Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Victorian Notables: Sir Richard Burton

Classic photo of Sir Richard Burton relaxing in Sufi garb

Sir Richard Burton
Born 1821, Died 1890
Age 37; 6’, 165 lbs. A darkly handsome Englishman, with facial scars, dressed and armed as circumstances require.
Advantages: Attractive, Cultural Adaptability, Language Talent, Military Rank; Reputation (Famous Explorer), Strong Will
Disadvantages: Addiction (Cannabis & opium), Bad Temper, Lecherousness, Secret (Despises many classes of people)
Quirks: Dislikes Beer; Very tolerant of Arabs and women (for his time); Fascinated by exotic erotica and old texts (which he then translates into pseudo-archaic English); Insists words be pronounced properly; Practicing Sufi (Muslim Mystic)

Sketch of Sir Richard in traveller's clothes

This represents Burton c. 1857. Two features of his character are of utmost importance. First, his love of languages; he is generally considered one of the greatest linguists ever, speaking 29 languages and 15 dialects, though it is hard to ascertain exactly what they were. Second, his prejudices; he had negative views of a wide range of people, including blacks, Jews, many Orientals, and most lower-class Europeans. However, as a traveler and a sometime secret agent, he was expert at keeping these feelings hidden; hence, this rates as a secret rather than Intolerance. Burton was a man of strong opinions and equally strong will.

His wealth fluctuates around Comfortable (as one anecdote puts it, his grandfather died on the way to his lawyer to change his will to allow Burton to inherit). At certain times, he could have a negative reputation (as "Ruffian Dick", a shady opinionated nuisance); in later years, one might add Diplomacy.

Sir Richard Burton is one of history’s most dashing adventurers (so much so that many have cast doubts on his story). Born in 1821 to an English ex-soldier’s family, Burton relocated frequently between France, Italy, and England as a child, leaving him with an intense wanderlust. There was a rumor that his family had Gypsy blood, as evidenced by his dark features and "Gypsy Stare"; coincidentally, he was the first to not the resemblance of the Romany to the Indian races.

Color painting in Arab garb

Attending Oxford at the age of 19, Burton worked overtime to get himself expelled by the end of his second year, finding academia dull. Shortly thereafter, he joind the East India Company as a soldier, rising quickly in the ranks. It’s a sign of his abilities that the British continued to trust him with assignments despite his outspoken-ness over the treatment of the natives and of women at home. Burton was involved with the British invasion of Afghanistan and the aborted invasion of Iran.

Sepia tone of Sir Richard

Also during this period, Burton reportedly fell in love with a Persian woman. Whatever the nature of their affair, the woman was punished by her family – murdered by poison. Burton became despondent, and intensified his belief in women’s rights. His many opinions made him enemies, resulting in the failure of his military career.

In 1852, Burton traveled to the Middle East. He spent the better part of three years there, most often in disguise, and became one of the first westerners to enter the sacred city of Mecca, as well as the first to enter Harrar, in Ethiopia. In 1855, he was involved in the Crimean War, but in 1857 returned to Africa in an unsuccessful attempt to discover the source of the Nile. He did discover Lake Tanganyika.

Picture of Richard Burton en route the the Haj

In 1860, he set out for Salt Lake City to write a biography of Brigham Young. After visiting South America, he returned to England and married Isabel Arundell, who was strangely convinved he was Catholic. (His sister thought him Anglican; he himself had taken to Islam and embraced Sufism early on, although he wrestled frequently with atheism). He served as British Counsul in Fernando Po, off West Africa, from 1861-1864, then transferred to Santos, Brazil until 1868; Damascus, Syria until 1871, and Trieste, Italy until his death in 1890.

Sir Richard and Isabel

Burton in History
Aside from his adventuring, Burton was an author, translator, and pioneering anthropologist. He published 43 volumes about his travels, and 30 volumes of translations. While his reputation was immense, he sold very few books during his life and was widely scorned. Many of his problems came from challenges to traditional Victorian morals (he translated a fair amount of erotica); his eccentric approach to style and vocabulary in translations didn’t help, neither did his critisims of his rivals. Oddly, there were remarkably few questions as to where his loyalties lay; despite everything, he remained a staunch supporter of British Imperialism.

Sir Richard Burton's Arab tent mausoleum in Mortlake, London (Yes, the tent is made of stone)

Burton’s reaction to others would depend on circumstances. There are some who believe that he killed wantonly in the Middle East to protect his disguises, while other (including Burton himself) claim he never actually killed a man in his life. He is certainly determiend, tough, and charasmatic. No stranger to the unexpected, Butron will likely take almost any strangeness in his stride. Although he does not believe in the occult, he studies paranormal phenomena (he coined the phrase "ESP") and would leap at any opportunity for an unusual adventure

Infante, V. (1999) - Gurps Who's Who I, pg. 108-109, SJG:Austin
[edited for removal of game specific content]

Further Reading
Brodie, Fawn M.: The Devil Drives: A life of Sir Richard Burton
Burton, Isabel; The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, 2 vol.
Kipling, Rudyard; Kim (a novel based partly on Burton’s career)
Rice, Edward: Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton
Stisted, Georgiana: The True Life of Capt. Sir Richard F. Burton

1 comment:

Sir Michael L. Foley, 16th Baron of Xternetsa said...

Lecherousness is not a weakness. ;)