Musings / The Other Richard Burton

On a truly extraordinary character who lived in the 19th century and was a spy, linguist, explorer, religious fanatic and pornographer.

I am sorry to have kept you waiting, but I am back now in the pulpit. The subject of this month's sermon sounds, I acknowledge, as yawn-inducing as any that I have essayed during the five or so years in which I have sought to divert you on a regular basis with my skewed vision of the world. Richard Burton sounds an unpromising topic for a monthly column, but I think I may have a surprise for you.

When he became the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, Burton was already a familiar name to me. In my theater-going youth, I saw him do his stuff time and again on the West End stage. Back then, he was confidently expected to be one of the great Shakespearean actors of his generation. Sadly, and not too interestingly, he was ruined by Hollywood.

If you are still there and before you rush for the exit, let me get to the real point because I must now disclose that it was only later in life that I was made aware of an earlier and infinitely more colorful Richard Burton. Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was one of the most intriguing of all Victorian adventurers. A truly extraordinary character, he was a spy, scholar, linguist, explorer, religious fanatic and pornographer. He was said to have learned 25 languages and 40 dialects. Burton spent much of his life as a soldier in India. With his excellent Hindustani, Persian, Gujarati, Urdu and Arabic, it was natural that he should be an active player in what became known as the "Great Game" - the espionage activity on the northwestern frontier of India popularized by Kipling in his novel "Kim." To misquote the title of the old BBC adventure serial, he could well be described as "Dick Burton, special agent."

Having experienced what you might think would be his fair share of danger as a spy, Burton once again risked his life. He became one of the first Europeans to travel to Mecca on the Muslim pilgrimage known as the hajj. To be fair, he did not deliberately court danger. To conceal his identity, he had himself circumcised for the pilgrimage and with his flawless Arabic, he got through safely. But the danger was there. A European participant in the hajj would be executed out of hand if caught. Burton could not expect his genial Mecca hosts to treat his sacrilegious act as mere high-spirited frivolity. There is little cause to suppose that in the 19th century, Islam was any stronger on humor than it is today. A cartoon in a Danish newspaper would be no more risible to a Meccan back then than it would be today.

Following his successful hajj, Burton decided to solve the riddle that had challenged all the great Victorian explorers, concerning the whereabouts of the source of the River Nile. The explorers, including Burton, did not realize that its two main tributaries - the Blue Nile and the White Nile - together constituted the main source of the Nile. Burton believed, based on inadequate evidence, that the Nile's true source was Lake Victoria, which it wasn't, and that he himself had discovered Lake Victoria, which he hadn't.

But, geography aside, Burton's scholarship was uncontestable. He skillfully deployed his considerable linguistic talents to translate erotic works from oriental languages. He produced an unexpurgated version of the "One Thousand and One Nights," following it with translations of the Hindu classics, "The Kama Sutra" and "The Perfumed Garden." He left behind a massive quantity of papers, the bulk of which, including his original manuscript for "The Perfumed Garden," was destroyed by his widow, Isabel.

However, the manuscript with the most inflammatory content, a brand which, as it were, was a brand plucked from the flame, has been preserved to this day. It is entitled "Human Sacrifice among the Sephardine (sic) or Eastern Jews." In it, Burton, one of the most educated men of his time, had given credence to that most ignorant of medieval prejudices: the blood libel. How he came to this is a story on its own. The Damascus Affair, about which he wrote, occurred in 1840. A Capuchin friar disappeared with his servant, never to be seen again. With the help of the fiercely anti-Semitic French consul, 13 Jews were arrested and confessed under torture to sacrificing the friar for religious purposes. The cause of the Jewish victims was taken up by the great and the good, and they were released and vindicated. By the time Burton wrote his inflammatory pamphlet, the Damascus Affair was history.

The evil that men do lives after them and Burton's evil lived on into the 21st century. His wife, Isabel, was some 10 years younger than he and survived him; she was also his literary executor. Isabel came from a Catholic family and, as a prim Victorian lady, found much of her late husband's writings strong stuff and thus destroyed much of what he left behind.

Yet Burton's most scurrilous manuscript survived both of them. It would be tedious to go over the changes in ownership of the Damascus manuscript throughout the years since Isabel's death, but it is worth recording that in 1911, it was purchased by the governing body of Anglo Jewry, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, "to be suppressed forever." As was clearly intended, the manuscript was kept in safe custody for almost 100 years, under lock and key, in the drawer of the secretary of the Board. And there it should have remained.

But a surprise remained in store for those who believed they had seen the end of the accursed manuscript. The Jewish world was astonished when, in early 2001, it was offered for public auction at Christie's. The intended sellers were none other than the custodians of the manuscript, the Board of Deputies. The board needed money, so, despite strong opposition, it offered it for auction. Its reserve price was 150,000 pounds. What made the whole murky business even more distasteful was that a private benefactor was prepared to contribute 150,000 pounds of the reserve to retain the manuscript in private hands and thereby prevent its publication. The board turned down the offer and its cupidity was duly rewarded. The auction price failed to reach its reserve and the charitable offer was withdrawn.

The case remains in limbo.