Everybody imagines the World’s Most Interesting Man to be a fictional grey-haired lothario who drinks Mexican beer and boasts of his legendary exploits. But what if a man like this really lived?
It turns out he did. He is Richard Francis Burton, a Victorian-era explorer who learned 29 languages, went undercover as a Muslim on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and wrote 50 books on topics ranging from a translation of the Kama Sutra to a manual on bayonet exercises.
In this episode I explore Burton’s life and his incredible achievements. He nearly discovered the source of the Nile with his expedition partner, John Hanning Speke. He had a massive facial scar that came from a Somali tribesman throwing a spear that passed through both his cheeks. He travelled 1,500 miles in a solo canoe expedition down Brazil’s São Francisco River, discovering a jungle tribe and deciphering their language.
Adventures aside, Burton is best known today for translating the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra into English. He was the most educated explorer of the Victorian age, a time when only men of rough disposition set out to discover foreign lands, in stark contrast to the landed gentry, who were uninterested in international travel, unless it was in the comfort of a steamship to go administer a colony for the sake of the Crown or as a military officer deployed to extend the global landholdings of the British Empire.
Burton published over three dozen volumes, ranging from such topics as linguistics, ethnology, poetry, geography, fencing, and travel narratives. He spoke Greek, Arabic, Persian, Icelandic, Turkish, Swahili, Hindi, and a host of other European, Asian, and African tongues.
Learn about Burton’s extraordinary life, and how a beer pitchman could never hope to live up to it.
RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THIS BOOKS
Brodie, Fawn McKay. The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton. New York: Norton, 1984.
Burton, Sir Richard Francis. Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah – Volume 2, n.d.
Dugard, Martin. Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone. 1st edition. Broadway Books, 2003.
Janin, Hunt. Four Paths to Jerusalem: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Secular Pilgrimages, 1000 BCE to 2001 CE. McFarland, 2002.
Rice, Edward. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra, and Brought the Arabian Nights to the West. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1991.
Stisted, Georgiana M. The True Life of Capt: Sir Richard F. Burton. Forgotten Books, 2012.
Trojanow, Ilija. The Collector of Worlds: A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton. New York; Enfield: Ecco ; Publishers Group UK [distributor], 2010.
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