The Incredible Life of a Victorian Adventurer

CAPTAIN SIR RICHARD FRANCIS BURTON: THE SECRET AGENT WHO MADE THE PILGRIMAGE TO MECCA, DISCOVERED THE KAMA SUTRA, AND BROUGHT THE ARABIAN NIGHTS TO THE WEST By Edward Rice, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 522 pp., $35 RICHARD FRANCIS BURTON took the path toward adventure and status open to most young Englishmen of the mid-19th century - service to empire. But while others gloried in British domination and exploitation of the East, Burton reveled in that ancient region's layers of culture. He drank in its languages, its religion, its erotic lore - even as he endured dust, heat, and hardship as a roving intelligence agent for swashbuckling conquerors like Gen. Charles Napier.

Burton's regiment, part of the substantial forces maintained by the quasi-governmental British East India Company, was immersed in wars to consolidate Britain's grasp on the Indian subcontinent. The young officer's intellectual prowess was prodigious. He was an instinctive linguist, mastering more than 40 languages and dialects. ``Languages ... piled up in him as if he were some great multilayered polyglot walking dictionary,'' writes biographer Edward Rice.

Rice has admirably woven together the intricate fabric of a remarkable - nearly incredible - life. This book follows seven or eight other ``lives'' recorded since Burton's death in 1890, beginning with a biography by his widow, Isabel. Rice draws heavily on earlier biographical work, and on Burton's huge literary output - 43 books on his travels, 30 volumes of translations, and more than 100 articles.

Writing was a compulsion with Burton, no matter how depressing, or oppressive, his surroundings. During his years in Sind (now part of Pakistan), he'd often sit under his writing table, having draped a wet cloth over it to ward off heat and insects. ``On and on he wrote, like some lunatic trying to fend off collapse by sheer attention to minutiae, to details. He made lists of tribes and clans, of words, fragments of tongues scraped up in this vast dustbin of empire,'' Rice relates. This passion for observing and recording never waned, whether he was journeying to Mecca in disguise, becoming the first European to return alive from the forbidding East African city of Harar, braving disease and exhaustion in search of the Nile's source, or languishing in a forsaken diplomatic post like the island of Fernando Po, off the western coast of Africa.

This book is not, however, only about Burton's almost superhuman adventures and intellectual achievements - though various major undertakings, like the Nile quest, give structure to the narrative. The adventurer's personal life is closely examined, particularly his long, often-strained courtship of Isabel Arundell, whose aristocratic English-Catholic family was leery of Burton's Islamic tendencies, his less-than-savory reputation, and his relative poverty. There's also the bitter conflict with onetime comrade John Hanning Speke, who accompanied Burton on the Nile trek and was later credited with discovering the river's source.

The pride, prejudices, and jealousies of his own countrymen were Burton's bane. His fascination with the erotic facets of Eastern culture - finding expression, for example, in his annotated translations of such works as ``The Arabian Nights'' and ``The Kama Sutra'' - pushed Victorian sensibilities beyond their limits. (His wife, hoping to sanitize his reputation, burned hundreds of Burton's papers and manuscripts after his death, thus making the work of biographers like Rice that much harder.)

The captain, who was knighted late in life, scoffed at British notions of racial and military superiority. He reminded his countryman just how tenuous their imperial position in India in fact was. ``Everyone knows that if the people of India could be unanimous for a day they might sweep us from their country as dust before a whirlwind,'' Burton once observed. Still, he could be thoroughly disgusted with native traditions, and in Africa sometimes expressed blatantly racist views.

Burton is a subject so complicated that even Rice's exhaustive volume can't fill in all the gaps - though he speculates perceptively on such subjects as the depth of Burton's commitment to Islam. This isn't easy reading. The writing is occasionally plodding, sometimes poetic. Oddities of Burton's life - for instance, his belief that prostitutes made the best language instructors - will amuse some, offend others. But, as even his enemies might have admitted, the man is never dull.

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