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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

“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”, by Edward Rice

544 pages, Charles Scribner’s Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0684191379

If Sir Richard Francis Burton didn’t really exist he would make for the most unrealistic of fictional characters. He was, without question, one of the most remarkable men of the 19th Century, and in 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 (whew!) Edward Rice covers the exploits of the man who was the towering intellectual and physical specimen: his face scarred by a Somali warrior’s spear; Burton the scholar and author; Burton the scientist; Burton the soldier, explorer, and British undercover. He did it all. Burton was one of the very first Europeans to seek the source of the Nile River in Central Africa, as daring then as a trip to the moon is now. He was the first European to reach Lake Tanganyika. In disguise he went to the forbidden cities of Mecca and Medina. He was the first European to penetrate the sacred city of Harar in the unexplored East Africa. It was Burton who brought out to the Western World the classic Indian book on sex, the Kama Sutra. And, perhaps his most celebrated achievement, Burton did the seventeen volume translation of the classic, Arabian Nights. Burton had mastered some twenty-nine languages and dialects and operated as an undercover agent while employed as an officer for the East India Company in India. On one secret mission, Burton investigated the Mormons of Utah, the subject of his book The City of the Saints. On another trip to the Western Hemisphere Burton explored the battlefields of Paraguay out of which came a book about the war between Paraguay and Brazil. Fascinated by swords Burton wrote a comprehensive treatise on the subject which is still in print today, The Book of The Sword.

Burton also served as a diplomat in Trieste, Damascus, and as envoy to Dahomey so as to convince the West African King to stop the celebration of the local custom of human sacrifice and cannibalism and to desist in the slave trade (Burton did not see any executions, as in deference to him or to his Queen the victims were slaughtered at night, “the evil nights” said Burton, with the King cutting off the first head himself). Burton’s translations of The Perfumed Garden and of the Boat in the Sea of Love were the first in English of these erotic Indian classics. Burton also had the satisfaction of seeing published his own works of Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah and First Footsteps in East Africa; Or, an Exploration of Harar. Although, tragically, many of his works and narratives were destroyed posthumously by his wife, no modern day explorer can even hope to achieve or surmount the exploits and travels of Sir Richard Burton who was knighted during the last ten years of his life. Although the 1989 Bob Rafelson movie Mountains of the Moon recounts just one chapter in Burton's life (the discovery of Lake Tanganyika and relationship with John Hanning Speke), it may be a good starting point for the reader.

A remarkable saga, truly one of the most interesting men in history, Edward Rice’s account of this explorer leaves the reader with a vivid account of what this man undertook in his lifetime. The reader will walk away from the book with a belief that what he has just read is a work of fiction at best. But it has always been said that “truth is stranger than fiction”

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