The other Burton – Denis Fahey on Sir Richard Francis Burton’s life of adventure

An Irishman’s Diary

Nowadays the name Richard Burton evokes the memory of the Welsh actor and husband of Elizabeth Taylor but in earlier times it belonged to one of the major figures of the Victorian era.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, soldier, explorer, geographer, cartographer, anthropologist, diplomat, polyglot and author of more than 40 books was born in Torquay, Devon, on March 19th, 1821.

His father, Col Joseph Netterville Burton, was born in Ireland, the son of a clergyman from Westmoreland who had come here to join a brother who had been appointed as chaplain to John Ryder, the archbishop of Tuam. That side of the family also included a Huguenot countess who had been a lover of the French king, Louis XIV, but it's unlikely that the king was an ancestor. Burton's mother's people came from the Scottish borders and she was descended from the outlaw and folk hero Rob Roy McGregor.

There was no record of a Middle Eastern or Oriental connection in his background but he was said to have a slightly Arabic appearance which allowed him, with the aid of a heavy disguise and a head of flowing hair, to pass for an Afghan hakim (physician) and visit the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in 1853.


The family moved around Europe during his childhood after his father's army career was ended because of his support for Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of George IV, and he became fluent in French and Italian while still a teenager. In 1841 he attended Oxford University but was expelled after five terms for attending a steeplechase and refusing to apologise. He then joined the army of the East India Company in Gujarat, on the northwestern coast of the subcontinent, and combined military duties with a study of the customs and culture of the local Hindu population.

In June 1857, he was given leave to lead an expedition from Zanzibar, sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society, to check out stories of great lakes in the interior of Africa and perhaps to find the source of the Nile.

In February 1858, he and his second in command, another army officer, John Hanning Speke, became the first Europeans to see Lake Tanganyika. Three months later, on their return journey, Burton became ill at their base camp in Kazeh, in modern Tanzania, and Speke made a side trip to the northeast where he discovered another large lake which he named after Queen Victoria. Both men agreed that this was the principal feeder to the White Nile but after Speke returned to England ahead of Burton and claimed credit for the discovery, Burton argued that Lake Tanganyika was the feeder. A public feud between the two men only ended with Speke's accidental death in September 1864 on the eve of a debate sponsored by the British Association.

After spending a few months living among the Mormons in Utah in 1860 and being politely refused admission to their church by Brigham Young, he joined the diplomatic service and held consulate appointments until his death in 1890, at first in Equatorial Guinea and later in Damascus, Santos in Brazil, and Trieste. Each of his postings provided opportunities to study local conditions and languages and to write books about his experiences. His sojourn in Trieste also gave him the leisure to translate two raunchy classics, the Tales of the Arabian Nights and the Perfumed Garden, and the Hindu book of erotic love, the Kama Sutra, which he published privately to evade prosecution under the obscenity laws.

In 1861 he married Isabel Arundel, from an old Catholic family, and she shared most of his travels and acted as his editor.

On home leave in 1864, the couple spent two months touring Ireland and met Richard’s elderly aunts who lived in Tuam.

According to Isabel in her biography of her husband, they both agreed that the town was "a dreadful place" but they found other parts of the country more congenial. Dublin was hospitable and very lively, Killarney was very pretty but very small, and when they visited Maynooth College, Richard was cheered by the students.

On one occasion, when they had taken charge of a car after leaving the train at Goold's Cross, a small railway station in Co Tipperary, they obliged an elderly gentleman with a lift to his home. He told them that his name was Charles Bianconi and invited them to tea. The irony of Ireland's leading supplier of public transport in pre-railway days needing the lift amused them.

Burton's diplomatic status didn't prevent him from commenting on political matters, and when William Gladstone introduced an Irish Home Rule Bill in 1886, he suggested local parliaments in Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff, like the diets in the provinces of Austria-Hungary, but he also worried that Ireland might fall under the control of "Fenian priests" who weren't loyal like their English counterparts.

During his visit here, Burton kissed the Blarney Stone. As he was reputed to speak about 30 languages and a number of dialects, it is difficult to think of anyone less in need of its mythical powers.