Soon after Richard Francis Burton returned from a daring journey to Mecca in the disguise of a Muslim pilgrim that made him famous in the mid-1850s, an unsettling photographic portrait was published. Sheltering under a rough blanket, Burton looks like a man who has entirely dropped out of Victorian society. At the bottom of his personal copy of the photograph, now in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, Burton wrote a caption - "The highly civilised man". The contrast between image and description was deliberately startling, and the caption provides the title of Dane Kennedy's scholarly biography.
Burton (1821-90) was one of Victorian Britain's protean figures. Kennedy describes him as "explorer and ethnographer, polyglot and poet, consul and connoisseur of the sword, infantry officer and enfant terrible , this famed - and in some circles infamous - Victorian is such an oversized figure that he seems at first sight almost sui generis".
Most biographers have tended to portray him in Nietzschean terms as a heroic, independent spirit operating outside the bounds of social convention. Kennedy, however, sets out to counter this picture of isolation and, further, to provide insight into Burton's Victorian world. The author succeeds in both aims where others have either failed or simply perpetuated Burton's self-promotion.
In seven poignant chapters (and an eighth titled "Afterlife"), Kennedy chronologically views Burton's peripatetic career as gypsy, Orientalist, impersonator, explorer, racist, relativist and sexologist.
The first chapter immediately begins to demythologise Burton's life.
Kennedy notes that "Burton's natural talents were nurtured, his career options determined, and his provocative views on race, religion and other issues informed by the broader forces - social, political, cultural, intellectual, and more - that shaped the Victorian world". The second chapter, on Orientalism, tells the story of Burton's journey to India in 1842 as a 21-year-old ensign in the East India Company who had recently been expelled from Oxford University. The knowledge he picked up in India laid the basis for his reputation as one of the 19th century's most provocative interpreters of non-Western societies.
The third chapter on Burton as impersonator observes that his visit to Mecca was carefully calculated to attract attention. It brought him the renown his books on India had not and resulted in a masterpiece, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah , published in 1855, in which Burton made his first attempt to argue against the common Western view that the Islamic world was "inferior to the West because of the sanction it gives to polygamy, veiling and other practices that seem to subordinate women."
His determined role as an explorer, first in Somalia and later in his ill-fated attempt with John Hanning Speke in 1857-59 to discover the true sources of the White Nile, is perceptively covered in the fourth chapter.
This much-publicised story has generated books, an historical novel, a BBC television series and a Hollywood film. Unlike other biographers, however, Kennedy goes to some pains to explain how Burton's experiences in black Africa exposed his inability to show empathy for its peoples and practices compared with his undoubted empathy for India and the Near East. Influenced by the "scientific" racism that prevailed in Britain, Burton became one of the foremost proponents of the view that "Africans constituted a distinct and inferior species of humanity", as discussed in this book's fifth chapter.
The 15 years between 1865 and 1880 were a troublesome time for Burton, covered in Kennedy's sixth chapter, "The relativist". Now a British consul, he moved from Africa to Brazil, and was consequently unable to spend as much time in London's scientific and literary circles on home leave. His alcoholic depression made these South American years his darkest and least productive. Then, appointed British consul in Damascus in 1869, he was recalled only two years later in disgrace, after becoming embroiled in controversy - first with Protestant missionaries antagonistic to his anti-missionary reputation, then with members of the local Jewish community. Complaints to the British Ambassador in Constantinople about Burton's unauthorised wanderings and his denunciation of Muslim treatment of Christians led to his recall. But Burton believed that his dismissal owed more to complaints by three Sephardic Jews that he had failed to carry out his consular duties to them. He was nearly expelled from the consular service and only vigorous lobbying by his wife, Isabel, secured his final posting in 1873 to Trieste; a diplomatic sinecure, tucked in a corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that imposed few demands on him. Here he languished in bitter resentment.
He expressed this rancour in a burst of anti-Semitism, including a remarkable unpublished manuscript, "Human sacrifice among the Sephardine or Eastern Jews", still in the possession of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. In an outspoken and discerning analysis, Kennedy pulls no punches in his interpretation of Burton's true leanings. He also explains, in a seventh chapter on sexology, how Burton's enforced leisure laid the groundwork for the period of creativity and controversy that marked his final decade.
This is when Burton's translation and publication of works such as the Kama Sutra (1883), Ananga-Ranga (1885) and The Perfumed Garden (1886) were seen as acts of blatant obscenity. His publication in 1885-86 of a ten-volume translation of tales from the Arabian Nights titled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night , followed by a six-volume Supplemental Nights , provided a sceptical public with the first unexpurgated translation of the tales, along with footnotes about esoteric aspects of Islamic culture, especially its sexual customs. Burton's now-infamous "terminal essay" is perhaps the most complete discussion of homosexuality across time and culture ever published. To mask his identity and protect the printer from prosecution under Britain's Obscene Publications Act, Burton and two others published these works under the imprint of the so-called Kama Shastra Society of London and Benares.
Burton died in Trieste in 1890. The bizarre events that followed appear in Kennedy's final chapter. His wife, a Roman Catholic, ensured that her husband's posthumous reputation was as controversial as his life. Although Burton was not a Catholic, masses were held for him in Catholic churches, followed by a large public funeral. Burton's coffin was shipped to England for a final Catholic funeral service before it was laid to rest in a tent-like marble tomb in Mortlake. Then - in one of the literary crimes of the century - Isabel burnt a mass of unpublished manuscripts, journals, letters and papers, including the unpublished manuscript of "The Scented Garden".
Burton emerges from Kennedy's biography as a man who contributed more than most Victorians to the body of knowledge of other peoples that constituted the Victorian imperial archive. "Difference became for Burton the basis for critical inquiry, capable of being turned in any direction, not least against Britain itself." In this book, Kennedy explains, for the first time, the reasons for Burton's almost manic immersion in other cultures and allows us to comprehend the concerns that characterised the Victorian engagement with difference.
Christopher Ondaatje is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the author of two books on Richard Burton, Sindh Revisited and Journey to the Source of the Nile .
The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World
Author - Dane Kennedy
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 354
Price - £17.95
ISBN - 0 674 01862 1