Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), British consul, explorer and Orientalist, was born at Barham House, Hertfordshire, on the 19th of March 1821. He came of the Westmorland Burtons of Shap, but his grandfather, the Rev. Edward Burton, settled in Ireland as rector of Tuam, and his father, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Netterville Burton, of the 36th Regiment, was an Irishman by birth and character. His mother was descended from the MacGregors, and he was proud of a remote drop of Bourbon blood piously believed to be derived from a morganatic union of the Grand Monarque. There were even those, including some of the Romany themselves, who saw gipsy written in his peculiar eyes as in his character, wild and resentful, essentially vagabond, intolerant of convention and restraint. His irregular education strengthened the inherited bias. A childhood spent in France and Italy, under scarcely any control, fostered the love of untrammelled wandering and a marvellous fluency in continental vernaculars. Such an education so little prepared him for academic proprieties, that when he entered Trinity College, Oxford, in October 1840, a criticism of his military moustache by a fellow-undergraduate was resented by a challenge to a duel, and Burton in various ways distinguished himself by such eccentric behaviour that rustication inevitably ensued.
Nor was he much more in his element as a subaltern in the 18th Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry, which he joined at Baroda in October 1842. Discipline of any sort he abhorred, and the one recommendation of the East India Company's service in his eyes was that it offered opportunities for studying Oriental life and languages. He had begun Arabic without a master at Oxford, and worked in London at Hindustani under Forbes before he went out; in India he laboured indefatigably at the vernaculars, and his reward was an astonishingly rapid proficiency in Gujarati, Marathi, Hindustani, as well as Persian and Arabic. His appointment as an assistant in the Sind survey enabled him to mix with the people, and he frequently passed as a native in the bazaars and deceived his own munshi, to say nothing of his colonel and messmates. His wanderings in Sind were the apprenticeship for the pilgrimage to Mecca, and his seven years in India laid the foundations of his unparalleled familiarity with Eastern life and customs, especially among the lower classes.
Besides government reports and contributions to the Asiatic Society, his Indian period produced four books, published after his return home: Scinde, or the Unhappy Valley (1851), Sindh and the Races that Inhabit the Valley of the Indus (1851), Goa and the Blue Mountains (1851), and Falconry in the Valley of the Indus (1852). None of these achieved popularity, but the account of Sind is remarkably vivid and faithful.
The pilgrimage to Mecca in 1853 made Burton famous. He had planned it whilst mixing disguised among the Muslims of Sind, and had laboriously prepared for the ordeal by study and practice. No doubt the primary motive was the love of adventure, which was his strongest passion; but along with the wanderer's restlessness marched the zest of exploration, and whilst wandering was in any case a necessity of his existence, he preferred to roam in untrodden ways where mere adventure might be dignified by geographical service. There was a "huge white blot" on the maps of central Arabia where no European had ever been, and Burton's scheme, approved by the Royal Geographical Society, was to extend his pilgrimage to this "empty abode," and remove a discreditable blank from the map. War among the tribes curtailed the design, and his journey went no farther than Medina and Mecca. The exploit of accompanying the Muslim hajj to the holy cities was not unique, nor so dangerous as has been imagined. Several Europeans have accomplished it before and since Burton's visit without serious mishap. Passing himself off as an Indian Pathan covered any peculiarities or defects of speech.
The pilgrimage, however, demands an intimate proficiency in a complicated ritual, and a familiarity with the minutiae of Eastern manners and etiquette; and in the case of a stumble, presence of mind and cool courage may be called into request. There are legends that Burton had to defend his life by taking others'; but he carried no arms, and confessed, rather shamefastly, that he had never killed anybody at any time. The actual journey was less remarkable than the book in which it was recorded, The Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855). Its vivid descriptions, pungent style, and intensely personal "note" distinguish it from books of its class; its insight into Semitic modes of thought and its picture of Arab manners give it the value of an historical document; its grim humour, keen observation and reckless insobriety of opinion, expressed in peculiar, uncouth but vigorous language make it a curiosity of literature.
Burton's next journey was more hazardous than the pilgrimage, but created no parallel sensation. In 1854 the Indian government accepted his proposal to explore the interior of the Somali country, which formed a subject of official anxiety in its relation to the Red Sea trade. He was assisted by Capt. J.H. Speke and two other young officers, but accomplished the most difficult part of the enterprise alone. This was the journey to Harrar, the Somali capital, which no white man had entered. Burton vanished into the desert, and was not heard of for four months. When he reappeared he had not only been to Harrar, but had talked with the king, stayed ten days there in deadly peril, and ridden back across the desert, almost without food and water, running the gauntlet of the Somali spears all the way. Undeterred by this experience he set out again, but was checked by a skirmish with the tribes, in which one of his young officers was killed, Captain Speke was wounded in eleven places, and Burton himself had a javelin thrust through his jaws.