‘Ruffian Dick’, incorrigible to the end
In the latest of his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns his attention to Sir Richard Burton
07 September, 2018 — By Neil Titley
Sir Richard Burton in 1876. Photo: Lock and Whitfield
IT is doubtful whether any student who has been expelled from a university ever departed from his college in a more spectacular fashion than Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890).
Having been rusticated from Trinity College, Oxford, partly as a result of his wild parties and for circulating obscene couplets about the dons, he declared that he was simply “a good man fallen among grocers” and left by driving a coach and four horses through the Trinity flowerbeds and then charging down the High Street blowing a trumpet fanfare.
He then retired to his aunt’s house in Hampstead to plot his next career move, an extraordinary one by any standards.
Born in Torquay, Burton had spent an anarchic childhood accompanying his parents around Europe. By the age of 15, he had discovered the Naples brothels, mixed with smugglers in the Pyrenees, smoked opium in Pisa, learnt to drink alcohol, and had been refused entry to the German fencing schools because he was too good.
On leaving Hampstead he spent seven years in the Indian Army. He was not a popular man as he ignored his fellow British officers and preferred to live with his 40 pet monkeys. As part of his military duties, he was given the task of investigating the Indian gay brothels. When his report revealed that the main customers were the British troops, he was prompted to retire from the army.
On his way home to Britain, while passing through Goa, he fell in love with a young Portuguese nun and planned an elopement. One night, Burton and two servants broke into the nun’s convent disguised as Muslims. Burton kept watch while the servants went ahead to carry off the girl. By mistake they entered the wrong room and grabbed a sleeping sub-prioress. Her screams roused the convent, Burton and his men were forced to run for it, and to his chagrin had to abandon the idea.
He was a tough, powerfully built man with a personality that seemed to explode beyond the confines of Victorian society. Wilfred Blunt said that Burton had “a countenance the most sinister I have ever seen… with eyes like a wild beast’s, caged but unforgiving”.
Burton was a racial Darwinist and aggressive imperialist who believed that democracy equalled mediocrity. Possibly the only minority group whom he did not despise were the Roma because once they had asked him to be their king.
He acquired the nickname of “Ruffian Dick” because he was reputed to have fought in single combat more enemies than perhaps any other man of his time. He lived by his code: “Do what thy manhood bids thee do/ From none but self expect applause.”
This attitude certainly applied to sex. On meeting one decorous English mother who demanded to know what his intentions were towards her daughter, Burton snarled:
“Alas, madam, strictly dishonourable, I regret to say, strictly dishonourable.”
Among his many accomplishments he spoke 25 languages, was a master of disguise, and was capable of accurately firing one of the huge old-fashioned elephant guns from his shoulder after downing a bottle of brandy.
Burton’s explorations were spectacular. His two great achievements were disguising himself as an Arab to travel to the holy city of Mecca (at a time when discovery would have meant instant execution); and the discovery of the source of the White Nile. It was in Somalia on one of his attempts to reach the latter that he received a spear wound in the face that disfigured him for life.
By 1861, Burton had found a niche of sorts as a Foreign Office consul but became notorious for being unable to remain in the country to which he was allotted. While officially working on the island of Fernando Po, off the coast of West Africa, he disappeared up the Congo, then found his way to Dahomey to meet the women warriors known as the Amazons. Unimpressed by their military prowess, he said that “an equal number of British charwomen, armed with the British broomstick, would clear them off smartly”.
While consul in Brazil, he ended up in the Paraguayan War; in Damascus, he roamed the Middle East; and while allegedly being “our man in Trieste” was actually in West Africa. His eventual obituary made the under-stated observation: “He was ill-fitted to run in official harness.”
Having largely failed as a diplomat, by 1872 Burton was in financial difficulties. Using his unrivalled knowledge of Eastern texts, he translated The Arabian Nights, The Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden into English.
Burton remained incorrigible to the end. At a society dinner in London, a medical doctor asked him how he felt after he had killed a man.
“Oh, quite jolly, doctor. How do you?”
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details visit www.wildetheatre.co.uk