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Sir Richard Burton – Explorer, Sex Guru, Monkey Whisperer

By Turtle Bunbury
An illustrated version of this article appeared in Playboy magazine in November 2011 under the heading ‘The History of Sex’.

Sir Richard Francis Burton was born in 1821 on the south coast of England. His paternal ancestors hailed from the Lake District, but during the 1770s Burton’s grandfather relocated to the western shores of Ireland and became a Protestant clergyman. Sir Richard boasted that his grandmother Maria descended from the Countess de Montmorency, a mistress of Louis XIV’s 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 son of Louis XIV.

Richard’s father, Joseph Netterville Burton, was born in Ireland in 1795. 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 British army, married Martha Baker, “the accomplished but plain daughter” of a wealthy English gentleman.

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. When Caroline died soon afterward, Joseph realized his prospects for military promotion had all but collapsed. He abandoned the army and moved to France. By 1823 the Burtons were living in a château near Tours with their three small children, Richard, Edward and Maria. The youngsters attended a school run by a psychotic Irishman who once took them to watch a woman being guillotined for poisoning her family.

The Burton children terrorized the neighborhood 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 became one of the main troublemakers. At one point he racked up 32 “affairs of honor,” as schoolyard duels were known. He loathed England and was delighted when, following a deadly outbreak of measles, his father brought him back to France and placed him under a tutor.

The family later moved to Italy, where the Burton brothers took to eating opium and mastered the arts of gambling, drinking and lovemaking. By their early teens both were well acquainted with the brothels of Naples. “Being abundant in pocket money, the orgy was tremendous,” Richard recalled happily. However, when their mother discovered letters of “extreme debauchery” written by two prostitutes, Joseph chased his sons to the chimney tops of their home with a horsewhip.

Richard also had an affair with a 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 in Trinity College, Oxford in the hope Richard would become a clergyman. Things got off to an awkward start when a fellow student mocked his Italian mustache. Richard challenged the man to a duel and arrived brandishing a red-hot poker. His opponent fled. Richard became known as Ruffian Dick.

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The November 2011 edition of Playboy in which
Turtle’s article on Burton appeared.

Study bored him. Instead, he learned how to fence and taught himself Arabic. His university career came to an 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. He departed the college on a horse-drawn tandem, riding over flower beds, hooting loudly on a tin trumpet and blowing kisses to the shopgirls who watched him go.

He made his way to London, where he assured his father he had merely been let go early because he had done so well on his exams. Joseph threw a celebratory dinner party, during which the truth was revealed and many unpleasantries exchanged.

Joseph secured his wayward son a commission as an ensign with the Bombay Native Infantry in India. Richard sailed for Bombay in 1842 and was instantly smitten by the sounds and smells of the subcontinent. He applied himself to a serious study of India’s history, culture and languages, studying Hindustani, Gujarati, Punjabi and Sanskrit. His fellow officers took to calling him “the white nigger.” Like most British officers in India at the time, he took an Indian mistress, who began to educate him in the ways of Eastern sex. Today, a family in the western Indian city of Baroda claims descent from this union.

By 1845 Burton was working as an undercover agent in Karachi for Sir Charles Napier, governor of Bombay and one of the most respected military commanders of his age. Burton later wrote how Napier assigned him the task of investigating rumors that senior British officers were frequenting a brothel in the port of Karachi where the prostitutes were eunuchs and young boys.

Burton let his black hair grow long and groomed a venerable beard. He stained his face and limbs with henna, opened a shop in Karachi and began calling himself Mirza Abdullah of Bushire. He conversed with priests, played chess with students, smoked opium with addicts. Everyone fell for the disguise, including a well-connected but “decayed beauty” named Khanum Jan, who provided him with crucial information.

However, even as Burton put the finishing touches to his report on the Karachi brothels, Napier had resigned the governorship, declaring his superiors to be “a galaxy of donkeys,” and returned to England. When Napier’s successor espied Burton’s report, which quite possibly named several of his friends, he ripped it up. Burton responded by writing a letter to his imperial employers at the British East India Company, telling them what the Indians really thought of the “foul invaders” from Britain and predicting the Indian mutiny of 1857 at least 10 years before it began. Already derided for “going native,” Burton reached a new low in popularity among his fellow officers.

He continued his studies of India’s culture, learning about yoga and magic and customs such as circumcision, both female and male. But his heart broke 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 Burton found solace with a menagerie of 40 tame monkeys purchased at a bazaar and taught to eat like humans. He gave each a title and a rank, including doctor, chaplain, secretary and aide-de-camp. He put pearls in the ears of one particularly silky monkey and called it his wife. Having learned how to converse with monkeys, Burton began to compose the world’s first simian dictionary, but his notes were destroyed in a warehouse fire some years later.

What most impressed Burton during his time in India was the enlightened manner with which the exotic East treated the subject of sex, not least when compared with the absurdly frigid attitudes of Britain and the West. Burton was convinced Europeans were missing out because they were ignorant of the erotic techniques teenage Hindus learned as a matter of course. The concept that women might actually derive pleasure from sex made British society blush. But Burton believed strongly in the notion of sex as something to be vigorously enjoyed by both men and women.

It was also during this time in India that Burton became enamored with tantric sex. Among his earliest notes were his remarks on how to boost a man’s staying power—or the “retaining art,” as he called it. The solution, Burton wrote, “is to avoid over-tension of the muscles and to preoccupy the brain” by drinking sherbet, chewing betel nut and perhaps even smoking a pipe while having sex.

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By his own admission he was stranded in the wrong century. His voracious appetite for learning gave him thoughts on sexuality that were more attuned to our present century than his own. But at the least he was determined to awaken Western society to the joys of erotic literature. As he put it, the “European novelist marries off his hero and heroine and leaves them to consummate marriage in privacy; even Tom Jones [hero of the comic novel by Henry Fielding] has the decency to bolt the door. But the Eastern storyteller…must usher you, with a flourish, into the bridal chamber and narrate to you, with infinite gusto, everything he sees and hears.”

While he was gathering his thoughts on pornography, Burton was simultaneously evolving from an eccentric soldier-spy into one of the world’s most remarkable explorers. 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 an extraordinary hajj, or pilgrimage, to the forbidden cities of Medina and Mecca, becoming only the second non-Muslim to manage this feat. He traveled in disguise as an Afghan doctor, surviving an attack by bandits and narrowly escaping discovery when, forgetting to squat like an Arab, he lifted his robe to urinate. His meticulous preparations for the journey included having a circumcision and mastering the Persian, Afghan and Arabic languages. During this time he often sat around campfires, listening to legends of old. Many of the kinkier tales he heard were extracted from works such as The Arabian Nights, which he would later come to know so well. Curiously, when Burton returned from his pilgrimage to rejoin the British army, he sat for an examination as an Arab linguist and failed.

His Middle Eastern adventure was followed by an expedition to Harer, a sacred Islamic city in present-day Ethiopia that no European had yet entered. The Royal Geographical Society 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 and Burton was severely wounded, a javelin impaling both of his cheeks.

Shortly after his father’s death, in 1857, Burton was again recruited by the Royal Geographical Society to travel to Africa and locate an “inland sea” known to Arab traders and slavers. He had hoped this would lead him to the as yet undiscovered source of the Nile. In fact, his journey through the dense African jungles led him to Lake Tanganyika, the deepest lake in Africa and the longest freshwater lake in the world. He was the first European to set eyes on it; his traveling companion, Lieutenant Speke, was blinded by a tropical disease and unable to 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, a spirited English beauty “with yards of golden hair” and dark blue eyes. They were married at a quiet Catholic ceremony in England and honeymooned in Ireland. The Burtons had no children, but they must have enjoyed a fantastic love life because, despite his immense sexual zeal, he appears to have remained faithful to her for the remainder of his days.

Shortly after their marriage Burton was posted as consul to an island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, from where he explored the coast of west Africa. By 1865 the Burtons were in Brazil, where he canoed down the São Francisco River from its source to the falls of Paulo Afonso.

Four years later he was made consul in Damascus but fell out with the city’s Jewish population when he challenged their moneylending policies. 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 300 men to kill me.”

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By now Burton was a well-known figure throughout Britain, famed for his satanic looks and his skills as a raconteur. The British public adored him, but the upper echelons of society were uncomfortable in his presence. He had acquired a kindly wife, but for many, he was still the same untamed, unruly soul who had terrorized the streets of Oxford in his youth. He played up his mysterious, wandering repute with aplomb. When a clergyman asked if he had ever killed a man, he replied, “Sir, I’m proud to say that I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.”

In 1871 he was transferred to Trieste, in Austria-Hungary, a peaceful posting where he found the time to develop his passion for travel writing and, increasingly, erotic literature. Spurred on by a heart attack, he became more determined than ever to enlighten the otherwise staid British about “social and sexual matters.” His travel books already included highly detailed appendixes and footnotes that covered geography, languages, customs and—most -pertinently—the sexual habits and techniques of those he encountered. His notes even included measurements, taken by him, of the penises of inhabitants of the regions through which he traveled. When these explicit details were published in his general works, many readers were scandalized.

Undeterred, Burton joined forces with Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, an Oriental scholar of Irish descent. In 1882 they co-founded the Kama Shastra Society of London and Benares, a semifictitious publishing house that sought to translate and publish a series of ancient erotic texts. Publishing pornography in Victorian England was a most ambitious plan, given the strict censorship laws, but there was also a strong black market for such works.

In 1883 the Kama Shastra Society published its first book, “for private circulation only”—Burton’s groundbreaking translation of the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana. The historic sex guide, believed to be more than 1,600 years old, included chapters on “Sexual Union,” “About a Wife” and “About Others’ Wives.” The secret print run was an instant success, and the Kama Sutra went on to become one of the most pirated books in the English language, though Burton conceded that one would have to be indubitably athletic to achieve some of the recommended positions.

Burton’s next project was a translation of Ananga Ranga, or the Hindu Art of Love, a 16th century work that gave readers detailed suggestions about how to bring a woman to the maximum state of pleasure. “How delicious an instrument is woman, when artfully played upon,” he wrote. “How capable she is of producing the most exquisite harmonies; of executing the most complicated variations and of giving the divinest pleasures.”

He then turned to The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight, an erotic 15th century Arabian sex guide that had been translated into French a few years earlier. The book is a bawdy rollick, spiced with useful advice and curious recipes such as the consumption of “a glassful of honey, 20 almonds and 100 grains of the pine tree” to reduce impotence. Burton noted that the Mormon leader Brigham Young believed eating a large number of eggs achieved the same result.

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Above: Turtle Bunbury pictured and on the Playbill for the November
2011 edition of Playboy.

As an accomplished storyteller, Burton was one of the most popular after–dinner speakers of his generation. But his linguistic skills were probably never better employed than when he undertook the translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, better known as The Arabian Nights, a labyrinthine sexual fantasy replete with tales of lust and orgiastic rompery, as well as such classic stories as “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp,” “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.”

Burton’s ambition to translate the Persian masterpiece dates back to at least 1852, when he vowed to publish “a full, complete, unvarnished, uncastrated copy of the great original.” He correctly deduced that The Arabian Nights was a collaborative work, primarily written in the 10th century, with the earliest -stories—including the one of Sinbad—dating to the eighth century. Although the stories had been translated into English as early as 1796, Burton’s version of The Arabian Nights was unquestionably the sauciest. Even Aladdin gets to joke about the size of his member.

In 1885 Burton printed 1,000 copies of the 10-volume series at his own expense, while Isabel overcame her innate primness and mailed out 34,000 circulars advertising the new book and assuring readers there would only ever be 1,000 editions. By the time their subscription numbers reached 2,000, the Burtons were kicking themselves that they had promised to restrict the print run to 1,000.

Between 1886 and 1888 Burton translated a further six volumes of The Arabian Nights, entitled The Supplemental Nights, each one annotated with his now trademark footnotes. Virginity, incest, hermaphrodites, STDs, bestiality, lesbians, circumcision—Burton was not one to leave any bedsheet uninspected. He even managed to include an extensive account of the invention of the condom.

He also liked to shock. Men sweated over his discussion of certain Egyptian women’s penchant for murdering their husbands by tearing out their balls. Women gulped at his account of apes from west Africa that had been known to rape women, though Burton “could not convince myself that they ever kept the women as concubines.”

The journalist Henry Reeve declared The Arabian Nights to be “an extraordinary agglomeration of filth” and “one of the most indecent books in the English language.… Burton [is] for the sewers.” But others considered it a work of genius or, as the New York Tribune called it, “a monument of knowledge and audacity.” The Arabian Nights was also a financial success, and the Burtons pocketed a tidy profit. As he later said, “I struggled for 47 years. I distinguished myself honorably in every way I possibly could. I never had a compliment, nor a thank you, nor a single farthing. I translated a doubtful book in my old age and immediately made 16,000 guineas. Now that I know the tastes of England, we need never be without money.”

While he claimed The Arabian Nights was intended for men, and for scholars in particular, Burton rightly suspected it would be their wives who actually devoured the contents. That said, when Isabel subsequently published her own version of The Arabian Nights, she slashed 215 pages’ worth of her husband’s juiciest text, replacing expressions such as satisfying their lusts with embracing and axed all his more vivid footnotes. Isabel Burton’s desexed version was an understandably poor seller.

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 honored as a fellow of the prestigious Royal Geographical Society. And in 1886, much to Isabel’s delight, Burton was knighted by Queen Victoria.

He died of a heart attack in Trieste on October 20, 1890, apparently while trying to revive a half-drowned robin. Although Burton was not a Catholic, his wife persuaded a priest to undertake the extreme unction two hours after his passing.

At the time of his death Burton was still working on his translation of The Perfumed Garden. This work was never published. In a hasty bid to protect her husband’s reputation, Isabel burned the manuscript and several other unpublished pornographic works soon after his death. “Sorrowfully, reverently, and in fear and trembling,” she later wrote, “I burnt sheet after sheet, until the whole of the volumes were consumed.”

Sir Richard and Lady Burton are buried together in a tomb shaped like a bedouin tent at Mortlake in southwest London.