The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler

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Richard Francis Burton, 1821-1890

Nationality: English
Date of Birth: 1821.03.19
Place of Birth: Barham House, Hertfordshire
Date of Death: October 1890
Place of Death: Trieste, Italy


Burton was born in Hertfordshire [var. Tuam, Co. Galway], the son of an Irish Colonel, and an English mother of a Neterville descent. He was educated in Trinity College, Oxford, and went on to marry the faithful and staunchly Catholic Isabel Arundell.


Burton was an English explorer, orientalist, scholar, writer, linguist, sexologist and spy who travelled extensively throughout the Near East and Africa. Burton (who excelled at reconnaissance, mapping, and languages) used his military commissions and scientific funding to map new trade routes, identify and catalogue valuable natural resources, and to analyze the political, religious, and economic systems in foreign countries. Burton is probably most famous for discovering the source of the Nile River in Africa with his partner, John Hanning Speke, in 1858. As an expert practitioner of various world religions, most particularly Islam, he became the first Westerner to enter the forbidden African city of Harare. He was one of the most important linguists of his day, fluent in 29 languages, and was most notable for giving a well-received direct-from-Arabic English translation of The Perfumed Gardens and Arabian Nights in 16 volumes. He was also the original translator of the Kama Sutra.

He appears to have met JW socially in London men's clubs, and was a mutual friend of JW and the publisher William Heinemann.

Bibliography: (accessed 2004); Mary S. Lovell, A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton, London, 1998; Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, 2004.