Burton was a Victorian explorer, writer and translator, known for his travels in Asia and Africa.
Richard Francis Burton was born in Devon on 19 March 1821. His father was an army officer. Burton accompanied his parents on their frequent trips abroad and showed an early talent for languages.
Burton was thrown out of Oxford University in 1842 and joined the army of the East India Company where his knowledge of local languages helped his work in surveying and in intelligence. In 1853, taking leave from the company, he undertook a 'Hajj' or pilgrimage to Mecca, in disguise, and his account of this trip made him famous. The following year he explored what is now Somalia with a number of other officers, including John Speke.
In 1857, Burton and Speke embarked on a Royal Geographical Society funded expedition to explore inland from the east African coast, with the hope of finding the source of the Nile. It was a difficult trip. When they arrived at Lake Tanganyika, Speke was almost blind and Burton could hardly walk. Speke travelled on alone and discovered Lake Victoria, which he was convinced was the Nile's source. Burton disagreed and this contributed to a long and bitter public quarrel between the two men which ended in September 1864 when Speke died in a shooting which was either suicide or an accident.
Burton now joined the Foreign Office, and was appointed consul in Fernando Po, an island off the coast of West Africa. His wife Isabel, who he had married in 1861, was unable to join him as the climate was considered too unhealthy. They were reunited when he was transferred to Brazil and then, in 1869, to Damascus. In 1871, he was moved to Trieste, where his position gave him plenty of time to write. He was knighted in 1886.
Burton was a prolific author, mainly on travel and ethnography. He also translated classical and Renaissance literature, with a particular interest in eastern erotica - he translated and printed the 'Kama Sutra' (1883) and 'The Perfumed Garden' (1886). He also published a complete edition of the 'Arabian Nights' (1885 - 1888).
Burton died in Trieste on 20 October 1890. He and Isabel are buried in a tomb in the shape of a Bedouin tent in Mortlake, southwest London.
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