Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890); biography and famous works

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was a prolific British travel writer, explorer, and ethnographer. He was the co-founder of the racist Anthropological Society, a formidable linguist, speaking 40 languages or dialects, and a translator; but he was also a ‘perpetual outsider’. He was born in Torquay, Devon. Burton began his formal education at a preparatory school in Richmond Green in Richmond. Over the next few years, his family traveled between England, France, and Italy. Burton showed a talent to learn languages and quickly learned several languages like French, Italian, Neapolitan, and Latin, as well as several dialects. Later he was expelled from Oxford due to his voice against college authority. Then he joined the Indian army.

Two books on Sind testify to his understanding of non-European cultures and a constant interest-different sexual mores. He left India and sensationally made the hajj to Mecca in disguise. Then came several expeditions to Africa, most importantly that with John Speke which discovered Lake Tanganyika in 1858 but led to controversies over the Nile source and bitter personal hostilities. Other travels followed and a series of unsatisfactory consular appointments to Fernando Po, Brazil, Damascus, and Trieste, where he died. In addition to more than 40 volumes of travel, he produced books and articles on folklore, poetry, and translations from Arabic, Latin, and Portuguese.

Burton is best remembered for his unexpurgated versions of the Arabian Nights (1885-8), The Kama Sutra (1883), The Perfumed Garden (1886, from the French), and other works of Arabian erotology. Other works of note include a collection of Hindu tales, Vikram and the Vampire (1870); and his uncompleted history of swordsmanship, The Book of the Sword (1884). He also translated The Lusiads, the Portuguese national epic by Luís de Camões, in 1880 and, the next year, wrote a sympathetic biography of the poet and adventurer. The book The Jew, the Gipsy and el Islam was published posthumously in 1898. His interest in sexual behaviour and deviance (shared with his friends Richard Milnes and Swinburne) and his frank ethnographical notes led him to risk prosecution for obscenity, and his more erotic works were published secretly or privately. On his death, his wife Isabel destroyed his papers and diaries, including his translation from the original Arabic of The Perfumed Garden, on which he had been working for fourteen years.

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