Richard Burton: in profile

Sir Richard Burton was a British explorer, writer, scholar, soldier and linguist. A one-time captain in the army of the East India Company, he later explored the east coast of Africa, and was one of the first two Europeans to see Lake Tanganyika. A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he was reputed to speak more than 20 languages. He was buried in London in a tomb shaped like a Bedouin tent.

When did you first hear about Burton?

Gosh – it was 25 or more years ago, when I was reading a biography of the other Richard Burton [the actor]. My then boyfriend, now husband, had a book about the explorer, which I then read. I’ve been fascinated by him ever since.


What kind of man was Burton?

He was a man with an incredible variety of interests – but at the same time you could say that in a way he was a failure. For instance, one of his ambitions was to be a great poet, and by that measure he did not succeed. Nor did he find the source of the Nile, which he set out to do. But he wanted to explore himself and his surroundings. That’s why his books are greater than his journeys – and why the man is greater than his career.

What made him a hero?

First and foremost, the fact that he was such a polymath. He had such a diverse career, with such wide-ranging interests. He was a soldier, an explorer, an archaeologist, a writer and poet, a translator – he translated One Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra (he was deeply interested in sex and sexuality) – a botanist, a zoologist and the most amazing linguist. It’s pretty breathtaking to have that insatiable curiosity and thirst for life.

What was Burton’s finest hour?

Firstly, for me it was founding the Anthropological Society of London in 1863. He was a pioneer in the study of anthropology. Secondly, the three major expeditions he undertook – to Harar in Ethiopia, to Somalia, and through east Africa – any one of which would have been enough to establish his fame and fortune. Thirdly, the 43 volumes he produced about his expeditions, writing with incredible detail about things such as Bedouin life and the role of women in societies.

Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?

He may have been devoted to his wife, Isabel, but it’s a relationship that’s hard to forgive by today’s standards. She was always left to “pay, pack and follow” whenever he got the urge to relocate – which was often. Isabel was an extraordinary character in her own right, but her needs and desires were always subjugated to his.

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Can you see any parallels between his life and yours?

Well, we’re both writers. He never felt truly English, having been brought up in France and Italy, and I too have a mixed heritage that complicates my sense of identity. But I wouldn’t have made a good explorer – unless there was a soft bed with clean sheets every night!

What would you ask him if you could meet him?

I’d ask him about his experiments with monkey languages – and where he got that insatiable sense of curiosity.

Monica Ali’s debut book, Brick Lane, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Love Marriage, her most recent novel, is out now. You can read more about her work here.


This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine

Discover more history heroes, our monthy series in which popular figures from the present tell us about who inspired them from the past


York MemberyJournalist

York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.