Tag Archives: Victorian Explorers

Where have all the Richard Burtons gone?

Richard Francis Burton - Google imagesFirst Published 13th august 2008

I have just discovered Richard Burton the explorer.

Up until a few months ago the face to the name was singular as in Richard Burton of the ‘Richard Burton and Liz Taylor’ fame, now I have found Richard and Isabel…and what a find, like buried treasure they have surfaced and have enriched my life. I should thank Channel 4OD and an evening of thumb twiddling as it was one of those times where, myself not posessing a television, I really wanted to sit in front of the TV and be entertained. So I searched through the 4OD archives on my computer and found the actor Rupert Everett presenting a programme about the Victorian explorer Richard Francis Burton. It was, I seem to recall, one of a series of programmes about The Victorians and in fact looked like the only thing worth watching.

Now I knew of the Karma Sutra and Arabian Nights but that was my limit, just the book titles, not enough knowledge of their content to write even one short sentence on them..[what you haven’t had a go at a few karma sutra positions I hear you mutter]…so who was this other Richard Burton? Rupert Everett is an admirer and fan of the controversial Burton and in the programme he loosely follows in his footsteps and tells his story, mainly about his time in India in the Army attached to the British East India Company from which he then joined the geographical survey team and later became a member of the Royal Geographic Society, exploring parts of Africa and led an expedition in search of the as then unknown source of the river Nile with John Hanning Speke as friend and second in command ( what a friend he turned out to be!!)

With his lust for adventure and his amazing linguistic abilities Burton worked undercover for the British army to find out valuable information, amongst his many tasks he was sent, in disguise of course, to investigate claims of homosexuality among the British soldiers in brothels in Mumbai, or Bombay as it was then called.  His report appeared to be a little too descriptive and shocking causing a few disgruntlements and murmerings under the colonial beards of high office. He was so adept at learning not just the language of a country but their regional dialects, habits and behaviour and this led him on an intriguing and successful journey in 1853 to Mecca in the guise of a Sindh Muslim. the programme left me wanting to know more about this chap so off to the library I went the very next day…….the rest is history…(to read)

I am not going to continue with a ‘briefing’ of his life because it will end in a blog as long as the biography that I’m now reading which is the size of the bible or an encyclopedia. Written by Mary. S. Lovell called ‘A Rage to Live’ it covers both the lives of Richard and his wife Isabel. If you want to know more….read it. I am on page 642, their story is told brilliantly by the author who appears to have devoted a tremendous amount of time and patience to eek out every drop of info that she could find, I take my hat off to her for the pleasure that she has given her readers. It sits by my bed and I have disciplined myself to read it in the mornings only, with a cup of tea in bed. If I don’t place this restriction upon myself I fear that I would be reading it from dawn to dusk and my partner would have left me by now on grounds of neglect, so it is for the best.

What I really want to talk about here (yes at last I may be coming to the point of my monologue) is: Where is Richard Burton today? He may be under a different name but do we have such an incredible being amongst us? Is he slipping by unnoticed….no I think not, it would be impossible for a man of such magnitude and overflowing charisma to be ignored by our world media, after all we are drowning under the yawning headlines concerning the petty lives of so-called ‘Celebs’. What a bore it has become. I can’t believe that such mediocrity can warrant even a line in an obituary column.

Burton was a man of substance, an adventurer and he was interested in everything surrounding him, man, land and beast. He was a man who would not or could not stand by and watch unjust acts taking place, he was painfully truthful to the point that he voiced his opinions rather too willingly and upset many ‘men in high places’ of Government and military with his unwelcome truthful criticisms of them and their dogmatic, narrow-minded and inadequate rules and procedures that dazzled in their ineptitude when exposed by somebody as clever and forward thinking as Burton. He foretold and warned of imminent unrests in India and also of similar events in Damascus when he was British Consul there. Was of course reprimanded for speaking out as he was acting ‘above his station’ in doing so. He detested the ‘Boys club’ clique, would not entertain joining them but alas could not beat them, just like today, our politicians (puppets a  more an appropriate term) and their invisible string pullers (IE; the oil and chemical industries) can not be beaten and they will ‘make’ you if you lick their posterior or ‘break’ you if you show the V sign. So if you are listening Richard…believe me nothing changes….You were always going to be on a loser. Common sense and truth do not prevail in our politically corrupt and money grabbing world of charlatens.

One vital thing though, he fought his corner valiantly with the unwavering help and support of Isabel to the very end of his days and can now, or should in my view, stand in history as a great man of honour.

So, yes, getting back to today…again…. is there a foot for the Burton slipper to fit? I would really like to think so in this world decreasing in its diversity of man. I look aroud me and see dull eyes and conforming lifeless creatures moulded to fit in to a society where you abide by ‘The rules. We need some outlaws to reinvigorate our sedated spirits!!

Not equating myself with an Isabel exactly but I certainly feel that we have much in common and if she were about today, given the chance we would have been pretty good friends, apart from her Catholicism, but I’m sure that would not stand between us, it didn’t stand between Richard (who appeared to be at least agnostic if not atheist) and herself as theirs was the most interesting and fulfilled relationship between man and wife that I have ever read about.

How I yearn to live even half the life of what they lived.(perhaps missing out on the bouts of cholera, malaria, dysentry and numerous ailments suffered in the tropics in those days).

Well I suppose I have had a few adventures myself but travelling is far much easier today than in the 1800’s. Reading their accounts, my adventures just pale into insignificance.

As I write this I am becoming aware that perhaps I am, not quite a lone voice, but maybe a voice of a diminishing group of beings. If we were an ‘endangered species’ we would have a protection order on us at least, even if our numbers were unsuccessful in increasing, but I fear that we may be left to join the other ‘extinct’ creatures who fell to the wayside, but I’m not going down without a fight either and so I leave you in the knowledge that…..I will be back…with or without my Richard Burton.

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