A Blaze of Light
Sitting on a thin carpet in his tiny, rented room in Suez, Egypt, in 1854, Richard Francis Burton calmly watched as five men cast critical eyes over his meager belongings. The men, whom he had just met on the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, “looked at my clothes, overhauled my medicine chest, and criticised my pistols,” Burton wrote. “They sneered at my copper-cased watch.” He knew that if they discovered the truth, that he was not Shaykh Abdullah, an Afghan-born Indian doctor and devout, lifelong Muslim but a thirty-two-year-old lieutenant in the army of the British East India Company, not only would his elaborately planned expedition be in grave danger, but so would his life. Burton, however, was not worried. Even when his new friends found his sextant, the most indispensable, and obviously Western, scientific instrument in his possession, he did not think that he had anything to fear. “This,” he later wrote, “was a mistake.”
Burton’s goal was to do something that no other Englishman had ever done, and that few had either the ability or audacity to do: enter Mecca disguised as a Muslim. It was an undertaking that simultaneously acknowledged what was most sacred to the Muslim faith and dismissed the right to protect it, making it irresistible to Burton, who studied every religion and respected none. The birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, Mecca is the holiest site in Islam and, as such, forbidden to non-Muslims. Burton knew that, “to pass through the Moslem’s Holy Land, you must either be a born believer, or have become one,” but he had never even considered performing the Hajj as a convert. “Men do not willingly give information to a ‘new Moslem,’ especially a Frank [European]: they suspect his conversion to be feigned or forced, look upon him as a spy, and let him see as little of life as possible,” he wrote. “I would have given up the dear project rather than purchase a doubtful and partial success at such a price.” An Oxford dropout, self-taught scholar, compulsive explorer, and extraordinarily skilled polyglot, Burton wanted unfettered access to every holy site he reached, the trust of every man he met, and the answer to every ancient mystery he encountered—nothing less, he wrote, than to see and understand “Moslem inner life.” He also wanted to return to England alive.
By disguising himself as a Muslim, Burton was risking the righteous wrath of those for whom the Hajj was the most sacred of religious rites. Although “neither the Koran nor the Sultan enjoins the killing of Hebrew or Christian intruders,” he knew, “in the event of a pilgrim declaring himself to be an infidel, the authorities would be powerless to protect him.” A single error could cost him his life. “A blunder, a hasty action, a misjudged word, a prayer or bow, not strictly the right shibboleth,” he wrote, “and my bones would have whitened the desert sand.”
Burton’s plan, moreover, required crossing the Rubʿ al-Khali—“Empty Quarter”—the world’s largest continuous desert and, in his words, a “huge white blot” on nineteenth-century maps. So ambitious was the expedition that it had captured the attention of the president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Impey Murchison. For Murchison, who had helped to found the Society nearly a quarter of a century earlier, this was exactly the kind of exploration that the Society had been created to encourage. He “honored me,” Burton wrote, “by warmly supporting . . . my application for three years’ leave of absence on special duty.” The East India Company, a 250-year-old private corporation with armies of its own, had argued that the journey was too dangerous and that Burton, who had made more enemies than friends during his years in the military, should be given no more than a one-year furlough. The Royal Geographical Society stood by its promise to help finance the expedition. For a challenge of this magnitude, Murchison believed, Burton was “singularly well-qualified.”
Although the members of the Royal Geographical Society were impressed by Burton’s achievements, most had reservations about this unusual young man who seemed to be British in name only. Burton had been born in Devon, on the English Channel, but he had spent far less time in his homeland than he had roaming the rest of the world. It was a pattern that had begun early in life, when his father, Joseph Netterville Burton, a retired lieutenant colonel in the British Army, moved his family to France before Richard’s first birthday. Over the next eighteen years, he moved thirteen more times, briefly settling in towns from Blois to Lyons, Marseilles to Pau, Pisa to Siena, Florence, Rome, and Naples. By the time he was an adult, Burton, along with his younger siblings, Maria and Edward, felt less like a citizen of the world than a man without a country. “In consequence of being brought up abroad, we never thoroughly understood English society,” he wrote, “nor did society understand us.”
Not only did Burton not feel British, he had often been told, and never in an admiring way, that neither did he look particularly British. No one who met him ever forgot his face. Bram Stoker, who would go on to write Dracula, was shaken by his first encounter with Burton. “The man riveted my attention,” Stoker later wrote. “He was dark, and forceful, and masterful, and ruthless. . . . I never saw anyone like him. He is steel! He would go through you like a sword!” Burton’s friend, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, wrote that he had “the jaw of a devil and the brow of a god,” and described his eyes as having “a look of unspeakable horror.” Burton’s black eyes, which he had inherited from his English-Irish father, seemed to mesmerize everyone he met. Friends, enemies, and acquaintances described them variously as magnetic, imperious, aggressive, burning, even terrible, and compared them to every dangerous wild animal they could think of, from a panther to a “stinging serpent.” Equally striking were his thick black hair, his deep, resonant voice, and even his teeth, which may have inspired literature’s most iconic vampire. Stoker would never forget watching, enthralled, as Burton spoke, his upper lip rising menacingly. “His canine tooth showed its full length,” he wrote, “like the gleam of a dagger.”
Burton had grown up fighting, from street brawls to school skirmishes to violent encounters with enraged tutors. Although his father had dragged his children from one European town to another, he wanted for them a British education, which began at a grim boarding school in Richmond. All that Burton remembered learning at the school, which he described as “the ‘Blacking-shop’ of Charles Dickens,” was “a certain facility in using our fists, and a general development of ruffianism. I was in one perpetual scene of fights; at one time I had thirty-two affairs of honor to settle.” When he and Edward were finally sent back to Boulogne, after an attack of measles killed several boys and shut down the school, they scandalized everyone on their ship by joyously celebrating the fact that they were leaving England at last. “We shrieked, we whooped, we danced for joy. We shook our fists at the white cliffs, and loudly hoped we should never see them again,” he wrote. “We hurrah’d for France, and hooted for England; ‘The Land on which the Sun ne’er sets—nor rises.’ ”
Burton’s father taught him chess, but most of what he learned came from a succession of alternately terrifying and terrified tutors. No matter the subject, the tutors were given permission to beat their pupils, until the pupils were old enough to beat them back. In later years, Burton would express his sorrow for the incalculable harm done by “that unwise saying of the wise man, ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ ” As a teenager, he fought back. The poor, nervous musician Burton’s parents hired to teach him violin—“nerves without flesh, hung on wires,” as Burton would later contemptuously describe him, “all hair and no brain”—finally quit after his student broke a violin over his head.
The only childhood teacher Burton respected was his fencing master, a former soldier who had only one thumb, having lost the other in battle. Richard and his brother threw themselves into fencing with such wild enthusiasm that their studies nearly ended in tragedy. “We soon learned not to neglect the mask,” Richard wrote. “I passed my foil down Edward’s throat, and nearly destroyed his uvula, which caused me a good deal of sorrow.” The lessons, however, not only paid off but eventually produced one of the most skilled swordsmen in Europe. Burton earned the coveted French title Maître d’Armes; perfected two sword strokes, the une-deux and the manchette—an upward slashing movement that disabled an opponent, often sparing his life; and wrote both The Book of the Sword and A Complete System of Bayonet Exercise, which the British Army published the same year he left for Mecca. Fencing, he would later say, “was the great solace of my life.”
As Burton grew into a young man, he also developed another all-consuming, lifelong interest, one that would make him even less welcome in polite society: sex. What began as love affairs with beautiful women from Italy to India quickly transformed into something more enquiring and erotic, and far less acceptable in Victorian England. As a young officer in Sindh, now a province in southeastern Pakistan, he famously investigated the homosexual brothels, writing a report for his commander that he claimed later hindered his career. His ethnological writings, which in the end would range from Asia to Africa to North America, focused not only on the dress, religion, and familial structures of his subjects, but on their sexual practices. His readers would be shocked by open and detailed discussions of polygamy and polyandry, pederasty and prostitution. Burton, however, had little time for British priggishness and no interest in what he referred to as “innocence of the word not of the thought; morality of the tongue and not of the heart.”
Although Burton’s nomadic childhood and scandalous interests left him feeling cut off from his country and distrusted by his countrymen, he did learn one striking thing about himself along the way: He was, in the words of one of his flabbergasted tutors, “a man who could learn a language running.” In the end, he would speak more than twenty-five different languages, along with at least another dozen dialects. To some extent, his gift for languages was a product of natural ability and early training. “I was intended for that wretched being, the infant phenomenon,” he explained, “and so began Latin at three and Greek at four.” It was his fascination with other cultures, however, and his methodical mind that made him one of the world’s most gifted linguists. He had worked out a system early on that allowed him to learn most languages in two months, and he never seemed to understand why others found it so hard. “I never worked more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness,” he wrote. “After learning some three hundred words, easily done in a week, I stumbled through some easy book-work (one of the Gospels is the most come-atable), and underlined every word that I wished to recollect, in order to read over my pencillings at least once a day. . . . The neck of the language was now broken and progress was rapid.”
After engineering his own expulsion from Oxford, where he had been ridiculed, ignored, and bored, Burton had joined the 18th Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry, a regiment within the East India Company. Realizing that one of the fastest ways to rise through the ranks was to become an interpreter, he learned twelve languages in seven years. He had begun studying Hindustani immediately upon arriving in India and six months later easily passed first among the many gifted linguists taking the exam. Over the following years, one after another, he steadily added languages to his long list: Gujarati, Marathi, Armenian, Persian, Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto, Sanskrit, Arabic, Telugu, and Turkish, rarely placing second to even his most talented rivals.
So caught up did Burton become in his passion for languages, that he often forgot that not everyone shared his outsized enthusiasm. In his book Falconry in the Valley of the Indus—one of five books he wrote between 1851 and 1853—he used so many different Indian dialects that he was openly mocked in a British review. “Were it not that the author is so proud of his knowledge of oriental tongues that he thinks it desirable to display the said knowledge by a constant admixture of Indianee words with his narrative, this would be a most agreeable addition both to the Zoology and Falconry of the East,” the reviewer admonished him. “We find his affectation all but insufferable, and devoutly wish that he were confined to the use of plain English for the remaining term of his natural life.” Burton, however, was not to be shamed or dissuaded from his obsession. “For many years I have been employed in studying the Scindian literature and language,” he wrote in reply. “You will . . . find it is the language of a country as large as England.” He even wrote a letter to The Bombay Times openly criticizing the language examination process within the East India Company and claiming that, for a serious student, it was not particularly challenging. “The task may appear a formidable one: we can assure him that the appearance is much more tremendous than the reality,” he wrote. “Any man of moderate abilities can, with careful, though not hard, study, qualify himself to pass the examination we have described in one year.”
Such shrugging dismissal of the notoriously difficult and competitive exams was maddening for Burton’s fellow officers, who struggled for years to learn the languages. One man in particular bristled at such casual arrogance, and would come to justify Burton’s assertion that “linguists are a dangerous race.” Christopher Palmer Rigby was considered one of the most distinguished linguists in the East India Company. At twenty years of age he had passed the language exams for both Hindustani and Marathi, adding Canarese, Persian, and Arabic before his thirtieth birthday. In 1840, while in Aden, he not only learned Somali but wrote An Outline of the Somali Language and Vocabulary, which Burton admired and used extensively when studying the language himself. When Rigby sat for his examination in Gujarati, he had been widely expected to receive the highest score. To everyone’s shock, however, not least of all Rigby’s, he had lost that honor to Richard Burton.
Many years later, Rigby would find himself in a position to prove to Burton that linguists were not only dangerous, they had long memories. Burton would not sit for the exam in Arabic, a language that he knew so well he referred to it as “my native tongue,” until 1855. Soon after taking the test, he would leave the country, assuming that he had easily passed.
Copyright © 2022 by Candice Millard. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.