Lessons in Manliness: Sir Richard Francis Burton

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 13, 2009 · 23 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness


Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Chris Hutcheson.

The Victorian Era (c.1837-1901) was a period of great prosperity for Britain. With the British Empire at its height, British explorers were spreading across the globe in an attempt to gain knowledge of distant lands and bring glory to themselves and the empire. In an era that bore some of the giants of exploration, including Dr. David Livingstone and Henry Stanley of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame, one did not have to look hard to come across genuine manliness. A fine example of such masculinity is Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), whose own exploits have cemented his place in history as a legendary explorer and Renaissance man. Below we will examine some of the characteristics and ideals that helped make Sir Richard Burton a man among boys, and explore some of the guiding principles he laid out in his own writings.

1. Be a well rounded man. Although history remembers him as a diplomat, soldier and explorer, Sir Richard Burton was also very highly regarded for his many other talents. A master linguist, Burton spoke over 25 different languages and regional dialects and was skilled with a pen and paper, writing fine poetry as well as detailing all of his adventures for later generations to envy. He was also known for his fencing skills and is reported to have studied hypnotism in his spare time.


2. A real man is a confident man. One of Burton’s greatest exploits was his secret pilgrimage to Mecca as one of the first white men to do so. In order to accomplish this daring task, he employed his linguistic skill and knowledge of Islam gained from his time spent among Arabs in the military. He also had to alter his appearance, disguising himself in Arabic dress and employing the customs common to the people he travelled with. To be detected as an intruder during this journey would have meant certain death for Burton, who himself later wrote that “nothing could save a European detected by the populace, or one who after pilgrimage declared himself an unbeliever.” A man must be very confident indeed to disguise himself and travel in a foreign culture knowing that if he were detected he would surely lose his life.

3. Every man should have a personal code. This timeless sentiment is best expressed in Burton’s own words, taken from The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî, a collection of poems written by Burton and first published in 1870:

“Do what thy manhood bids thee do,

From none but self expect applause;

He noblest lives and noblest dies

Who makes and keeps his self-made laws.”

4. Don’t give in to weakness. Burton, while on a journey to Harar, a forbidden city in modern day Ethiopia which no European had ever entered, fell extremely ill. In his recounting of the journey in “First Footsteps in East Africa,” he tells of how he found himself in the middle of an unknown land, sitting under a tree, contemplating his own death in the face of the illness:

“Even the Galla Christians, who flocked to see the stranger, wept for the evil fate which had brought him so far from his fatherland, to die under a tree. Nothing indeed, would have been easier than such an operation: all required was the turning of the face to the wall, for four or five days. But to expire of an ignoble colic! The thing was not to be thought of, and a firm resolution to live on sometimes, methinks, effects its object.”


5. Don’t let your problems overwhelm you. This is perhaps an understatement when you consider the problem that this lesson arises from. While making a second attempt to reach Harar, Burton’s camp was attacked by a Somali raiding party. He writes his recollection of the event in “First Footsteps in East Africa:”

“The enemy swarmed like hornets with shouts and screams intending to terrify, and proving that overwhelming odds were against us: it was by no means easy to avoid in the shades of the night the jobbing of javelins, the long heavy daggers thrown at our legs from under and through the opening of the tent…The revolvers were used by my companion with deadly effect: unfortunately there was but one pair…

In the confusion of the battle, Burton turns to strike a man approaching him, his colleague. Just before striking down his friend he recognizes him, and in the moment of hesitation that followed, he was speared through the face by one of the Somali raiders. He recollects the following:

“I turned to cut him (his colleague) down: he cried out in alarm; the well known voice caused an instant’s hesitation: at that moment a spearman stepped forward, left his javelin in my mouth, and retired before he could be punished.”

Now a spear through the face would be more than enough to bring most men to their knees, but not Richard Burton. With the spear still right where its owner had left it, having knocked out four teeth and passed completely through both cheeks and “transfixing his palate,” Burton managed to escape and then wandered up the beach through the night and into morning before coming across help, which leads to our next lesson.

6. Treat others as you wish to be treated. The boat which Burton stumbled upon just happened to be crewed by men to whom Burton had previously shown great hospitality, and they received him and mended his wounds. The spear left him with a scar which he carried until the end of his days.

7. Seek out adventure. Advice perfectly communicated by Burton himself when he writes in his journal during a journey to Zanzibar in 1856:

“Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks is the departure upon a distant journey to unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the Slavery of Home, man feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood….afresh dawns the morn of life…”

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alfred January 13, 2009 at 10:55 pm

wow,i never heard of this guy thanks for introducing me to him,i should of went in disguise last time i went over seas,ill do it next time.

2 Beat Attitude January 14, 2009 at 2:37 am

nothing like a spear through the cheeks to help you man up. That must have made speaking 25 languages rather awkward…

3 Sjoconn January 14, 2009 at 3:59 am

I highly recommend the book “Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography” by Edward Rice. He is a fascinating man. He is a great role model, however he also engaged in some moraly questionable acts as well. Like many real life heroes he has his faults.

4 Greg Throne January 14, 2009 at 6:25 am

By the way, not only was Burton a diplomat, an accomplished linguist, and an explorer, but he really “Man Upped”. But, not to be PC, watch some of the blog descriptions…Burton was not the first “white man” to make the Hadj. He was the first European Christian to do that and document it in the 19th century. And if you want one more example of his stoicism, understand that to “disguise” himself as a Muslim, Sir Richard had himself circumcised…as an adult and without anesthesia.
How’s that for a Man Up?

5 Ben January 14, 2009 at 8:28 am

Before he died he went crazy and died trying to learn the language of chimpanzees. That’s how I want to go.

Then he awoke on the shore of a river on a strange planet, teamed up with Mark Twain and fought Herman Goering. As documented in the Riverworld series.

6 toddes January 14, 2009 at 10:57 am

The 1990 movie “Mountains of the Moon” tells the story of Burton’s search for the source of the Nile. Saw it when it orginally came out and remember it being a pretty good story.

7 Basil Moss January 14, 2009 at 10:58 am

I notice that you do not mention his fascination with bizarre sexual practices, his promiscuity, his alleged bisexuality, or his strange theories about crossbreeding apes and humans to form a race of slaves.

However, I won’t hold any of these things against him- the man was a legend, and an inspiration to anyone who revels in their individuality.

8 Jeremy January 14, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Chris-I enjoyed your previous article about adventure, and loved this one as well. I hope there’s more to come

9 Joshua January 15, 2009 at 7:30 am

That just proves it IS manly to write poetry.

10 Liz January 18, 2009 at 12:13 pm

So, this ‘Manliness’ you speak of lets this man get away with being sexist AND a racist?It is well known that Burton was both, despite his anthropological leanings. i can only imagine what his wife endured.

11 James January 18, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Well, do keep in mind that Churchill was a heavy drinker, smoker, and had a litany of other vices, whilst Hitler was the epitome of personal virtue. I think the point of this article is to show men what kind of accomplishments they can aspire to, rather then provide a role model for common decency. Common decency should not *require* a role model, after all.

Also consider that the man was a product of his time, when the prevailing society that shaped him was considerably less enlightened then our own. Even men who pushed that envelope could only budge the paradigm so far- Lincon, by our modern standards, was probably a racist, for example. Tomas Jefferson freed his slaves- in his will. It took him a lifetime to grapple with the ethical question of the matter.

12 Pete McFadden January 20, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Great piece about someone who defines manliness. Thanks!

13 miguel January 22, 2009 at 2:12 pm

There is a great series of books by Philip Jose Farmer in which Sir Richard Francis Burton is one of the main characters. The first book of the series is “To Your Scattered Bodies Go”. The series is basically a mix of historical fiction and science fiction. The basic premise is that all of mankind is suddenly resurrected on a mysterious planet and are basically provided with all of the essentials (food, water, etc.). Sir Richard F Burton sets out to explore the world to discover how, why, and by who this strange resurrection has occured. Very enjoyable read, highly recommended.

14 Sean January 24, 2009 at 10:01 am

An emboldening figure, one whose exploits are being celebrated because they are notable.

Like ALL humans, this man was flawed, complicated, and real. Also, was enmeshed in systems and signs which today read as “racist” “classist” “sexist”.

We cannot, any longer, stand with our hands on our hips and scream “racism” in and “sexism” at those people of, say, the 18th and 19th centuries.

Why not? Were they not?

Sure, but, those people are dead; when we speak ill of the dead, we are in defiance of what those lessons want learned—-that we need to focus on OUR world, and OUR lives, and help push humanity closer to the light.

Those people would not even beigin to understand our scoldings, for the most part, when we speak of “institutional racism this” or “systemized sex and gender bias”, because, unfortunately, for those things, PEOPLE had to FIGHT and PROVE them flawed.

And, when we romanticize “how it oughta be”, we diminish those unnamed champions who, for instance toppled segregation in the US as a symptom of racism. Sure, MLK was a great man (flawed, as well) but what of those men and women who are not named? because fighting the evil stupidity in ourselves takes the strength of all of us. Thomas Jefferson freeing slaves would not cut the whole deal.

Finally, when we accuse the past, whether be society of the 19th century (who HAD its accusers in its day, look ) or our own past selves (useless) or own families, we haughtily pronounce ourselves as being a triumph, and suggest we have no work to do ourselves.

I believe its better to understand the past, not denounce it like a child or an undergraduate with a half read copy of the Order of Things. When we see history and its denizens as a dirty, shameful thing, we admit defeat over insurmountable forces.

When we see our history as an evolving, collective movement of a species and a civilization, we pronounce to the darkness that humanity will not stop fighting for its collective good, and that we love our victories, and that we ACCEPT our faults, and WILL achieve, some day, a way to solve these.

When we are droll and suggest that Lincoln was a racist withou qualifying it, we misunderstand Lincoln, racism, and our own place within that.

Just my two cents.

15 Barry R McCain January 27, 2009 at 7:01 pm

After reading the many comments, most actually good… but a few not so. I’ve decided I no longer believe in ‘sexism’ or ‘racism.’ Why? Well, just look at the people who say it exists, I know they must be wrong, really.

Ole Sir Richard… what a fellow and what do they teach kids in schools these days? we actually read about Sir Richard in my highschool back in the 1960s. Can’t imagine of anyone not having heard of him.

Lovely website.

16 Brucifer January 27, 2009 at 9:21 pm

Yes chaps, I too confess to being quite weary of moderns who imprudently judge men of the past by our oh-so-enlightened mores of the present.

These fellows, Burton, Jefferson, et. al., were products of their time. And yes, in those times, there were once attitudes and practices that we now deem reprehensible. But I dare say that men of the past would also think quite ill of many of our modern practices. It shall be left to an oncoming posterity to rub our own long-dead noses in the dirt for our current mistakes, what.

For all their foibles, men like Burton were far superior to many of the insipid, milquetoast men of today.

In that our chum Basil mentions that Burton engaged in bizarre sexual practices, was promiscuous and was alleged bisexual, only adds to Burton’s “renaissance man” reputation, I should think. If the fellow intrepidly saved my life during a Somali spear attack, he could bugger chimpanzees daily for all I’d care. Most sports jocks, whom we fancy our modern heroes, would have shat their pants and run.

17 Hmamaja May 5, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Burton was nothing but an old racist englishman. The British empire needed such foolish racists in order to conquer other people’s lands. Shame of you who romantice this colonial racist and ignorant half man.

18 jeremy July 11, 2009 at 11:17 am

Burton was a great man and all the books about him I have read have been fantastic. the comment number 17 (the one this one) is the ignorant. Obviously the person has not read anything about Burton (probably not even the article above). Burton is a true character and is a very good start for learning of the lives of Livingstone and Stanley.

19 Someguy September 14, 2009 at 2:09 am

In reference to # 17, it may be best to learn more about the man before casting stones. For his time he was rather incendiary. He was thought of as a heathen lacking morals by a great deal of Victorian society given his lack of sexual inhibitions and was frequently vocal about that subject. In that time it was widely believed that women didn’t enjoy sex! To which Burton cried BS. He also changed religions a few times, and for a Christian in Europe to become something other than was nearly unheard of. In fact he was frequently talked about behind his back in the military and in polite English society for his fraternization with indigenous cultures. We’re talking serious racial slurs and what not. As in that ***** Burton. Insert “n” word there. Sure he was a bigot, but it was the 1800′s! Remember the whole American Civil War thing? He was around 23 when it started. This was a man of his times. But an extraordinary one.

20 Sam September 14, 2009 at 6:44 pm

Great article! I recommend to anyone who is a fan of Burton or Victorian explorers in general to read “Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingston.” It’s one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read and is what jump-started my love of adventurers…great descriptive detail and does a remarkable job at informing the reader on what was going on throughout the world at the time, giving you a good grasp of the era.

21 Abdi December 30, 2009 at 1:24 am

Fine comments. Please correct the sentence which says that while in Harar and after he was attacked he was wondering in the beach. There is no beach in Harar? or do you want us to understand there was a beach made for him and for that occasion. Don’t be carried away by the stories you hear !!!

22 j davis January 29, 2010 at 5:05 pm

There is an excellent novel that follows Burton’s life with historical accuracy–’Death Rides a Camel’ by Allen Edwardes. It is somewhat rare but many libraries should have a copy. It’d pretty graphic and not for the squeamish or prudish!

23 JSyd April 21, 2013 at 1:01 am

Along with Teddy Rosevelt, this man is one of my heroes. Yes he has his flaws, as does everyone. Any man who tells you he has none is a liar and a fool.
I would suggest reading “A Rage to Live” by Mary S. Lovell. It is a biography of Burton but also of his wife Isabel. Mrs. Burton was in everyway an equal to her husband.

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