Born in 1821 in Devon, Richard Francis Burton led a colorful and adventurous life and was a writer, poet, diplomat and explorer. His father was an army officer of Irish decent and his mother was the daughter of landed gentry. The family traveled extensively during Burton’s childhood which meant that he was educated by various tutors.
He did not enter into a formal education system until he was nine years old when he attended a private school in Surrey. A life of travel gave Burton a gift for languages and he went to Oxford University in 1840 but was expelled after going to a steeplechase which was against the rules of the college. With nothing left to do and no way of making a living, Burton followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the army.
Burton was sent to India where he learned several of the dialects of the country with apparent ease, but he was distrusted by many of his peers because he appeared to ‘go native’ and seemed to have an affinity with the local population. After falling ill, Burton returned to Europe and wrote his first book, a travel guide to the Goa region.
After he had recovered, Burton began to indulge the life of an adventurer and spent the next few years exploring Mecca under the wing of the Royal Geographical Society. He returned to the army a short time later and was for a while based in Aden where he became friends with John Hanning Speke who would accompany him on many expeditions. After becoming engaged to Isabel Arundell, Burton immediately headed off to explore Africa and wrote Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa in 1860 on his return.
After falling out with Speke, something which damaged both their reputations, Burton married Isabel and became a diplomat in the Foreign Service. He was initially sent to West Africa and then to Brazil and also spent some time involved in the Paraguayan War in 1868. Along with James Hunt, Burton also founded the Anthropological Society of London and was given a knighthood in 1886.
Despite his busy life, Burton was a prolific writer. He is suspected of being the real author of the epic poem The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi which he originally only admitted to translating. He was also the translator of a number of erotic works such as the Karma Sutra and The Perfumed Garden. In 1870 Burton published a collection of tales from India under the title of Vikram and the Vampire and one of his last works was a history of swordsmanship that was left incomplete.
After a lifetime of adventuring and exploration, Burton died of a heart attack in 1890 whilst staying in Trieste. He was 69 years old. On his death, his wife Isabel burned many of the books he had been working on. She never fully recovered from her loss and both are buried in a tomb that is shaped like a Bedouin tent in the leafy suburbs of Mortlake in London.