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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IT has sometimes been said that the roving propensities of Sir Richard Burton are attributable to a slight infusion of gipsy blood; but if this pedigree were to be assumed for all instinctively nomadic Englishmen, it would make family trees as farcical in general as they often are now. At any rate, Burton early showed a love for travel which circumstances strengthened. Although born in Hertfordshire, England, he spent much of his boyhood on the Continent, where he was educated under tutors. He returned for a course at Oxford, after which, at twenty-one, he entered the Indian service. For nineteen years he was in the Bombay army corps, the first ten in active service, principally in the Sindh Survey, on Sir Charles Napier’s staff. He also served in the Crimea as Chief of Staff to General Blatsom, and was chief organizer of the irregular cavalry. For nearly twenty-six years he was in the English consular service in Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe.  1
  In 1852, when upon leave, Captain Burton accomplished one of his most striking feats. Disguised as an Afghan Moslem, he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, in the hope of finding out “something of the great eastern wilderness marked ‘Ruba el Khala’ (the Empty Abode) on our maps.” For months he successfully braved the imminent danger of detection and death. Conspicuous among his explorations is his trip of 1856, when with Speke he discovered the lake regions of Central Africa. The bitter Speke controversy which followed, dividing geographers for a time into two contending factions, deprived Burton of the glory which he merited and drew upon him much unfriendly criticism.  2
  He had the true ardor of the discoverer. In ‘First Footsteps in Eastern Africa’ he shows his unhesitating bravery again, when penetrating the mysterious, almost mythical walled city of Harar. After many dangers and exhausting experiences he sees the goal at last. “The spectacle, materially speaking, was a disappointment,” he says. “Nothing conspicuous appeared but two gray minarets of rude shape. Many would grudge exposing their lives to win so paltry a prize. But of all that have attempted, none ever succeeded in entering that pile of stones.”  3
  Richard Burton carefully worded his varied experiences, and has left about fifty valuable and interesting volumes. Among the best known are ‘Sindh,’ ‘The Lake Regions of Central Africa,’ ‘Two Trips to Gorilla Land,’ and ‘Ultima Thule.’ With his knowledge of thirty-five languages and dialects he gained an intimate acquaintance with the people among whom he lived, and was enabled to furnish the world much novel information in his strong, straightforward style.  4
  Perhaps his most noteworthy literary achievement was his fine translation of the ‘Arabian Nights,’ which appeared in 1885. Of this his wife wrote:—
          “This grand Arabian work I consider my husband’s Magnum Opus…. We were our own printers and our own publishers, and we made, between September 1885 and November 1888, sixteen thousand guineas—six thousand of which went for publishing and ten thousand into our own pockets, and it came just in time to give my husband the comforts and luxuries and freedom that gilded the five last years of his life. When he died there were four florins left, which I put into the poor-box.”
  5
  This capable soldier and author was very inadequately recompensed. As a soldier, his bravery and long service brought him only the rank of Captain. In the civil service he was given only second-class consulates. The French Geographical Society, and also the Royal Geographical Society of England, each awarded him a gold medal, but the latter employed him upon only one expedition. At the age of sixty-five he was knighted. He had no other honors. This lack of recognition was undoubtedly a mortification, although toward the end of his career he writes philosophically:—
          “The press are calling me ‘the neglected Englishman,’ and I want to express to them the feelings of pride and gratitude with which I have seen the exertions of my brethren of the press to procure for me a tardy justice. The public is a fountain of honor which amply suffices all my aspirations; it is the more honorable as it will not allow a long career to be ignored because of catechisms or creed.”
  6
  He comforted himself, no doubt, with the belief that his outspoken skepticism was the cause of this lack of advancement, and that he was in some sort a martyr to freedom of thought; but one may be excused for discrediting this in the face of so many contrary instances. Capable men are too scarce to throw aside for such insufficient reasons. The real reason was his equally outspoken criticism of his superior officers in every department.  7
  Lady Burton was also an author; her ‘Inner Life in Syria’ and ‘Arabia, Egypt, and India’ are bright and entertaining. But her most important work is the ‘Life of Sir Richard F. Burton,’ published in 1892, two years after her husband’s death. This unorganized mass of interesting material, in spite of carelessness and many faults of style and taste, shows her a ready observer, with a clever and graphic way of stating her impressions. Her destruction, after her husband’s death, of his translation from the Arabic, ‘The Scented Garden,’ with his original notes, was much criticized.  8
 
 
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