Richard Francis Burton: The Englishman Who Went to Mecca and East Africa


by Jason Kerstein

Richard Francis Burton was a hard-living combination of Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt. By 1853, he’d already swashbuckled his way through enough adventures for several lifetimes. The British explorer, writer, ethnologist, polyglot, and spy had spent his youth traveling Europe and drinking in its culture, learning as much about history and poetry as he did about sword fighting and bordellos. He’d worked undercover investigating his fellow English officers’ behavior in Indian brothels. And he’d penned travelogues and anthropological studies detailing his adventures.

But Burton craved more. During an extended leave from the military, he began devising one of the greatest adventures of the Victorian era. Burton wanted to be the first Englishman to walk into the forbidden city of Mecca. Other Englishmen had caught glimpses of Mecca, but only as prisoners. Burton wanted to waltz in on his own. Only then would he be able to see the holy city as Muslims saw it during the hajj, the sacred pilgrimage Islam requires of every adult. The stakes were high. Any infidel caught sneaking in faced immediate execution. “A blunder, a hasty action, a misjudged word, a prayer or bow, not strictly the right shibboleth, and my bones would have whitened the desert sand,” Burton later wrote.

Burton had a few aces up his sleeve. Although his father was Irish, Burton’s dark hair and complexion helped him pass as a Muslim. His linguistic wizardry was unrivaled—he’d mastered at least five languages before turning 18 and added many more throughout his life. His obsessive reading and previous travels had taught him the Islamic customs he would need to avoid critical errors.

Even with these gifts, the Royal Geographical Society was skeptical about funding Burton's expedition. But a glimpse inside the forbidden city was too tantalizing for the geographers to refuse. They agreed to bankroll the journey, with a catch: Burton had to survive the trip before he received the funds.

Provisional cash in hand, Burton began preparing for his hajj. Even if he played his assumed character—an Indian-born Afghan named Abdullah—flawlessly, a glimpse of his uncircumcised penis during a roadside pit stop would have blown his cover. So Burton took method acting to a whole new level; at the age of 32, he was circumcised.

Into the black cube

When Burton joined a Medina-bound caravan leaving the port city of Yanbu, his mission was nearly cut short. Bedouin marauders attacked the group, killing 12 men before the pilgrims could turn them back. When the caravan finally reached Medina, Burton assumed his new identity and headed for Mecca.

Once he donned the ihram (two white, seamless sheets that make up a pilgrim’s traditional garment), Burton blended in beautifully with the throngs of visitors. He fought his way through dense swarms of people to kiss the Black Stone, one of Islam’s most venerated relics, and theorized it was a meteorite. He braved the sweltering heat to make the traditional visit to Mount Arafat, taking copious notes and sketching his observations. Burton’s disguise was so perfect that no one so much as raised an eyebrow.

Burton wasn’t finished, though. He couldn’t leave the holy city without entering the Kaaba, a cubic structure near the center of the Great Mosque. For Muslims, the Kaaba is the most sacred spot in the world. It’s what they face when they say their daily prayers, and each hajj requires the pilgrim to walk seven circuits around it. Burton had survived thus far, but now he wanted to up the ante by sneaking into the inner sanctum. Luckily, he had the help of a local youth.

When Burton’s friend gave word that the coast was clear, the adventurer slipped into the Kaaba. He had just begun poking around when officials accosted him. With nerves of steel, Burton passed the interrogation and was given permission to pray. As he kneeled and feigned the motions, Burton sketched the floor plan of the Kaaba on his ihram.

His task complete, Burton returned home. After collecting his loot from the Royal Geographical Society, he published a travel chronicle, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah. Part adventure story, part meticulous observation of Muslim life, the book made Burton a celebrity.

A river runs somewhere

His newfound fame and handsome face meant Burton could have lived a comfortable life as a fixture at university classes and high-society parties. Instead, he decided to embark on an even more audacious mission—this time in Africa.

For centuries, the Nile River’s origin had puzzled European geographers, and by the mid–19th century, the debate had reached a fever pitch. Finding the river’s source was no simple task, though. Hostile tribes, disease, and geographic obstacles had foiled every previous European expedition into East Africa.

Burton was sure he could unravel the river’s mysteries. He again tapped the Royal Geographical Society for funds and set off for the continent. This time, he had a coexplorer. Burton and Army officer John Hanning Speke made an unlikely team. Speke was almost the anti-Burton—a well-connected, rich colonialist who loved hunting more than learning. But Speke was brave, and that was enough to earn Burton’s respect. The expedition also included a pair of English surveyors and porters to tote the supplies.

The team began its odyssey with an 1855 fact-finding mission through the Horn of Africa. As Speke explored inland valleys, Burton successfully ventured to the fabled city of Harar, in what is now Ethiopia. Legend had it that any white man foolish enough to enter the city would be killed on sight, but Burton found the locals to be hospitable. After spending 10 days in the company of the king and hearing tales of great inland lakes, Burton headed back to the coast to rendezvous with Speke.

The two reconnected, but chaos ensued when several hundred Somalian warriors attacked the camp. Burton grabbed his saber and fought valiantly before a javelin tore through his cheek, knocking out several molars. Still impaled by the spear, Burton staggered for cover as his men fought back the attacking warriors.

When the melee ended, one member of Burton’s team was dead. Speke, too, had suffered wounds. The pair returned to Britain to regroup, but the homecoming was not a happy one. Burton was accused then exonerated of not posting an adequate watch. After recovering from his injury and serving in the Crimean War, Burton rejoined Speke for a second crack at the Nile mystery in 1857. This time the pair would make history.

Flow Problems

Burton and Speke set off from Zanzibar in June 1857, accompanied by a train of porters, including the intrepid guide Sidi Bombay, a former slave with sharpened teeth. As Burton and Speke trekked on, their differences became more pronounced. Burton spent his time learning local dialects, penciling observations, and conducting ethnological studies. Speke repeatedly stopped the procession to shoot big game. Still, the two forged a bond.

East Africa was harder. Within weeks, both Burton and Speke were incapacitated with fever. By February 1858, Burton’s tongue was so ulcerated that he could no longer speak intelligibly. Speke went temporarily blind. Both had to be carried at times. They moved, stopped until they got slightly healthier, and moved again. After months of miserable hiking and ill health, the team finally reached the shores of the longest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika.

The lake was certainly an enormous body of water, but was it the source of the Nile? To get conclusive proof, they would need to conduct a thorough survey and find a river that flowed north from it. As their supplies dwindled and Burton’s health worsened, the pair attempted to explore the lake in canoes. But it was no use. Burton had no choice but to order the expedition to turn back.

Speke, who was in better health, had other ideas. Arab traders told stories of a mysterious lake to the north of Tanganyika. Speke convinced Burton to allow him to investigate the rumors. Burton stayed behind to round up more supplies while compiling notes on local dialects.

On August 25, 1858, Speke returned to camp with an extraordinary claim: He had discovered the source of the Nile. Burton pressed Speke for details and was quickly disappointed. Speke had visited only the southern shores of the great lake—which he dubbed Lake Victoria—and had never seen a river flowing north. His main testimony to the lake’s gargantuan size came from a dubious interview with a local sultan and his wife. Without scientific proof to back up Speke’s claims, the mission was a failure by Burton’s standards.

When the caravan finally made it back to Zanzibar, Burton was too ill to sail back to London. Speke promised to keep a lid on their discoveries until they could address the Royal Geographical Society together.

Speke lied. When Burton arrived in London, he learned that Speke had gone ahead and addressed the Society and was being lionized as the discoverer of the Nile’s source.

The two would spend years publicly squabbling over whether Speke had actually verified Lake Victoria as the source of the Nile. Speke even visited again—and again failed to confirm it as the Nile’s source. Burton maintained that Speke could well have been right, but they lacked the scientific evidence to make such an authoritative claim.

Finally, in 1864, the RGS scheduled a debate between the two explorers, who by now had become bitter enemies. Speke never arrived for the debate. All that came was a grave message.

The previous evening, Speke had gone hunting. As he crossed a wall, he shot himself in the chest. While the death was ruled an accident, some speculated he’d taken his life to avoid having Burton expose his “discovery” as a sham. Upon hearing the news, Burton broke down and wept. “The charitable say that he shot himself, the uncharitable that I shot him,” Burton wrote.

The suicide theory is doubly tragic because Speke’s unconfirmed hunch was right—Lake Victoria is one of the sources of the Nile. Henry Morton Stanley famously confirmed the hypothesis in 1875, 11 years after Speke’s death.

Travels of the mind

Burton would never again achieve the same fame he’d won for the Mecca and East Africa penetrations, but his further adventures and accomplishments were extraordinary. He journeyed to the American West, met Brigham Young, and wrote extensively and fairly positively about Mormonism. (Burton took a nuanced view on Mormons’ polygamy: “Servants are rare and costly; it is cheaper and more comfortable to marry them.”) He became consul to the island of Fernando Pó, off West Africa; then the city of Santos, Brazil; then Damascus; and finally Trieste, Italy. In the latter, he equipped his study with 11 tables, each one stacked with books and papers for a different project. He spent his days shuttling between those desks as he cranked out more books.

On one of those desks Burton gave the world a 16-volume translation of the greatest work of classical Arabic literature, A Thousand and One Nights. Critics dismissed it as “an appalling collection of degrading customs and statistics of vice.” On another he helped translate the Kama Sutra, knowing full well that it would be censored. His translation of the latter is still the classic English version of the text. In recognition of his scholarship and adventures, Queen Victoria knighted Burton in 1886.

Burton passed away in 1890 at the age of 69, leaving behind an unbelievable legacy. His literary output included 58 books on everything from travel to falconry. He had mastered 29 languages. But most important, Burton had countless adventures. The undertaker who examined the scholar’s body reported that it was covered with scars, each one a small testament to his tireless curiosity. Burton wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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