TCS Daily

Explorer, Scholar, Soldier, Spy

By Kenneth Silber - September 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was, in his own words, "a blaze of light without a focus." He was a soldier, undercover agent, and diplomat for the British Empire, an explorer who sought the sources of the Nile, a scholar who translated the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra, and the first Englishman to enter the Islamic city of Mecca. His travels and postings brought him to far-flung parts of Africa, India and South America. He spoke some 29 languages, and could pass for various nationalities.

Burton's remarkable life deserves to be better known to Americans -- partly for its historical interest and sheer adventure, but also because it exemplifies certain qualities vital to American military, intelligence, diplomatic and economic success in the world today. These include a strong interest in foreign languages and cultures, a capacity for physical bravery in dangerous times and places, and an intellectual boldness suitable for the defense and promotion of liberal democratic civilization against its avowed enemies.

Burton lived most of his life outside of Britain and seems never to have felt much at home in his own country. After being expelled from Oxford for bad conduct, he joined the army of the British East India Company and was assigned to the Sind province (now in Pakistan). He spent seven years in the subcontinent, often on secret missions for British Gen. Charles Napier. Burton developed his language skills, blended in with the crowd, and performed his part in the "Great Game" wherein Britain and Russia vied for supremacy in Asia. He attained close familiarity with the everyday lives of the locals (including erotic practices and prostitution, an expertise that would aid his later translation of the Kama Sutra, an ancient sex manual).

During a lengthy leave from military service, Burton undertook an exploration of Arabia. In 1853, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca, disguised as a Central Asian traveler but apparently motivated in part by genuine religious feeling. (Burton had an affinity for the Sufi brand of Islam, and may have been an adherent. However, he shrouded his religious beliefs in secrecy.) This trip brought him the beginnings of a growing fame in Britain.

The next year, Burton, along with Capt. John Hanning Speke and two other officers, conducted an expedition into Somaliland in East Africa, a trip backed by British officials eager to maintain Red Sea trade routes. Burton made the most hazardous part of the trip alone, becoming the first European to enter the Somali capital of Harar. Two years later, Burton and Speke returned to Africa on a mission to find the sources of the Nile. They were the first Europeans to find Lake Tanganyika. With Burton ill, Speke went onward along lines sketched out by Burton and found what came to be known as Lake Victoria. The two men subsequently had a falling-out over competing claims about the discoveries.

Following the Africa trips, Burton married Isabel Arundell, an Englishwoman whose Catholicism further obscured the question of Burton's religious beliefs. Burton joined the diplomatic corps and held positions in West Africa, Brazil, Syria and Italy. He traveled to the U.S. as well, heading westward to see American Indians and Mormons. Burton wrote numerous books and translations. His translation of the Arabian Nights (which, following its Arabic title, he called The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night) brought stories such as that of Aladdin to public attention in the West.

Burton was not an entirely laudable figure. His views, not uncommonly for his time, included tendencies toward racism and anti-Semitism. However, it is clear that he regarded native peoples with far greater empathy than did many Europeans. On sexual matters, he was ahead of his time, for example emphasizing women's capacity to enjoy sex. He was a truculent person who made many enemies; his military career never rose above the rank of captain, and he was forced out of a high-profile diplomatic post in Syria. But he also had many admirers, and in 1886 he was knighted by Queen Victoria.

At present, U.S. vital interests are very much entangled in the same regions -- the Middle East, Southwest Asia, East Africa -- that Burton made his specialty. There is much concern about the limitations of American knowledge of these regions, for example that U.S. human intelligence, or "humint," networks are far too thin on the ground. Burton acquired deep knowledge of these places and peoples at a time when doing so required almost superhuman effort. There is no way to replicate a 19th-century career in the 21st century, but there is room, and a need, for a Burton-like element in U.S. efforts today.

Author's note: A valuable, wide-ranging biography of Burton is Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, by Edward Rice (various editions). A compendium of Web links about Burton can be found at and online editions of some of Burton's works are at .


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