Five Fascinating Facts about Sir Richard Burton

Interesting trivia about the Victorian explorer

1. Sir Richard Burton was a Victorian explorer, translator, author, spy, diplomat, poet, soldier, cartographer … the list goes on.

Sir Richard Burton (1821-90) has a claim to being the most remarkable Victorian of them all. His Times obituary called him ‘one of the most remarkable men of his time’. Not only did he publish some 47 books during his own lifetime, including many studies of various cultures and tribes in Africa and Asia, but he also travelled widely around the world, and spoke nearly thirty languages.

Yet his achievements were sullied by rumours surrounding his hostility towards Christianity, his interest in the sexual practices and customs of other countries, his criticisms of British imperialist practices, and the translations he undertook of racier works of literature from around the world. He was a colossally well-educated man and a ‘larger than life’ figure if ever there was one.

He was also Sean Connery’s inspiration for Indiana Jones’s father in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

2. When he translated the 1,001 Nights, Burton included a detailed commentary on the sexual practices mentioned in the tales.

Burton is best-remembered in the literary world for his spirited translation of the Arabian Nights, but when the book appeared in the 1880s it had to be privately printed and purchased through a subscription, owing to the explicit sexual content.

When the Edinburgh Review published a notice for Burton’s translation, it remarked of it, and the various other translations available (the other leading ones at the time being Antoine Galland’s and Edward William Lane’s), that ‘Galland is for the nursery, Lane for the study and Burton for the sewers.’

Richard Francis Burton3. Sir Richard Burton also translated another famous work of eastern erotic literature.

Most people think this was the Kama Sutra, but in fact, as we’ve revealed elsewhere, Burton doesn’t appear to have been the actual translator of the Kama Sutra: much of the work was completed by Burton’s friend and fellow orientalist, Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot (1833-1901), working in collaboration with the Indian archaeologist Bhagwan Lal Indraji and a student named Shivaram Parshuram Bhide.

Burton merely oversaw the project. However, Burton did translate the Middle-Eastern erotic work The Perfumed Garden, working from the original Arabic text; his wife, in accordance with her husband’s wishes, burnt the manuscript following Burton’s death. (However, an earlier translation from the French did survive.)

4. Burton was the first European to perform the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

Burton did this disguised as a Muslim – a dangerous thing to do at a time when Europeans were forbidden entrance to Mecca on pain of death. Thankfully, Burton had an uncanny ability to pass himself off as a native member of almost any country or culture he found himself in. Burton was also the first Christian to be allowed entry into the Islamic city of Harar in Ethiopia.

5. Burton also discovered many of the great lakes in Africa.

He might have gone on to discover the source of the Nile – which many Victorian explorers were avidly in search of – but illness put paid to that. On top of all this, Sir Richard Burton could have been the man who invented Coca-Cola: while in Africa he tried a sweet drink made with kola nuts.

If he had seen its potential, he could have beaten John Pemberton to it and invented the first popular marketed cola drink. While Burton was serving in the British army, he also kept 40 monkeys, in the hope of learning their language – he apparently mastered a vocabulary of 60 ‘words’, though his papers detailing his findings, like a great amount of his writing, were destroyed.

If you enjoyed these fascinating facts about the explorer Sir Richard Burton, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: Richard Francis Burton in native dress (author unknown), Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Reblogged this on Manolis.

  2. Haha,,,I thought you were writing about Elizabeth Taylor’s great love.

  3. Pingback: Five Fascinating Facts about Sir Richard Burton | Writing hints and competitions

  4. A most remarkable man.