his extraordinary Hajj, or pilgrimage, to the forbidden cities of Medina and Mecca, becoming only the second non-Muslim to manage this feat.[x] His meticulous preparations for the journey included having a circumcision and mastering the Persian, Afghan and Arabic languages. He travelled disguised as an Afghan doctor, surviving an attack by bandits and narrowly escaping discovery when he forgot to squat like an Arab and lifted his robe to urinate. Curiously, when Burton returned to join the British Army he sat for an examination as an Arab linguist and failed.

His Middle Eastern adventure was followed by an expedition to Harar, an Islamic city in present day Ethiopia which no European had yet entered. The RGS then dispatched him to the African interior accompanied by three other English officers and a number of African bearers. As the expedition prepared to leave camp, they were attacked by a group of 200 Somali warriors. One officer was killed while Burton was severely wounded, a javelin impaling both of his cheeks.

After service in the Crimean War, he was again recruited by the RGS to head deep into darkest Africa and locate an ‘inland sea’ which Arab traders and slavers spoke of in hushed tones. He had hoped this would lead him to the as yet undiscovered source of the River Nile.

Shortly after his Irish-born father’s death in Somerset in 1857, Burton set off for Lake Tanganyika, the deepest lake in Africa and the longest freshwater lake in the world. By the time they reached it in February 1858, his traveling companion Lieutenant Speke was so blinded by a tropical disease that he couldn’t see the water. Both men returned home separately, in dreadful health, and became bitter enemies until Speke’s death, probably by suicide, in 1864.

In 1861, Richard married Isabel Arundel, an English woman “with yards of golden hair” and dark blue eyes whom he had first met when she was on a schooltrip to Italy a decade earlier.[xi] They were married at a quiet Catholic ceremony in England. They honeymooned in Ireland, calling in to see his Burton relations in Tuam. They had no children and he had no known illegitimate offspring, although there are various accounts of those claiming to be his descendents.

Burton was subsequently posted as consul to an island in Equatorial Guinea, from where he explored the coast of West Africa, and later to Brazil, where he canoed down the Sao Francisco river from its source to the falls of Paulo Afonso.

In 1869 he was made consul in Damascus but fell out with the city’s Jewish population when he challenged their money lending policies.[xii] He also infuriated the Governor of Syria who dispatched several hundred armed horsemen and camel riders to kill him. ‘I have never been so flattered in my life’, Burton wrote, ‘than to think it would take three hundred men to kill me.’

In 1871, he was transferred to Trieste in Austria-Hungary (as successor to the Dublin-born consul Charles Lever), a peaceful posting where he found the time to write.

Eight years earlier, Burton had co-founded the Anthropological Society of London which aimed to enlighten members about ‘social and sexual matters’. This was inspired by the highly detailed notebooks which he had kept on his travels covering geography, languages, customs and, perhaps most pertinently, the sexual habits and techniques of those he encountered. This included measurements taken by Burton of the lengths of the sexual organs of the male inhabitants of the regions through which he traveled. When these details were published as footnotes and appendices in his general works, many readers were scandalized.

Undeterred, Burton joined forces with Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, an Oriental scholar of Irish descent, to translate and publish two Sanskrit erotic texts, the most famous of which was the Kama Sutra of Vatsayana, published in 1883.[xiii] The historic sex guide, believed to be over 1,600 years old, included chapters on ‘Sexual Union’, ‘About A Wife’ and ‘About Others' Wives’. In August 2010, Burton’s ‘Kama Sutra’ was published as an audio book for the first time, read by actress Tanya Franks, who plays Rainie Cross in ‘EastEnders’.

He also published the 16 volume translation of an erotic work, The Arabian Nightsand a pornographic novel called ‘The Perfumed Garden of the Shaykh Nefzawi’.

Burton’s fascination with sex, combined with his anti-imperialist sentiments and tendency to “go native” set him at odds with the Victorian society in which he lived. Nonetheless his achievements were such that he was honoured as a Fellow of the RGS and, in 1886, he was knighted by Queen Victoria.

He died in Trieste on 20 October 1890 of a heart attack, apparently while trying to revive a half-drowned robin. Although Burton was not a Catholic, his wife persuaded a priest to perform the last rites. Determined to protect her husband’s reputation, Isabel later burned many of his papers, most notably his unpublished pornographic works. Richard and Isabel are buried in a tomb shaped like a Bedouin tent at Mortlake in southwest London.

See: Thomas Wright, The Life of Sir Richard Burton.


[i] His elder brother Edmund Burton was Archdeacon of the Protestant Cathedral and later became Dean of Killala, Co. Mayo. For more on the Burton family, see Helen Burton’s most informative webpage of http://www.tuamfamilyhistories.com/familyhistories_members/burtons_of_tuam.htm

[ii] When someone suggested he should be prouder of his Irish roots, he responded ‘I would rather be the bastard of a king than the son of an honest man.’ That said, Burton also claimed that his mother descended from the Scottish outlaw, Rob Roy.

[iii] Martha’s parents were Richard and Sarah Baker, of Barham House, Hertfordshire. The explorer Richard Burton was named for his grandfather in the hope that he might inherit his considerable wealth. As it happened the Baker inheritance passed to Martha’s half-brother. Much to Joseph’s consternation, his father-in-law would not permit him to invest his wife’s money in any enterprise.

It is to be noted that Joseph’s brother, Dr. Francis Burton married Martha’s sister Sarah. Dr. Burton was the surgeon in St. Helena who initially took a plaster cast of Napoleon’s death mask, only to have that honour swiped by the Corsican doctor, Dr. François Carlo Antommarch.

[iv] An asthmatic and an amateur chemist, Joseph Burton was also a deeply superstitious man, refusing to reveal his birthday to anyone.

[v] Maria Katharine Elisa became the wife of General Sir Henry Stisted, sometime Governor of Ontario.

[vi] In Italy, Richard smashed a violin over his music teacher’s head. His brother Edward fared better and became a celebrated musician. But Richard was also bewitched by nature and once resuscitated a bullfinch which had nearly drowned itself in a water-jug.

[vii] Burton was undoubtedly an inspiration for George McDonald Fraser’s wonderful anti-hero, Sir Harry Flashman, based on the school bully from ‘Tom Browne’s Schooldays'.

[viii] When he met his father in London after his expulsion, he told him he had been let go early because he had done so well in his exams. His father threw a celebratory dinner during which the truth was revealed and many unpleasantries were exchanged.

[ix] Burton originally went to Karachi (population: 2,000) as an assistant to Captain Scott (nephew of the novelist), who was commissioned to survey the Sind after Napier’s conquest of the province. Burton ultimately spent seven years in Sind, during which time he collated much of the amazing material which he later used for ‘The Arabian Nights’. He was also a renowned daredevil, playing hopscotch on crocodile backs with his friend Lieutenant Beresford.

Sir Charles Napier was nicknamed ‘Fagin’ on account of his hawkish similarities to Dicken’s anti-hero

[x] The first non-Muslim to enter Mekka was a Finnish man called Georg August Wallin on 7th December 1845. He too was a language genius. A painting of him wearing a big beard and a turban adorns the wall of the teacher's lounge at Helsinki University.

[xi] “That is the man!”, wrote Isabel. ‘[He is] “five feet eleven inches in height, very broad, thin and muscular, with very dark hair, black, clearly defined, sagacious eyebrows, a brown, weather-beaten complexion, straight Arab features, a determined-looking mouth and chin, nearly covered by an enormous moustache; two large, black, flashing eyes, with long lashes,” and a “fierce, proud, melancholy expression.”

[xii] While in Damascus, Burton and Isabel befriended Lady Jane Digby, the well-known adventurer, and Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi, a prominent leader of the Algerian revolution then living in exile.

[xiii] The Kama Sutra of Vatsayana (1883) and The Ananga Ranga (1885) were both privately printed by the Kama Shastra Society, a fictitious organisation consisting of Arbuthnot and Burton which was a legal device to avoid obscenity laws.