His First Footsteps in East Africa (1856), describing these adventures, is one of his most exciting and most characteristic books, full of learning, observation and humour.
After serving on the staff of Beatson's Bashi-bazouks at the Dardanelles, but never getting to the front in the Crimea, Burton returned to Africa in 1856. The foreign office, moved by the Royal Geographical Society, commissioned him to search for the sources of the Nile, and, again accompanied by Speke, he explored the lake regions of equatorial Africa. They discovered Lake Tanganyika in February 1858, and Speke, pushing on during Burton's illness and acting on indications supplied by him, lighted upon Victoria Nyanza. The separate discovery led to a bitter dispute, but Burton's expedition, with its discovery of the two lakes, was the incentive to the later explorations of Speke and Grant, Baker, Livingstone and Stanley; and his report in volume xxxiii. of the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, and his Lake Regions of Equatorial Africa (1860), are the true parents of the multitudinous literature of "darkest Africa." Burton was the first Englishman to enter Mecca, the first to explore Somaliland, the first to discover the great lakes of Central Africa. His East African pioneering coincides with areas which have since become peculiarly interesting to the British Empire; and three years later he was exploring on the opposite side of Africa, at Dahomey, Benin and the Gold Coast, regions which have also entered among the imperial "questions" of the day.
Before middle age Burton had compressed into his life, as Lord Derby said, "more of study, more of hardship, and more of successful enterprise and adventure, than would have sufficed to fill up the existence of half a dozen ordinary men." The City of the Saints (1861) was the fruit of a flying visit to the United States in 1860.
Since 1849 his connexion with the Indian army had been practically severed; in 1861 he definitely entered the service of the foreign office as consul at Fernando Po, whence he was shifted successively to Santos in Brazil (1865), Damascus (1869), and Trieste (1871), holding the last post till his death on the 20th of October 1890. Each of these posts produced its corresponding books: Fernando Po led to the publishing of Wanderings in West Africa (1863), Abeokuta and the Cameroons (1863), A Mission to Gelele, king of Dahomé (1864), and Wit and Wisdom from West Africa (1865). The Highlands of the Brazil (1869) was the result of four years' residence and travelling; and Letters from the Battlefields of Paraguay (1870) relate to a journey across South America to Peru. Damascus suggested Unexplored Syria (1872), and might have led to much better work, since no consulate in either hemisphere was more congenial to Burton's taste and linguistic studies; but he mismanaged his opportunities, got into trouble with the foreign office, and was removed to Trieste, where his Oriental prepossessions and prejudices could do no harm, but where, unfortunately, his Oriental learning was thrown away. He did not, however, abandon his Eastern studies or his Eastern travels.
Various fresh journeys or revisitings of familiar scenes are recorded in his later books, such as Zanzibar (1872), Ultima Thule (1875), Etruscan Bologna (1876), Sind Revisited (1877), The Land of Midian (1879) and To the Gold Coast for Gold (1883). None of these had more than a passing interest. Burton had not the charm of style or imagination which gives immortality to a book of travel. He wrote too fast, and took too little pains about the form. His blunt, disconnected sentences and ill-constructed chapters were full of information and learning, and contained not a few thrusts for the benefit of government or other people, but they were not "readable." There was something ponderous about his very humour, and his criticism was personal and savage. By far the most celebrated of all his books is the translation of the "Arabian Nights" (The Thousand Nights and a Night, 16 vols., privately printed, 1885-1888), which occupied the greater part of his leisure at Trieste. As a monument of his Arabic learning and his encyclopaedic knowledge of Eastern life this translation was his greatest achievement.
It is open to criticism in many ways; it is not so exact in scholarship, nor so faithful to its avowed text, as might be expected from his reputation; but it reveals a profound acquaintance with the vocabulary and customs of the Muslims, with their classical idiom as well as their vulgarest "Billingsgate," with their philosophy and modes of thought as well as their most secret and most disgusting habits. Burton's "anthropological notes," embracing a wide field of pornography, apart from questions of taste, abound in valuable observations based upon long study of the manners and the writings of the Arabs. The translation itself is often marked by extraordinary resource and felicity in the exact reproduction of the sense of the original; Burton's vocabulary was marvellously extensive, and he had a genius for hitting upon the right word; but his fancy for archaic words and phrases, his habit of coining words, and the harsh and rugged style he affected, detract from the literary quality of the work without in any degree enhancing its fidelity. With grave defects, but sometimes brilliant merits, the translation holds a mirror to its author. He was, as has been well said, an Elizabethan born out of time; in the days of Drake his very faults might have counted to his credit.
Of his other works, Vikram and the Vampire, Hindu Tales (1870), and a history of his favourite arm, The Book of the Sword, vol. i. (1884), unfinished, may be mentioned. His translation of The Lusiads of Camoens (1880) was followed (1881) by a sketch of the poet's life. Burton had a fellow-feeling for the poet adventurer, and his translation is an extraordinarily happy reproduction of its original. A manuscript translation of the "Scented Garden," from the Arabic, was burnt by his widow, acting in what she believed to be the interests of her husband's reputation. Burton married Isabel Arundell in 1861, and owed much to her courage, sympathy and passionate devotion. Her romantic and exaggerated biography of her husband, with all its faults, is one of the most pathetic monuments which the unselfish love of a woman has ever raised to the memory of her hero. Another monument is the Arab tent of stone and marble which she built for his tomb at Mortlake.
Besides Lady Burton's Life of Sir Richard F. Burton (2 vols., 1893, 2nd edition, condensed, edited, with a preface, by W.H. Wilkins, 1898), there are A Sketch of the Career of R.F. Burton, by A.B. Richards, Andrew Wilson, and St Clair Baddeley (1886); The True Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, by his niece, G.M. Stisted (1896); and a brief sketch by the present writer prefixed to Bohn's edition of the Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1898), from which some sentences have here been by permission reproduced. In 1906 appeared the Life of Sir Richard Burton, by Thomas Wright of Olney, in two volumes, an industrious and rather critical work, interesting in particular for the doubts it casts on Burton's originality as an Arabic translator, and emphasizing his indebtedness to Payne's translation (1881) of the Arabian Nights.