Childhood & Early Life
Richard Francis Burton was born on March 19, 1821 in Torquay, Devonshire, England. His father, Lt.-Colonel Joseph Netterville Burton, was a British army officer in the 36th regiment and his mother, Martha Baker, was the daughter of a wealthy English squire.
He had two younger siblings, a sister named Maria Katherine Elizabeth Burton and a brother named Edward Joseph Netterville Burton.
Joseph retired early from an unsuccessful army career and the family shifted to France in 1825 and frequently travelled between England, France, and Italy. Richard Francis Burton’s primary education came through private tutors and in 1829 he enrolled in a preparatory school in Surrey.
He became well versed in French, Italian, Greek, Latin and Béarnaise and Neapolitan dialects over the following years.
He entered Trinity College, Oxford in 1840 where he gave glimpses of exceptional intellect and ability, but his overall image was more of a trouble-maker. He picked up a new language, Arabic, in the university but was expelled in 1842 on the grounds of disobedience.
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Richard Francis Burton wished to fight in the first Afghan War and enlisted in the army of the East India Company in 1842. However, he was posted to the 18th Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry, which was under the command of General Charles James Napier.
In India, he continued his love affair with new languages and soon mastered Hindustani, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki, Marathi, Telegu, Pashto, Multani and Persian.
His multilingualism and knack for disguises made him Napier’s favorite intelligence officer. Burton travelled as a Muslim merchant named Mirza Abdullah in the bazaars of the Sindh province and brought back detailed reports.
In 1845, he conducted an undercover investigation of a homosexual brothel in Karachi which was frequented by the British officers. His report went into the wrong hands and it was believed that he was a regular visitor too.
He returned to Europe on a sick leave in 1849. For the next couple of years he stayed in Boulogne, France and wrote four books on India, including ‘Goa and the Blue Mountains’ and ‘Sindh and Races that Inhibit the Valley of the Indus’, a discourse on falconry, and a book on bayonet exercise.
Being an avid adventurer he wished to learn the secrets of Mecca and Medina. Since these cities were not open to non-Muslims, he had prepared for the ‘Hajj’ disguised as a Muslim merchant during his time in India. He learnt Islamic studies and practices and even underwent circumcision to prevent detection.
His pilgrimage started in April 1853 and he adopted various disguises to fulfill his purpose including that of an Afghani doctor and a Pashtun. He penned this fantastic and yet dangerous achievement in the travelogue ‘A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah’ (1855).
The successful pilgrimage made him crave for more adventure and he set his eyes on Harar, the forbidden East African City. According to a prophecy ‘the city would decline if a Christian was admitted inside’; anyhow Burton became the first European to visit the place without being executed in 1854.
His next mission was to travel through the interiors of Somaliland and finding the source of the White Nile. He was accompanied by Lieutenant Speke, Lieutenant Herne and Lieutenant Stroyan.
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But even before the expedition could begin, their group was attacked by around 200 Somali warriors. Stroyan was killed and Speke and Burton escaped with multiple injuries. Burton mentions of his African expedition in the travelogue ‘First Footsteps in East Africa’ (1856).
His next expedition was to locate the Inland Sea in Africa and possibly discover the source of the Nile River. He set off from Zanzibar with Speke in 1857.
In this expedition the duo faced many problems like the theft of their equipments and finding reliable bearers. To add to their miseries, Speke went temporarily blind and deaf in one ear and Burton became too weak to even walk for some time. They continued on their expedition in spite of these difficulties.
With great determination the expedition reached Lake Tanganyika in 1858, but they could not survey the area as most of the equipment was already lost, broken or stolen. Burton returned and penned his experiences in his book, ‘Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa’ (1860).
Speke continued the journey alone and venturing north, he reached the great Lake Victoria. He too couldn’t survey the lake due to the unavailability of proper equipments, but was personally convinced that this was indeed the source of the Nile River. He penned his experiences in the book ‘The Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile’ (1863).
Speke undertook another expedition to verify the source of the River Nile with James Augustus Grant, a Scottish explorer. The group started from Zanzibar and returned via the Nile and declared the expedition as successful in verifying the source of the Nile River. However, Burton and other explorers still thought otherwise and this led to arguments between Burton and Speke.
Speke returned to London and presented a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society and the Society awarded Speke its Gold Medal. Burton was still unconvinced about the true source of the Nile and felt betrayed by Speke. The duo was scheduled to debate the source of the Nile at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on 16 September 1864, but the debate never took place as Speke died unexpectedly before that.