Sir Richard Burton (1821 – 1890) was a dashingly good-looking, mainly self-educated British explorer, geographer, diplomat, soldier, linguist and poet who had a keen interest in sex and sexuality. (1) He was a controversial figure during his lifetime and remains somewhat of an enigma to this day despite several biographies dedicated to his life. His diaries were burnt upon his death by his wife, Isabelle. Insights into Burton and his fascination with sex and sexuality may have been gleaned from his many diary entries which is probably why the diaries were destroyed.
According to some sources, Burton spoke 29 European, Asian and African languages as well as several local dialects.(2) He is well known for his many travel adventures. His travel writing describes the sexual lives if the inhabitants of the of the countries he travelled through, which included diverse and numerous places throughout Asia and Africa.
In his travelogues, he relays the sexual conventions in the regions he visited often hinting that he had participated. “Hence breaking sexual and racial taboos of his day.” (3)
Burton is also known for his translations of major ‘sex-orientated’ works including Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra. He translated ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ commonly known as Arabian Nights in English. The stories of Arabian nights are sexual and were considered pornography at the time of publication.
Burton’s best-known translation or work though is the Kama Sutra. Most of us have heard of this classic ancient Indian Hindu text widely considered to be the standard work on human sexual behaviour is not only Sanskrit Literature but also European. It’s an iconic work that has transgressed cultural boundaries due to the universal nature of its topic.
What you may not know is that Kama Sutra which is considered a manual of practical advice on sexual intercourse is only 20% made up of sexual positions. The rest is a guide to gracious and virtuous living.
As mentioned earlier Burton appointed his wife, Isabelle to be his literary executor. She burned almost everything he left behind – a significant loss to modern history and Burton enthusiasts.
Burton was seriously ill for much of his adult life. When he died at age 70, he was sent off in grand style being buried in a white marble mausoleum made in the shape of an Arab Tent. His wife Isabelle was later buried in the ‘tomb’ with her husband. (4)
(2) Fawn McKay Brodie, “Sir Richard Burton”. Encyclopedia Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-Burton-British-scholar-and-explorer (accessed: 21st March, 2018).
(1) (3) Wikipedia contributors, “Richard Francis Burton,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Richard_Francis_Burton&oldid=825863735 (accessed March 21, 2018).
(4) Ed. Gavan Tredoux, “Sir Richard Burton: 1821-1890”, https://burtoniana.org (accessed 21st March 2018).
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