What Daring Did & Didn't
WHEN RICHARD BURTON was eight years old, his mother paraded him up to a pastry shop window. As he admired the delicacies inside, she ordered him to walk on, remarking piously, "It is so good for little children to restrain themselves." Enraged, Burton smashed the glass, clawed out a tray of apple puffs, and ran. It was 1829. A lifelong battle between the unrestrainable appetites of Richard Francis Burton* footnote and the tastes of Victorian England had been joined.
Unhappily, both sides lost. During most of his scandalous and strenuous lifetime, Britain slighted Burton and Burton sneered at Britain. The eldest son of a prominent English family, he had the dark good looks, the brilliance and the energy to become one of the legendary men of his age. He made himself one of the greatest linguists in British history, was able to pass as a native in 29 languages. As an unofficial intelligence officer for the Indian army, he had submerged himself for months in the native population of Sind, collecting volumes of notes on everything from secret tribal alliances to the shape of women's breasts in Karachi. In 1853 he became the first Englishman to reach Mecca and live to write about it. In 1857, his expedition pushed some 800 miles through desert and jungle to discover Lake Tanganyika, and they were the first whites ever to come close to the source of the Nile.
Copulating Crocodiles. Despite all this, "Ruffian Dick" and the "White Nigger" were the epithets that polite London society applied to Burton; and Her Majesty's government all but ignored his fantastic, if sometimes freakish, feats. Official distaste began when Burton wrote a detailed study of pederasty among the natives. He was promptly blackballed from future promotion in the British Indian Army. Thereafter, he never rose above the rank of captain or progressed beyond minor consular appointments in a belated career in the British foreign service.
Much of the public slighting of Burton was unjust—the pederasty study, for instance, had been suggested to him as a serious project by his commander, General Sir Charles Napier. Yet it is difficult to see Burton as a man more sinned against than sinning. For one thing, as Author Farwell blandly puts it, "the only vice he did not practice was gambling." For another, Burton, who always referred to the proper British public contemptuously as "Mrs. Grundy," goaded the good lady abominably. On rare visits back to England he delighted in describing imaginary feasts at which he had fed on haunch of roasted baby. He invariably insisted that plural marriage was the only natural and proper wedded state for man. Rubbing his hands with glee over his new translation of the Persian love classic The Perfumed Garden (sample chapter: copulation with crocodiles), Burton chortled: "Mrs. Grundy will howl until she bursts, and will read every word with an intense enjoyment."
A Marble Tent. Most of Burton's more than 50 volumes are all but unreadable today, mainly because he never edited them. But nearly every volume contains sprightly and fascinating passages. Whatever his official subject, Burton always spun off ideas that were often visionary and sometimes prophetic.
Years before anyone else guessed, he said that mosquitoes cause malaria. He devoted paragraphs to the virtues of the Kola nut, which he claimed was an aphrodisiac and narcotic, and which he thought could be exploited as a drink.
It was, as Coca-Cola. His textbook on bayonet fighting, though at first scorned by orthodox military men, was finally adopted by the British army after the Crimean War. Characteristically, the army did not see fit to place Burton's name on the title page, though the government did grant him the official minimum token fee for taking over his copyright—one shilling. Burton enraged the War Office by filling out all the necessary forms and collecting it.
After Burton's death, his long-suffering wife Isabel had the likeness of an Arabian tent erected in hideous stone and marble in Mortlake as his tomb and monument. A more cheerful and enduring relic of the real Burton, however, is his graceful and worldly translation of The Arabian Nights. Burton's running commentary—a matchless blend of pitchman's prurience and owlish anthropological insight—raises footnoting almost to the level of an art form.
*No kin to the Richard Burton. back to text