Sir Richard Burton (1821-90) is perhaps the most enigmatic of all African explorers despite the many biographers who have attempted to unravel his life story. This early biography, by his niece Georgiana Stisted, remains an essential source-work. Its original publication, in 1896, followed closely upon the death of Burton and was written by one who knew him well.
Scholar, orientalist, and brilliant linguist (he mastered 35 languages, and dialects), Burton’s most celebrated journey was his ‘pilgrimage’ to Mecca in 1853, disguised as a Pathan, Five years later found him with Speke on his hazardous expedition to Lake Victoria, which Speke claimed as the source of the Nile. Burton’s refutation of this resulted in a major controversy which raged for years.
In later life Burton carried out a number of government appointments in Africa and South America, whilst also devoting himself to writing. Most significant of his works was the sixteen volume translation of the Arabian Nights.
On his death, his wife Isabel, a devout roman Catholic, destroyed many of Burton’s priceless manuscript translations. She felt the content of the work threatened Victorian sensibilities. Earlier, Isabel had staged a deathbed ‘conversion’ of her husband to Catholicism.
Outraged of the distortions written about her uncle, Georgiana Stisted set out to ‘tell the truth about one who can longer defend himself’. Her biography did much to dispel the earlier, somewhat anodyne, accounts of Burton’s character and helped to balance the record concerning the life of an extraordinary man.