Several years before Bram Stoker wrote his classic 'Dracula', he described a meeting with Richard Burton '.the man riveted my attention. He was dark and forceful, and masterful, and ruthless. I have never seen so iron a countenance. As he spoke the upper lip rose and his canine tooth showed its full length like the gleam of a dagger."
The debate rages on: Was Burton the blueprint for Dracula? Whether he was or not, Richard Francis Burton is the undisputed 'hard man' of travel. His forays into the occult, meditation, mysticism, and his translations of eastern erotica like the Kama Sutra, have won him a cult-like following. Womaniser, fighter, hellraiser, Burton broke all the rules, refusing to be enslaved within prudish Victorian values.
The range of Burton 's claims to fame are extraordinary. Nationally renowned swordsman, fluent in over 25 languages and scripts, author of 30 translations and 43 travelogues, explorer, Orientalist and scholar. Oh yes, and he found time to fulfil the rigorous mental and spiritual requirements to become a Master Sufi and discover Lake Tanganyika, the source of the Nile. He is among the few who really deserve that hackneyed epithet of having been a 'renaissance man'.
Famous in his own time, R F Burton entered the sacred city of Mecca in 1853 disguised as an Afghan Pilgrim. Having grown a beard and rubbed henna into his skin, he spoke in perfect colloquial Arabic, introducing himself as Mirza Abdullah, occupation, 'dervish'.
In Burton 's time The Kasbah was and continues to be closed to non-Muslims, making Burton one of the few Europeans ever to have penetrated Mecca 's holiest shrine. Under the threat of decapitation or crucifixion, he even managed to whip off a few sketches for the folks back home. Burton also visited Medina, the second holiest city of Islam, and was the first European to visit the forbidden city of Harer(now Harar, Ethiopia) without being executed.
The trip to Mecca wasn't the first time Burton indulged in a bit of fancy-dress. Brought up in France during the great cholera epidemic of the 1830s, his memoirs recall how he and his brother dressed as undertaker's mutes so that they might see the pits full of corpses - 'a mass of human corruption, worthy to be described by Dante'. Later he served as an intelligence agent under Sir Charles Napier in the Sind(Pakistan/India). Having rented a shop Burton posed as an Iranian merchant, smoking opium and drinking bhang with the best of them.
The Victorian era was rife with explorers. Clambering across the globe, they mapped the un-mappable, measuring the size and shape of tribal earlobes whilst ducking showers of poison-tipped arrows. Standing out against this ragbag of brave(and sometimes stupid) eccentrics, Burton cut a dark and powerful figure who lived true to his personal motto; Omne Solum forti partia ; for every region is a strong man's home.
By Christian Walsh