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

Hardcover, 1990




New York : Scribner's, c1990.


A New York Times best-seller when it was first published, Rice's biography is the gripping story of a fierce, magnetic, and brilliant man whose real-life accomplishments are the stuff of legend. Rice retraces Burton's steps as the first European adventurer to search for the source of the Nile; to enter, disguised, the forbidden cities of Mecca and Medina; and to travel through remote stretches of India, the Near East, and Africa. From his spying exploits to his startling literary accomplishments (the discovery and translation of the Kama Sutra and his seventeen-volume translation of Arabian Nights), Burton was an engrossing, larger-than-life Victorian figure, and Rice's splendid biography lays open a portrayal as dramatic, complicated, and compelling as the man himself.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member thejazzmonger
What incredible character (and I mean incredible in the literal sense of "nearly unbelievable") Sir Richard Francis Burton was. Bureaucrat, adventurer, linguist, imposter, religious mystic, soldier, spy. Burton's life makes a fictional character like James Bond seem dull and flat. Thick book with
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lots of detail, but spiced with intrigue and an education in histories and mysteries of India, Arabia and the Middle East.
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LibraryThing member cdagulleiro
Extraordinary book of an extraordinary life. Edward Rice can not hide his admiration for Richard. F. Burton. Very well documented without being tiring. I can recommend this book, and actually it is one of my favorite presents to give to people.
LibraryThing member Smiley
A great biography of a fascinating, romantic Victorian that was truly larger than life.
LibraryThing member ShanLizLuv
It's possible I liked this so much because it was one of the first I'd read about Burton. I have a bit of a Burton obsession, so I'm bound to like just about anything to some degree or another. This one, tho, fell prey to popular myths about him, especially regarding Speke. Also, so much new info
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is available now that it almost has an air of naive nostalgia about it.
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LibraryThing member JayLivernois
After Mary Lovell's biography, it is not certain that the work's hypothesis is valid.
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
The real Richard Burton, not the actor. A man who tried very hard to realize his potential, and came breathtakingly close. I haven't read his translation of the "Arabian Nights" yet, but it's on my shelves. Rice gives a good performance as a biographer, and moves the tale along. Do read it. "The
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Mountains of the Moon", taken from Burton's life is a watchable movie. Burton could be a difficult companion, but if you could keep up, in some manner, you had a good time.
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LibraryThing member antiquary
According to its own claims, the most thorough life of Burton as of the time of its publication; basically sympathetic. My own feelings are mixed. He was certainly brave and intelligent but also sometimes selfish, and I think probably unfair to Speke. Still, I have been fascinated by him most of my
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LibraryThing member santhony
I am in the midst of reading a number of biographies and by doing so, feel better able to evaluate the relative merits of each. In general, I find biographies to be one of the best methods of reading and understanding history, especially when the subject is a historical figure of great significance
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to world changing events. Other biographies serve to highlight individuals who have had an impact on their era or specialty. This biography of Sir Richard Burton falls in the latter category, for while he certainly participated in many of the great historical events of his era, he was not exactly front and center, or widely associated with them (African exploration excepted). He was instead a highly original, fascinating individual, who certainly deserves recognition and study.

It is for that reason that I found this work so disappointing. It is quite an achievement to author a biography of Sir Richard Burton and leave the reader bored and generally disinterested. A person with the lifetime of activities, successes and yes, failures boasted by Burton deserves better. Burton served Her Majesty’s government for his entire adult life, first as an officer in the military wing of the East India Company, then as a clandestine operative in various postings throughout Asia and Africa, before finally becoming a consular figure at a variety of backwater postings. He is perhaps best known for his participation in the search for and discovery of the source of the White Nile, Lake Victoria. It was the allegations and incriminations that were generated from these expeditions, and his rivalry with John Hanning Speke that account for a large part of his notoriety.

However, the African expeditions were only a small part of his life, which included an undercover trip to Mecca along with numerous other dangerous travels and discoveries. Burton was quite the author, penning dozens of works detailing both his explorations, as well as translations of what were then obscure literary works from the areas in which he traveling, for he was quite the cunning linguist, being conversant in many tongues and dialects.

With such an interesting subject, you would think a captivating and engaging biography would be hard to avoid, but the author here bogs down again and again in minutia which brings little to the story. Roughly the first third of the book, dealing largely with Burton’s dalliance with Islamic religious practices is borderline unreadable except as a sleep aid. The book also engages in relatively extreme hagiography, not unusual in many biographies, but excessive at times. The author criticizes the British government for failing to appreciate and reward Burton for his efforts on its behalf, but he seemed to spend the biggest part of his time traveling throughout the world while supposedly on duty. Despite constant complaints of penury, he doesn’t seem to have missed any trips.

Finally, this was a paperback with two sections of photographs. Unfortunately, the photographs were virtually completely illegible because they were printed on cheap paper. Imagine printing a photograph on a grocery sack and you can imagine the quality of photos in this book. In other words, this work is a wasted effort in my opinion.
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