RICHARD BURTON Biography - Other artists & entretainers


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Richard Francis Burton was born near Elstree, Hertfordshire, on March 19, 1821. He traveled Europe widely in his youth with his parents. At age ten, Burton stole his father’s rifle and shot out stained-glass church windows. This wild behavior was to be the norm for the rest of his life. With his brother, he frequented the taverns, gambling dens, gypsy camps and brothels of France and Italy.


Burton attended Oxford University, where he became known as “Ruffian Dick” for his long moustaches and love of challenging other students to duels. He was eventually expelled for attending horse races, and marked the occasion by driving a horse and carriage over the school’s flowerbeds while blowing a trumpet.


At 21 Burton joined the army and was posted to the Sindh in India. He lived with the Muslims and learned several Eastern languages, including Iranian, Hindustani, and Arabic. In his travels, he learned 25 languages, with dialects that brought the number to 40.


While in the army, Burton used his language skills to work undercover and gain intelligence for his commander, Sir Charles Napier. At age 29, he fell ill with cholera and returned to England.


After those seven years in India he wrote four books on the country and planned his next adventure: to enter Mecca disguised as a Muslim. If discovered, he faced execution. Burton wrote about his trip as more than a travel narrative or tale of adventure; his work captured the culture of the Muslim peoples he encountered, a technique that modern anthropologists call “ethnology".


Burton also entered the forbidden Muslim city of Harar, also under threat of execution if discovered. He became the first white man to enter and leave alive.