Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Burton, Richard Francis
BURTON, Sir RICHARD FRANCIS (1821–1890), explorer and scholar, was the eldest son of Colonel Joseph Netterville Burton of the 36th regiment. His paternal grandfather was the Rev. Edward Burton, rector of Tuam, and owner of an estate in co. Galway. The family originally came from Shap in Westmoreland. His mother was Martha Beckwith, daughter and co-heiress of Richard Baker of Barham House, Hertfordshire. His parents led a nomadic life, and his father seems to have been a thorough Irishman at heart. In his youth he had seen service in Sicily under Sir John Moore, and was for some years stationed in Italy. Shortly after his marriage (in 1819) he retired from the army, and ultimately died at Bath in 1857. He had three children, of whom a daughter married General Sir Henry William Stisted [q, v.], and the younger son (Edward Joseph Netterville) became a captain in the 37th regiment.
Richard Francis Burton was born at Barham House (the residence of his maternal grandfather) on 19 March 1821, and was baptised in the parish church of Elstree. He never had any regular education. When about five he was taken abroad by his parents, who, according to the fashion of those days, wandered over the continent, staying sometimes for a few years, sometimes for a few months, at such places as Tours, Blois, Pau, Pisa, Rome, and Naples. For a short while, in 1829, he was placed at the well-known preparatory school of the Rev. D. C. Delafosse, in Richmond, where he was miserable, and during the later time a travelling tutor was provided for the two boys in the person of an Oxford undergraduate, H. R. Dupre, afterwards rector of Shellingford, whom they seem to have treated badly. Such knowledge as he acquired was picked up from French and Italian masters, or from less reputable sources. As a boy he learnt colloquially half a dozen languages and dialects, and also the use of the small-sword. A cosmopolitan he remained to the last.
The father had destined both his sons for the church, and so, while the younger was entered at Cambridge, Richard Francis matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, on 19 Nov. 1840, when already well on in his twentieth year. Before getting rooms in college, he lived for a short time in the house of Dr. William Alexander Greenhill [q. v. Suppl.], then physician to the Radcliffe Infirmary. Here he met John Henry Newman, whose churchwarden Dr. Greenhill was, and also Dr. Arnold of Rugby. It was Dr. Greenhill who started him in the study of Arabic, by introducing him to Don Pascual de Gayangos, the Spanish scholar. Burton’s academical career was limited to five terms, or little more than one year. With his continental education and his obstinate temper, he was not likely to conform to the monastic conventions then prevailing at Oxford. The only place where he was really at his ease seems to have been the newly opened gymnasium of Archibald Maclaren. Many of the stories current of his wildness are probably exaggerated. It is certain that he deliberately contrived to be rusticated, in order that he might achieve his ambition of going into the army instead of the church. In after life he never regarded the university as an injusta noverca. He was glad to revisit Oxford, to point out his former rooms in college, and to call on one of his old tutors, the Rev. Thomas Short.
At the beginning of 1842, when the first Afghan war was still unfinished, there was little difficulty in obtaining for Burton the cadetship that he desired in the Indian army. He set sail for India round the Cape on 18 June 1842, accompanied by a bull terrier of the Oxford breed, and landed at Bombay on 28 Oct. He was forthwith posted as ensign to the 18th regiment of the Bombay native infantry, on the cadre of which he remained (rising to the rank of captain) until he accepted a consular appointment in 1861, His military service in India was confined to seven years. His first station was Baroda, the capital of a native principality in Gujarat, ruled by a Maratha chief known as the Gaikwar. Here he initiated himself into oriental life, quickly passing examinations in Hindustani and Gujarathi, which qualified him for the post of regimental interpreter within a year, and practising swordsmanship, wrestling, and riding with the sepoys. At the end of 1843 the regiment moved to Sind. Burton was fortunate in getting into the good graces of Sir Charles Napier, the governor, one of the few men whom he regarded as a hero. While his regiment languished in pestilential quarters he was appointed assistant in the Sind survey, under his friend Captain Scott, nephew of Sir Walter. This was the formative period of Burton’s life, during which the process of initiation into orientalism, begun at Baroda, was perfected. For some three years off and on he had a commission to wander about what is still the most purely Muhammadan province in India. Having learnt all that he could from the regimental munshi and the regimental pandit, he now attached to himself private teachers, in whose company he lived for weeks the life of a native, or—as his brother officers expressed it—like a ‘white nigger.’ The intimate familiarity with Muhammadan manners and customs thus acquired was afterwards of service to him in his adventurous journey to Meccah and in annotating the ‘Arabian Nights.’ A private report on certain features of native life, which he wrote at the request of Sir Charles Napier, reached the secretariat at Bombay, and undoubtedly interfered with his official advancement. During this period he qualified in four more languages—Marathi, Sindhi, Punjabi, and Persian—and also studied Arabic, Sanskrit, and Pushtu, the language of the Afghans. To Burton’s vigorous mind the acquisition of a new language was like the acquisition of a new feat of gymnastics, to be gained by resolute perseverance. But languages were valued by him only as a key to thought. Arabic opened to him the Koran, Persian the mystic philosophy of Sufi-ism. He even practised the religious exercises and ceremonies of Islam in order that he might penetrate to the heart of Musalman theology.
The routine of his life was twice broken by the hope of active service, which he was destined never to see. In January 1840 he rejoined his regiment, which had been ordered to take part in the first Sikh war; but peace was proclaimed before the force from Sind entered the Punjab. Again, when the second Sikh war broke out in April 1848, he volunteered his services as interpreter, but his application was refused. Between these dates he had taken two years’ leave to recruit his health on the Nilgiri Hills. As a matter of fact the two years were cut down to six months, during which he found time to visit Goa and form his first acquaintance with the language of Camoens. Soon afterwards his health broke down. His work in the sandy deserts of Sind had brought on ophthalmia, combined with other ailments, against which a bitter sense of disappointed ambition prevented him from struggling. Nursed by a faithful Sindian servant he sailed for England, again round the Cape, in May 1849, bringing with him a large collection of oriental manuscripts and curios, and the materials for no less than four books about India.
Burton’s first publications were three papers in the ‘Journal’ of the Bombay branch of the Asiatic Society: ‘A Grammar of the Jataki or Belochki Dialect,’ ‘A Grammar of the Multani Language,’ and ‘Critical Remarks on Dr. Dorn’s Chrestomathy of Pushtu, or the Afghan Dialect’ (all 1849). Though falling short of the modern standard, these are remarkable productions for a young man without any philological training. On his return to England he brought out in one year (1851) ‘Sind, or the Unhappy Valley’ (2 vols.); ‘Sind, and the Races that inhabit the Valley of the Indus,’ which are still valued as books of reference; and ‘Goa and the Blue Mountains,’ a marvellous record of a six months’ trip. He also published ‘Falconry in the Valley of the Indus’ (1852) and ‘A Complete System of Bayonet Exercise’ (1853), which failed to win the approval of the military authorities. His leave was spent in the company of his relatives, to whom he was devotedly attached, partly in England and partly on the continent. At Malvern he was one of the earliest to try the hydropathic system of treatment. At Boulogne he gained the brevet de pointe in the fencing school, which gave him the qualification of maître d’armes, as he afterwards styled himself on the title-page of the ‘Book of the Sword.’ At Boulogne, also, he first saw his future wife, then a girl of nineteen.
During nearly four years at home Burton did not allow his orientalism to rust, and continued to cherish his dream of a pilgrimage to Meccah. At one time he formed the larger project of traversing the peninsula of Arabia from sea to sea, and obtained the support of the Royal Geographical Society for this enterprise. But the directors of the East India Company refused the three years’ leave required. All they would grant was an additional furlough of twelve months, ‘that he might pursue his Arabic studies in lands where the language is best learned.’ From the moment of leaving London (in April 1853) Burton adopted a disguise: first as a Persian Mirza, then as a Dervish, and finally as a Pathan, or Indian-born Afghan, educated at Rangoon as a hakim or doctor. The name that he took was Al-Haj ( = the pilgrim) Abdullah, as he used ever afterwards to sign himself in Arabic characters. From Southampton he went to Egypt, this being his first visit to that country which he afterwards knew so well. The actual pilgrimage began with a journey on camel-back from Cairo to Suez. Then followed twelve days in a pilgrim ship on the Red Sea from Suez to Yambu, the port of El-Medinah. So far the only risk was from detection by his companions. Now came the dangers of the inland road, infested by Bedawin robbers. The journey from Yambu to El-Medinah, thence to Meccah, and finally to the sea again at Jeddah, occupied altogether from 17 July to 23 Sept., including some days spent in rest, and many more in devotional exercises. From Jeddah Burton returned to Egypt in a British steamer, intending to start afresh for the interior of Arabia via Muwaylah. But this second project was frustrated by ill-health, which kept him in Egypt until his period of furlough was exhausted. The manuscript of his ‘Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah’ (1855, 3 vols.) was sent home from India, and seen through the press by a friend in England. It is deservedly the most popular of Burton’s books, having passed through four editions. As a story of bold adventure, and as lifting a veil from the unknown, its interest will never fade. But it cannot be called easy reading. The author, as his manner was, has crowded into it too much, and presumes on the ignorance of his readers. It has been doubted whether Burton’s disguise was never penetrated during the pilgrimage, even by his two servants. He himself always denied the widespread story that he had to kill a man who detected him performing an operation of nature in a non-oriental fashion.
Burton now returned to India for a brief period of regimental duty. The middle of 1854, however, found him back again in the Red Sea, with leave from the Bombay government to explore Somaliland. His ambition was to penetrate through the mountains to the upper waters of the Nile. On this occasion he had four comrades, John Hanning Speke [q. v.] and Herne of the Indian army, and Strovan of the Indian navy. Before starting with them. Burton set out alone on a pioneer trip to Harar, the inland capital of the country, which no European had ever visited. On this occasion he assumed the disguise of an Arab merchant, but when once within the city he disclosed himself to the Amir, The success of this adventure perhaps encouraged him to neglect necessary precautions when the regular expedition was organised. While still near the port of Berberah the camp was attacked one night by the Somalis. Stroyan was killed; Speke was wounded in no less than eleven places; Burton’s face was transfixed by a spear from cheek to cheek; Herne alone escaped unhurt. The party could do nothing but return to Aden, whence Burton proceeded to England on sick certificate. While under treatment for his wound he wrote ‘First Footsteps in East Africa’ (1856), and again met his future wife. As soon as he had recovered he volunteered for the Crimea, where he spent a year from October 1855. His only appointment was that of chief of the staff to General Beatson, an old Indian officer of fiery temper, in command of a large body of irregular cavalry, known as ‘Bashi-Buzouks,’ who were stationed at the Dardanelles, far from the seat of war. Here Burton submitted to Lord Stratford de Redcliffe two characteristic schemes—one for the relief of Kars, the other for raising the Caucasus under Schamyl in the rear of the Russians—but nothing came of either. When General Beatson was dismissed from his command Burton also resigned and returned to England.
Meanwhile arrangements had been made with the Royal Geographical Society that Burton should lead an exploring expedition into Central Africa, with Speke as second in command. The government gave a grant of 1,000l. towards the expenses, and the East India Company allowed its officers two years’ leave. This was the first serious attempt undertaken to discover the sources of the Nile. Little more was then known about Central Africa than in the days of Ptolemy. German missionaries had caught sight of the Mountains of the Moon, and had brought back native stories of the existence of a great lake. It was Burton’s business to find this great lake, by a route never before trodden by white feet. The expedition may be said to have lasted altogether for two years and a half. Burton left England in October 1856, and did not return until May 1859. He had to go first to Bombay to report himself to the local government. Some months were occupied in a preliminary exploration of the mainland near Zanzibar, which was to be the scene of preparation and the point of departure. The actual start from the coast was made at the end of June 1857. After incredible difficulties and hardships, due as much to the untrustworthiness of their followers as to opposition from native tribes, Lake Tanganyika, the largest of the Central African lakes, was seen on 14 Feb. 1858. About three months were spent on the shores of the lake, and on 26 May the return journey was commenced. On the way back Speke was detached to verify reports of another lake to the northward, which he sighted from a distance, and surmised to be the true source of the Nile. This lake is the Victoria Nyanza, and Speke’s surmise was proved to be correct by his subsequent expedition in company with James Augustus Grant [q. v. Suppl.] Tanganyika only supplies one of the head-waters of the Congo. A difference on this hydrographical question led to an unfortunate estrangement between the two travellers. They returned together to Zanzibar in March 1859. Speke proceeded in advance to England, while Burton was delayed by illness at Aden. When at last he arrived in London he found that another expedition had already been determined on, in which he was to have no part. He had to be content with the Royal Geographical Society’s medal, and with writing an account of his own expedition, under the title of ‘The Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa’ (1860, 2 vols.) He also filled an entire volume (xxxiii.) of the ‘Journal of the Geographical Society.’
Burton’s plan of life was now entirely unsettled. His engagement to his future wife, which may be said to date from before his expedition to Central Africa, was not recognised by her family. There seemed to be no career for him either in India or as an explorer. But he could not rest from travel. The court of directors again gave him whatever leave he asked; and in the summer of 1860 he set off on a rapid run across North America, with the special object of studying the Mormons at Salt Lake city. This, of course, resulted in a book, ‘The City of the Saints’ (1861), which is characterised by much plain speaking. Within a month of his return Isabel Arundell consented to marry him without her parents’ knowledge [see Burton, Isabel, Lady]. The wedding took place privately, in a Roman catholic chapel, on 22 Jan. 1861. The Arundell family were soon reconciled, and neither party ever regretted the step. In the following March Burton accepted the appointment of consul at Fernando Po, which resulted in his being struck off the Indian army, without half-pay or even the legal right to call himself captain. About this time, too, he was unfortunate enough to lose all his oriental manuscripts and other collections through a fire at the warehouse where they had been stored.
Burton spent four years on the west coast of Africa, ‘the white man’s grave,’ whither his newly married wife was unable to accompany him, though she occasionally took up her residence at Madeira. His headquarters were at the Spanish island of Fernando Po, but his jurisdiction stretched for some six hundred miles along the Bights of Biafra and Benin, including the mouths of the Niger. He performed his duties as British consul with vigour and popularity. He found it easy to get on with Spanish and French officials, with traders from Liverpool, and with the indigenous negro—perhaps not so easy to get on with missionaries of all sorts, though his troubles with these have been exaggerated. His explorations extended beyond his consular jurisdiction. He was the first to climb the Cameroon mountains and point out their value as a sanatorium for Europeans. He ascended the Congo river as far as the Yellala falls. He visited the French settlement of Gaboon, then famous by the relations of Du Chaillu, but he failed in his ambition of bagging a gorilla. He also paid visits to Abeokuta and Benin, where he searched in vain for the bones of Belzoni. Twice he went to the capital of the king of Dahome, the second time on an official mission from the British government. Some account of what he did and saw may be read in half a dozen books: ‘Wanderings in West Africa’ (1863, 2 vols.), ‘Abeokuta and the Cameroons’ (also 1863, 2 vols.), ‘A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome’ (1864, 2 vols.; new edit. 1893), ‘Wit and Wisdom from West Africa: a Collection of 2,859 Proverbs, being an Attempt to make the Africans delineate themselves’ (1865), and ‘Gorilla Land, or the Cataracts of the Congo’ (1875, 2 vols.) But a good deal of what he wrote at this time appeared only in the transactions of learned societies or still remains in manuscript. In 1864 he visited England to attend the meeting of the British Association at Bath. In April 1865, when again in England, he was entertained at a public dinner in London, over which Lord Stanley (afterwards Earl Derby) presided. Later in the same year he was transferred to the consulship of Santos, the port of São Paulo in Brazil, where his wife could live with him.
Another period of four years was spent in South America. There was a vice-consul at Santos, so that Burton was free to roam. In company with his wife he visited the gold and diamond mines of inland Brazil, returning alone to the coast by an adventurous voyage of fifteen hundred miles down the river São Francisco. With a semi-official mission from the British government, he was on two occasions (1868 and 1869) a witness of the desperate struggle maintained by Lopez, dictator of Paraguay, against the allied armies of Brazil and the Argentine Republic. He crossed the Andes to see Peru and Chile, returning through the Straits of Magellan, At Lima he had heard the welcome news of his appointment to the consulship at Damascus, and he hurried home to England. This South American period was comparatively unimportant in Burton’s life, except for bringing back to him the language of Camoeus. It resulted in two books: ‘Explorations of the Highlands of the Brazil’ (1869, 2 vols.) and ‘Letters from the Battlefields of Paraguay’ (1870). Somewhat later he edited ‘The Captivity of Hans Stade among the Wild Tribes of Eastern Brazil’ for the Hakluyt Society (1874), and translated ‘Gerber’s Province of Minas Geraes’ for the Geographical Society (1875).
Damascus had been the goal of Burton’s ambition since first entering the consular service, as restoring him to his beloved East and perchance leading to higher things. He was fated to stay there less than two years, and then to leave under a cloud. He arrived in October 1869, being followed three months later by his wife. At first all went well. Both of them enjoyed the free life of Syria, as if on a second wedding tour. They fixed their residence in a suburb of Damascus, which supplied a model for Lord Leighton’s oriental court at Kensington. Their summer quarters were in a village on the slope of the Anti-Libanus, about twenty-seven miles from the city. Together they roamed about the country in oriental style, visiting Palmyra and Baalbek, and making a long stay at Jerusalem. Burton’s more scientific explorations were conducted in company with Tyrwhitt Drake and Edward Henry Palmer [q. v.], in the course of which were discovered the first known Hittite antiquities. This idyllic life was suddenly cut short in August 1871 by a letter of recall. The true cause why Burton was superseded remains hidden in the archives of the foreign office. It is easy to conjecture some of the contributory reasons. He had made enemies of the Damascus Jews, who claimed to be British subjects, and had powerful supporters among their co-religionists in England. He had got into an awkward scuffle with some Greeks at Nazareth. He had failed to get on either with his official superior, the British consul-general at Beyrout, or with the Turkish governor of Syria. Above all, his wife had mixed herself up with an unorthodox, if not semi-catholic, movement among the Muhammadans of Damascus. There may have been more behind to explain the abruptness of the dismissal. Burton claimed to have justified himself at the foreign office, but he received no official compensation. After about a year’s suspense, during which he made a trip to Iceland, he was appointed to the consulship of Trieste, vacant by the death of Charles Lever, where it was thought he could do no mischief. The Damascus period was not very fertile in literature. To the ‘Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society’ he contributed ‘Proverba Communia Syriaca’ (1871), and with C. F. Tyrwhitt Drake he wrote ‘Unexplored Syria’ (1872, 2 vols.) He left it to his wife to publish ‘Inner Life of Syria’ (1875, 2 vols.), which contains much of himself.
Trieste was Burton’s home from 1872 till his death, though it must be admitted that he was not always to be found at home. The foreign office was as generous to him in the matter of leave as the Indian government had formerly been. He began by exploring the Roman ruins and prehistoric castellieri of Istria. Then he went further afield to the Etruscan antiquities of Bologna. During the first four months of 1876 he took his wife to India, renewing his memories of Jeddah and Aden, of Sind and Goa. At Suez he fell in with one of his old fellow-pilgrims, who awakened in his mind dreams of gold in Midian. Thither he proceeded at the end of 1877, with official support from the Khedive of Egypt. For months he conducted geological surveys in territory hitherto unexplored and infested by wild Bedawin tribes. The results seemed to promise success, but changes in the government of Egypt frustrated Burton’s hopes. In the winter of 1881–2 he set out to the Gold Coast for gold in company with a younger African explorer. Captain Verney Lovett Cameron [q. v. Suppl.] Gold they found in plenty, though they brought back none for themselves. Each of these expeditions has its record in a book. In 1876 appeared ‘Etruscan Bologna, a Study;’ in 1877 ‘Sind Revisited;’ in 1878 ‘The Gold Mines of Midian;’ in 1879 ‘The Land of Midian Revisited’ (3 vols. 8vo), and in 1883 ‘To the Gold Coast for Gold’ (2 vols. 8vo). His last undertaking of all was a commission from the foreign office to search for the murderers of his old friend Palmer [see Palmer, Edward Henry].
Burton now recognised that his day for exploration was over. Henceforth he devoted himself to literature, working up the materials which he had spent a lifetime in accumulating. This ripe fruit of his old age falls under three heads. The first to take shape was his work on Camoens, which was projected to fill no less than ten volumes. His English rendering of the ‘Lusiads’ appeared in two volumes in 1880, followed in the next year by a life and commentary in two volumes, and somewhat later (1884) by two more volumes of ‘Lyricks,’ &c. Burton was attracted to Camoens as the mouthpiece of the romantic period of discovery in the Indian Ocean. The voyages, the misfortunes, the chivalry, the patriotism of the poet were to him those of a brother adventurer. In his spirited sketch of the life and character of Camoens it is not presumptuous to read between the lines allusions to his own career. This sympathy breathes through his translation of the Portuguese epic, which, though not a popular success, won the enthusiastic approval of the few competent critics. It represents the result of long labour and revision, having been begun at Goa in 1847 and continued in Brazil. It is, no doubt, the work of a scholar rather than of a poet. Burton’s aim was to present to modern English readers as much as might be of the influence that Camoens has exercised for three centuries upon the Portuguese. With this object he set himself to the task of grappling with every difficulty and obscurity in the original. Not only the metre and the rhetorical style, but even the not infrequent archaisms and harshnesses have been preserved with marvellous fidelity. What to the unimaginative may seem nothing but a tour de force is in truth the highest manifestation of the translator’s art.
Burton’s second great work was to be ‘The Book of the Sword,’ giving a history of the weapon and its use in all countries from the earliest times. The arme blanche, as he liked to call it, had always had a fascination for him since his youthful days on the continent. He collected a great deal of the literature, and inspected the armouries of Europe and India. To his encyclopædic mind the subject began with the first weapon fashioned by the simian ancestors of man, started afresh with the invention of metallurgy (which he assigned to the Nile valley), henceforth coincided with the history of military prowess until the introduction of gunpowder, finally ending with the duello when the sword became a defensive weapon. All this and much more was sketched out in three volumes, of which only the first was destined to appear (1884). Despite the advantages of handsome print and numerous illustrations, it fell almost still-born from the press. It deals mainly with the archæology of the subject, and in archæology Burton took a perverse pleasure in being heterodox. It remains a splendid torso, a monument of erudition, abounding with speculative theories, which subsequent research is as likely to confirm as to refute.
Of Burton’s translation of ‘The Arabian Nights’ it is difficult to speak freely. While the ‘Camoens’ was only a succès d’estime, and ‘The Book of the Sword’ little short of a failure, the private circulation of ‘The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night’ (1885–6, 10 vols.), with the ‘Supplemental Nights’ (1887–8, 5 vols.), brought to the author a profit of about 10,000l., which enabled him to spend his declining years in comparative luxury. This much at least may be said in justification of some of the baits that he held out to the purchaser. For it would be absurd to ignore the fact that the attraction lay not so much in the translation as in the notes and the terminal essay, where certain subjects of curiosity are discussed with naked freedom. Burton was but following the example of many classical scholars of high repute, and indulging a taste which is more widespread than modern prudery will allow. In his case something more may be urged. The whole of his life was a protest against social conventions. Much of it was spent in the East, where the intercourse between men and women is more according to nature, and things are called by plain names. Add to this Burton’s insatiable curiosity, which had impelled him to investigate all that concerns humanity in four continents.
So much for the ‘anthropological’ notes. The translation itself, with very slight revision, was reissued by his wife ‘for household reading’ (1887–8, 6 vols.) The book had been the companion of his early travels in Arabia and Eastern Africa, where he saw with his own eyes how faithful was its portraiture of oriental thought and manners. He intended the translation to be a legacy to his countrymen, of whose imperial mission he was ever mindful, and to perpetuate the fruit of his own oriental experiences, which are never likely to be repeated. Burton was three parts an oriental at heart, as is shown most plainly in his mystical poem ‘The Kasidah’ (1880; 2nd edit. 1894), which contains the fullest revelation that he ever made of himself. In his ‘Arabian Nights’ he stands forth as the interpreter of the East to the West, with unique qualifications. Though the language was almost as familiar to him as his mother tongue, he laboured like a scholar over the various versions and manuscripts. Originally he had proposed to translate only the numerous metrical passages with which the text is interspersed, leaving the prose to an old Aden friend, Dr. Steinhauser. But when this friend died, and nothing was found of his manuscript, he took the whole task upon his own shoulders. By a fortunate accident the hitherto unknown Arabic original of two of the most familiar tales, ‘Alladin’ and ‘All Baba,’ came to light in time to be incorporated in the ‘Supplemental Nights.’ Of the merit of Burton’s translation no two opinions have been expressed. The quaintnesses of expression that some have found fault with in the ‘Lusiads’ are here not out of place, since they reproduce the topsy-turvy world of the original. If an eastern story-teller could have written in English he would write very much as Burton has done. A translator can expect no higher praise.
While Burton was still engaged on ‘The Arabian Nights,’ his health finally failed. Hitherto his superb constitution had enabled him to shake off the attacks of fever and other tropical complaints acquired during his travels. But from 1883 onwards he was a victim to gout. In the spring of 1887, when he was staying on the Riviera, alarming symptoms developed, and never afterwards could he dispense with the personal attendance of a doctor. He continued his wandering habits almost to the last. During a trip to Tangier in the winter of 1885–6 he was cheered by a letter from Lord Salisbury announcing his nomination as K.C.M.G., though he would have preferred the reversion of the consul-generalship at Morocco. He was never actually knighted, and only wore his star at an official dinner at Trieste on the occasion of the queen’s jubilee. He paid frequent visits to England, and travelled through Switzerland and Tyrol in the vain search for health. If he had lived till March 1891 he would have become entitled to a consular pension, but the foreign office refused to anticipate his full term of service. In the autumn of 1890 he returned to Trieste, and there he died on 20 Oct., worn out before he had finished his seventieth year. While he was in his death agony, his wife called in a priest to administer the last rites of the Roman church, and she brought his body home to be buried, with a full religious ceremonial, in the catholic cemetery at Mortlake, on 15 June 1891. His monument consists of a white marble mausoleum, sculptured in the form of an Arab tent, the cost of which was partly defrayed by public subscription. Within is a massive sarcophagus, with a cross on the lid, placed before a consecrated altar.
Burton lived a full life, which recalls the Elizabethan age of adventure. Considering only his explorations, few have traversed a larger portion of the earth’s little-known spaces, and none with more observant eyes. His achievement as a writer is scarcely less remarkable. His total output amounts to more than fifty volumes, some of considerable dimensions. Though all are not literature, they all represent hard work and are the product of an original brain. A good deal more lies buried in the ‘Transactions’ of learned societies and in current periodicals, for Burton was prodigal with his pen. In addition, he left behind large quantities of literary material, of which his widow failed to make proper use. Behind the traveller and the author there emerges the figure of a man who dared to be ever true to himself. His career was all of his own making. No physical hardships could daunt his resolution; no discouragements could permanently sour his temper. Probably no one knew every facet of his strange character, certainly not his wife. But those who knew him best admired him most. He was ever ready to assist, from the stores of his own experience, young explorers and young students; but here, as in all else, he was impatient of pretentiousness and sciolism. His virile and self-centred personality stamped everything he said or wrote. No one could meet him without being convinced of his sincerity. He concealed nothing; he boasted of nothing. Such as circumstances had made him, he bore himself to all the world: a man of his hands from his youth, a philosopher in his old age; a good hater, but none the less a staunch friend.
The face was characteristic of the man. Burned by the sun and scarred with wounds, he looked like one who knew not what fear meant. His mouth was hard, but not sensual; his nose and chin strongly outlined. His eyes, when in repose, had a far-away look; but they could flash with passion or soften in sympathy. The robustness of his frame was shown by a herculean chest and shoulders, which made him look shorter than his actual height. His hands and feet were particularly small. His gestures were dignified, and his manners marked by old-world courtesy. Lord Leighton’s portrait of him, taken in middle life, is well known. Another picture, painted by François Jacquand at Boulogne in 1852, representing him as a young man in the uniform of his Bombay regiment, is now in the possession of his sister’s family. A cast of his face and bust, taken after death, did not turn out satisfactorily.
Burton appointed his wife to be his literary executor, with absolute control over everything that he left behind. Among her first acts was to burn the manuscript of a translation of an Arabic work called ‘The Scented Garden,’ which, with elaborate annotations of the same sort as those appended to ‘The Arabian Nights,’ had occupied the last year of his life. After she had finished his biography she likewise destroyed his private diaries. And by her own will she forbad anything of his to be published without the express sanction of the secretary of the National Vigilance Society. She did, however, permit the appearance of his translation from the original Neapolitan dialect of the ‘Pentamerone’ of Basile (1893, 2 vols.), and of his verse rendering of ‘Catullus’ (1894). There has also been published, under the editorship of Mr. W. H. Wilkins, a not very valuable posthumous treatise on ‘The Jew, the Gipsy, and El Islam’ (1897). Lady Burton further commenced a ‘memorial edition’ of her husband’s better-known works, of which seven volumes appeared before her death.
[‘The Life of Sir Richard Burton, by his Wife, Isabel Lady Burton’ (2 vols. 1893, 2nd ed. by W. H. Wilkins, 1898), requires to be corrected in some respects by ‘The True Life of Capt. Sir Richard F. Burton,’ written by his niece, Georgiana M. Stisted, with the authority and approval of the Burton family (1896). Reference may also be made to ‘A Sketch of the Career of Richard F. Burton,’ by Alfred Bates Richards, Andrew Wilson, and St. Clair Baddeley (1886); and to ‘Richard F. Burton: his Early Private and Public Life, with an Account of his Travels and Explorations,’ by Francis Hitchman (2 vols. 1897).]