BOOK REVIEW : A Biographer Captures Burton, the Explorer



If you managed to catch “Mountains of the Moon” during its brief run in Southern California, you will already know that Richard Francis Burton was a superbly romantic figure of the Victorian era who explored the remote stretches of Africa in search of the headwaters of the Nile.

But the motion picture, for all of its colorful locales and high drama, only hinted at the adventure, the passion, the intrigue and the mystery that ornamented the life of the real Burton.

In “Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton,” biographer Edward Rice gives us the definitive work on Burton, a book so full of fascinating historical scholarship and yet so exotic and exciting that I read late into the night and started again at dawn.


The American publishers of “Burton” appear to be anxious to avoid any misunderstanding about exactly which Richard Burton the book is about. The elongated subtitle picks out three or four of Burton’s claims to fame: “The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the ‘Kama Sutra,’ and Brought the ‘Arabian Nights’ to the West.” But the subtitle might have gone on even longer.

Burton, an expert in disguises and fluent in 29 languages, penetrated some of the most arcane sects of Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Sufism, not only as a spy but also as an earnest seeker after the secrets of the universe.

A man of deep passion and extraordinary sexual appetite, Burton was fascinated by women and sought them out under the most perilous circumstances. His courtship of “the Persian Girl,” for example, probably ended with the poisoning of the high-born and cloistered young woman by her own family for the crime of having loved him: “Little I thought the hand of death / So soon would stay that fragrant breath,” wrote Burton in a poem that Rice takes to be autobiographical.

He had an appetite, too, for arcane knowledge of both the spirit and the flesh, and he studied and wrote about all manner of sexual and spiritual exotica, from female circumcision to Tantric Yoga. According to Rice, Burton coined the word “ESP”--although, significantly, he used it to mean “extra-sensuous perception”--and “he opened sexual vistas that Victorian England dared not enter.”

Even later in life, when he was rewarded with “a sort of working pension” as a British consular official in a series of backwater posts, Burton still searched for treasure of various kinds: diamonds in Golconda, gold in Midian, ancient Gnostic manuscripts in the libraries of Syria. And he was still hailed as “a new Joseph” in Egypt, as “Brother of the Lion” in the deserts of Syria.

No man who is driven to search so restlessly for some glimpse of “Gnosis” is without his private demons, and Rice shows us Burton’s struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, his spells of “distressing melancholy,” an anger and indignation so fierce that it approached madness. In old age, he was still haunted by what he called the “black phantom of our baby-fears,” and, at the very end, he regarded the pecking of a bird at the window as “a symbol of death.”


Rice is an accomplished historian but, like Burton himself, is enthralled by “subterranean” knowledge and the intimacies of body and soul. So, for example, Rice ably explains the geopolitics of “the Great Game” and the ancient schisms of the Islamic world, but he does not neglect the contraceptive techniques of Indian courtesans: “Mantras, prayers, and charms were popular but ineffective,” he explains, “as well as cow dung, leaves, the juice of citrus . . . and . . . among tribal woman, a stone.”

And Rice, like Burton, is a poet at heart. He renders the astounding aftermath of Burton’s death--when his wife and self-appointed censor, Isabel, burned much of the great man’s papers in the fireplace of their palazzo in Trieste--as an unholy conflagration.

“(T)he heart, the very soul, the spirit of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, Haji and K.C.M.G., was consigned to the flames,” Rice writes, “in some strange kind of sati in which the widowed soul is sent as an offering to the deities.”

Isabel Burton later insisted that her husband’s apparition directed her to burn the precious manuscripts. Now Rice has rescued Burton and his work from the flames, and the adventurer is brought fully back to life in Rice’s masterpiece of history and biography. Burton’s ghost and this grateful reader owe Edward Rice a salute and a tribute.