1821-03-19

RICHARD FRANCIS BURTON, legendary British explorer, diplomat and author was born (d. 1890); an English explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, ethnologist, linguist, poet, hypnotist, fencer and diplomat. If we left anything out it’s hard to imagine what it might be.

Burton was “the most interesting man alive” before there was such a thing. He was known for his far-flung and exotic travels and explorations within Asia and Africa as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian, and African languages.

His best-known achievements include traveling in disguise to Mecca, making an unexpurgated translation of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (the collection is more commonly called The Arabian Nights in English because of Andrew Lang’s abridgment) and the Kama Sutra and journeying with John Henning Speke as the first white men guided by the redoubtable Sidi Mubarek Bombay to discover the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile.

Allegations of homosexuality followed Burton throughout most of his life, at a time when it was a criminal offense in the United Kingdom. Biographers disagree on whether or not Burton ever experienced Gay sex (he never directly acknowledges it in his writing). But then, they usually do. We know better, don’t we?

These allegations began in his army days when General Sir Charles James Napier requested that Burton go undercover to investigate a male brothel reputed to be frequented by British soldiers. It has been suggested that Burton’s detailed report on the workings of the brothel may have led some to believe he had been a customer.

Burton was, indisputably, a party boy and a heavy drinker at various times in his life and also admitted to taking both hemp and opium. Friends of the poet Algernon Swinburne blamed Burton for leading him astray, holding Burton responsible for Swinburne’s alcoholism and interest in the works of the Marquis de Sade.