Sir Richard Francis Burton
Richard Francis Burton
This week's blog is evoked by a 1990 film - Mountains of the Moon ( read the NY Times review here). The story told is of two 19th century British explorers, Captain Richard Francis Burton and Lt. John Hanning Speke, who searched for and found the source of the Nile. Inspired by the movie, I dug into the life of Richard Burton (1821-90) and found him so interesting, I thought I'd share what I'd learned.
A prolific writer, a linguist, a poet and a pioneer of sexual studies, Burton was the son of an army colonel and spent his childhood traveling about Europe. A wild young man, he was dismissed from Oxford and he joined the army of the East India Company at age 21. In a posting as an intelligence officer in India, Burton recieved ann assignment that was to mar his career ... his superiors made use of his command of many languages and ordered him to go undercover in the male homosexual brothels of Karachi. His report, which showed that many of the customers at the brothels were British officers, was hushed up and, under a cloud, Burton returned home, at age 29.
He made use of his free time by writing four books on India and planning, executing and then chronicling a dangerous adventure - Burton disguised himself as an Afghani physician and traveled, undetected, to Mecca.
Turning to exploration, in 1854, Burton planned an expidition with three other men, including John Speke, to discover the source of the Nile. This area of Africa was still uncharted and the only information on the Nile's source was from Claudius Ptolemy, who lived in the first half of the second century A.D. According to Ptolemy, the source of the Nile River was the Mountains of the Moon. He based this on the story of Diogenes, who was blown off course while sailing to India, landed in Africa, and discovered the source of the Nile. The Mountains of the Moon were in actuality the Ruwenzori mountain range nearLake Victoria. Burton and his group started through Somaliland in Eastern Africa, but were attacked, wounded, and forced to retreat.
When the Crimean War broke out, he volunteereered, training Turkish irregulars at the front in the Dardanelles, though he saw no action himself. In 1857-8, Burton and Speke returned to Africa to again try to locate the Nile's source, traveling inland from Zanzibar. Their jopurney was difficult and by the time they arrived at Lake Tanganyika, both were ill. Burton was the worse off, and Speke managed to push on alone, discovering Lake Victoria, which he correctly believed to be the source of the Nile. Burton disagreed. Back in England, their friendship destroyed, the two explorers debated the issue ... Speke took credit for finding the source of the Nile, Burton felt the evidence wasn't convincing. The debate ended tragically in 1864, when Speke died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
After discovering Lake Victoria, Burton's life continued much as before ... In 1860, he made a brief visit to the US - he indulged his curiosity about Mormonism, meeting with Brigham Young in Utah, and then traveled over the plains to California. He wrote of the journey in his book, The City of the Saints. Once back in England, he married Catholic aristocrat, Isabel Arundell, amd soon joined the British Foreign Office. As consul, he was sent to an island off the coast of Africa, then Brazil, then Damascus, then finally to Trieste in 1872. All the while, he never ceased writing about the customs, rituals, and the sexual practices of the people in whose land he dwelled. He also completed many translations including The Arabian Nights, The Perfumed Garden, and The Kama Sutra. Knighted by Queen Victoria in 1886, Burton died in Trieste on October 20, 1890.
Burton's tomb -
For me, however, Richard Francis Burton will always live as one of the extraordinary men who searched for the source of the Nile. They were among the first Europeans to ever set eyes on that part of Africa ... the animals, birds, insects, exotic societies. They braved disease, predation, attacks, starvation and, of course, the possibilty of getting lost, all in order to satisfy their curiosity about the world and perhaps themselves. And they have, in a manner of speaking, taken us with them.
- Lake Tanganyika from space