Explorer, soldier, poet, translator, diplomat, spy, linguist, writer, cartographer, fencer, and more. A great and enigmatic person in history. Burton traveled the world, going to places that few westerners had ever been. Most importantly, he wrote about them. He spoke 29 languages. While not the first westerner to make the Hajj to Mecca, he was the first to widely report upon it. He translated One Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra. He was one of the first Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile. And those are just the highlights.
“Do what thy manhood bids thee do; from none but self expect applause.”
Burton was born in 1821. His family traveled considerably, leading to his love of journey. He had a gift for language. It is reported that as a young man he had an affair with a young gypsy woman, and learned their language.
He attended prestigious Trinity College at Oxford, but spent much of his time pursuing falconry and fencing. He broke rules and was expelled.
“Fit for nothing but six pence a day,” Burton said and enlisted in the Army. Stationed in India, he immersed himself in the local culture to the point where his fellow soldiers accused him of “going native” and also called him “the White Nigger.” But they also called him “Ruffian Dick” because he engaged in more ferocious one-on-one combat than anyone else they’d ever seen.
Because of his talents, Burton received permission from the Royal Geographic Society to explore India. He determined to make the Hajj, the journey to Mecca, forbidden to nonbelievers. To ensure he would pass, he went so far as to get circumcised.
Then he made the first of his famous explorations in Africa along with Lieutenant Speke. They were attacked. Burton was lanced through the cheeks, and had to make his escape, with the spear still through his face.
Among the works he translated:
He traveled once more to Africa with Speke to search for the source of the Nile River. After much hardship, they discovered the Great Lakes in the interior, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. The two men had a falling out, Speke returned to England first and claimed Lake Victoria as the source of the Nile. This was eventually proved correct.
Burton married Isabel Arundel in 1861.
For the rest of his life he served in various diplomatic posts, traveling the world, particularly Africa and South America. Burton canoed the Sao Francisco River and explored the interior of Brazil.
He was appointed British Consul to Damascus, a critical post. He tried to keep the peace between the Arab, Jewish and Christian populations. Having made many enemies, he was sacked, and sent a cable to Isabel: “I am superseded. Pay, pack, and follow at convenience.”
Burton died in Trieste on 20 October 1890 of a heart attack. His wife Isabel burned many of his papers, including an unseen manuscript.
Burton’s Tomb in the shape of a tent while on expedition.
I became interested in Burton while researching the Great Sphinx in Egypt. A small footnote in a tome about the Sphinx mentioned that Burton had visited it in 1856. Studying him further, I became fascinated not only by his life, but by that last action of Isabel. What was in that manuscript? What secrets did it hold? This led me to write a book, where my modern day hero must search for the parts of a copy of this lost manuscript that were hidden by Burton during his travels, in various places around the world.
Area 51: The Sphinx. Dr. Lisa Duncan and Special Forces officer Mike Turcotte know better than anyone that no secret is safe for long—especially one that offers untold power. Case in point: no sooner does Turcotte’s elite Area 51 team uncover a dormant alien ship in earth orbit than a group of alien-human hybrids seizes it and uses its technology to commandeer a satellite array bristling with nuclear missiles. Now they’re demanding that humankind hand over the key to an ancient stash of alien technology…or watch an entire continent be reduced to atomic rubble. Doom seems certain, as the required key is believed lost to the ages—until an unwitting anthropologist discovers the first of many clues to its hiding place. As Duncan and Turcotte race to reach the key—and the powerful treasure it can unlock—ahead of their alien foes, the quest leads them deep into a deadly maze within the Great Sphinx of Giza. The prize? Nothing less than the legendary Ark of the Covenant.
A free slideshow on this topic and many others about interesting history, survival, writing and other topics is on my web site at www.bobmayer.com/workshops