Sir Richard Francis Burton

The Athenaeum No. 3287, Oct. 25, 1890 P. 547.

In Richard Francis Burton England has lost one of her most successful travellers and explorers, an esteemed Oriental scholar, and a literary man of considerable gifts. Born on March 19th, 1821, at Barham House, in Hertfordshire, the son of Col. Burton of the 36th Regiment, Richard received but a deaultory education. Most of his youth was spent at Tours and in other parts of the Continent. It was intended to give him a university training, but Oxford ways were little to his taste, and ultimately, in 1842, a commission in the East India Company's Service was procured for him. During his residence in India he was enabled to indulge in his love of travel, yet it was in 1852 that his 'Pilgrimage to Medinah and Mecca' at once sealed his reputation as one of the most daring and successful explorers of the time. His next feat, in 1855, was a visit to Harar, a city already known to the early Portuguese, but never before visited by a European. If he failed on that occasion in penetrating through Somal Land into Equatorial Africa, he was all the more successful in his next venture, when, accompanied by Speke, he discovered Lake Tanganyika (February, 1858). The success of this expedition was undoubtedly due to Burton, whose extraordinary linguistic faculty and knowledge of Oriental character enabled him to command success where others might have failed, and to collect a mass of information from the far-travelled Arabs who he met with during his journeys. If Burton's theories as to the Nile sources have not been verified by subsequent explorations, this is due not so much to any lack of acumen on his part as to the paucity of facts from which his conclusions had to be drawn.

From that time forward, and even after his appointment to the cousulship at Triest in 1872, Burton was a wanderer over the face of the globe, being accompanied on most occasions by the gifted lady whom he took to wife in 1861. In 1860 he paid a visit to the "City of the Saints"; the years 1861-4 he spent in Western Africa; in 1865-70 he explored the Brazilian Highlands and Parauay. When he resided at Damascus, in 1869-70, he spent his vacations in "unexplored Syria." During a holiday in 1872 he visited Iceland. In 1876 and again in 1879-88 he carried on an explorer's work in "the Land of Midian," and in 1882 he accompanied Cameron "to the Gold Coast for gold."

During his later years Burton translated the works of Camoens into English, and supplied the western world for the first time with a literal version of the 'Arabian Nights,' of which Lady Burton prepared an edition for "household reading."

Burton was a voluminous writer--too voluminous in face--and a mere enumeration of the books written and published by him would fill a column of one of our pages. There are close upon eighty volumes, of which thirty-nine are accounts of travel and exploration. Among these 'The Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa' must rank as a standard work on Africa and a pattern of what such a work should be. Besides these narratives Burton published grammers of three Oriental languages, five volumes of folk-lore, three books on fencing, and translations of Camoens and of the 'Arabian Nights'--tasks heavy enough to occupy the life of a man who never left his library. All these works bear the impress of Burton's personality, whilst this remarkable attainments as a linguist, his breadth of scholarly research, his broad views and high literary ability are ever prominent.

In his official career Burton did not achieve the success to which his high attainments and wide knowledge, especially of the East, entitled him. In recognition of his great achievements as an explorer he received in 1861 the appointment of Consul at Fernando Po. After three years' service in Western Africa, in the course of which he explored the whole coast from the Congo to Cape Coast Castle, ascended the Camarons Peak, and conducted a mission to the King of Dahome, he was transferred to Santos in Brazil. At length, in 1869, a more suitable sphere of activity was allotted to him at Damascus, where his special qualifications ought to have opened out to him a career of great usefulness. But this was not to be. Already, in 1872, he was transferred to Trieste, and in that uncongenial, unattractive town he was doomed to work out his regulation term of service, and there he died on October 20th, at the age of sixty-nine. England must be indeed rich in talent when she can afford to waste in the routine of consular duties a man of the courage, the capacities, and the vast acquirements of Burton. It is true he was ill fitted to run in official harness, and he had a Byronic love of shocking people, of telling tales against himself that had no foundation in fact, but he might have rendered greater service to his country had a sphere of activity been found for him adapted to his special qualifications. The knighthood bestowed upon him in 1886 was but an empty honour.