In 1854 Richard Francis Burton took part in an RGS sponsored expedition into Somaliland with a team that included John Hanning Speke and William Stroyan.

By Troy Lennon

It was a great acting triumph, Richard Burton acted the part of a pilgrim on the way to Mecca so that he could write about what he saw. Not Burton the Welsh actor but Burton the 19th-century linguist and adventurer


The robed figure looked much like any other pilgrim on their way to the holy city of Mecca (Makkah) in Arabia. Beneath his hood, he had a shaven head and he sported a beard, like other Muslims on the trai. He also spoke Arabic and displayed an easy familiarity with the customs of the Middle East. He prayed like other Muslims and carried a Hamail, a gold-embroidered case meant for carrying a copy of the Qur’an. So nobody bothered to look closer at this man, whose facial features were more European than oriental.

Richard Francis Burton Born 100 Years Ago
An illustration from Richard Francis Burton’s book Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah 1855 showing Richard Francis Burton dressed as a pilgrim heading for Mecca. Out of copyright

Inside his Hamail, there was no copy of Islam’s holy book, but three compartments “one for my watch and compass, the second for ready money, and the third contained penknife, pencils, and slips of paper, which I could hold concealed in the hollow of my hand. These were for writing and drawing.”

Although he had once undergone a conversion to Islam, he was not on the pilgrimage to become a hajji — the title given to those whom complete the pilgrimage or haj. He was there to report on everything he saw, so he could tell it to a Western audience, who had no idea about the hajj or about the “huge white blot which in our maps still notes the Eastern and the Central regions of Arabia.”

His name was Richard Francis Burton, an English linguist with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and adventure. His account of his journey to the Middle East, titled Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, was published in 1855 and made him famous. But it would not be his only remarkable achievement.

Richard Francis Burton Born 100 Years Ago
Sir Richard Burton, British soldier & explorer who risked his life to open up African continent, visited Mecca disguised as pilgrim & trekked across unspeakable terrain to discover Lake Tanganyika, born 1821, died 1890 P/R Historical

By the time he went to Arabia he had already learned a dozen languages, had even tried to learn to speak to monkeys. He learned at least 20 more tongues in his lifetime. He was famous for his translations of the Thousand Nights And One Night, often referred to as The Arabian Nights, and the Kama Sutra. A prolific writer he published over 30 books on his many travels and was known worldwide.

He was born on March 19, 1821, in Torquay in England, the oldest of three children born to Joseph Netterville Burton and Martha (nee Baker). He was a British Army officer who had been forced into retirement on half-pay because he had refused to testify about the infidelities of George IV’s estranged wife Queen Caroline. His mother was an heiress from the family of a wealthy squire.

In 1825 the family moved to France and later Italy, where Richard Burton picked up French, Italian, Neapolitan, Latin, some Greek, and Romani. In 1840 he began studies in language at Oxford but was thrown out in 1842 for going to a banned horse race.

He joined the army of the East India Company and was posted to India where he learned Indian languages along with Persian and Arabic. He also learned about the many religions in India, becoming initiated as a Hindu, a Sikh, a Sufi, and a Muslim, even having a circumcision. Not satisfied with learning about human language and culture he kept pet monkeys to see if he could learn their language.

Richard Francis Burton Born 100 Years Ago
Sir Richard Francis Burton image from the book ‘Sindh Revisited’ by Christopher Ondaatje. Books headshot alone history may 1996

He returned to England in 1851 and wrote four books on India. In 1853, with the approval of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), he undertook his exploration of the Middle East, including his trip to Mecca.

In 1854 he took part in an RGS sponsored expedition into Somaliland with a team that included John Hanning Speke and William Stroyan. When that expedition ended the team set out again to search for the source of the Nile, but the party was attacked, Stroyan was killed, and both Speke and Burton wounded. Burton was hit in the cheek with a spear, leaving a visible scar. When he recovered Burton volunteered for service during the Crimean War but saw no action.

He returned to Africa in 1857 to join Speke to explore the Great Lakes of Africa. They reached Lake Tanganyika but Burton almost died from malaria. He wrote an 1860 account of the trip deriding Speke’s claims that he had found the source of the Nile.

After a trip to the US in 1860, in 1861 Burton married Isabel Arundell. He then joined the British Foreign Office serving as a consul on an island off Africa and making more trips across Africa, which became material for books. He was then sent to Brazil in 1865 but grew to hate it and sent word to Isabel in England to get him a better job. Sent to Damascus in 1868 he was recalled in 1871 over his involvement with the Shazlis, a breakaway Muslim sect, and sent to Trieste.

He spent the rest of his life in Trieste publishing a variety of books including translations of Arabic and Persian stories and poems, histories, works of ethnography, and travelogues. Knighted in 1886 he died of a heart attack in 1890.

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