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Badass Authors: Sir Richard Francis Burton

Do what thy manhood bids thee do
from none but self expect applause;
He noblest lives and noblest dies
who makes and keeps his self-made laws
—Sir Richard Francis Burton, The Kadisah

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton was a completely crazy nutjob who had more adventures on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night than most lesser humans manage to cram into a two-week vacation inside the stomach of a still-breathing whale.  This author, soldier, adventurer, explorer, geographer, translator, linguist, fencer, duelist, anthropologist, and pretty much anything else you can ever think of –ist spoke a mind-crushing 29 different languages and dialects fluently, wrote 50+ books ranging in content and sanity from travelogues to erotic fiction, explored uncharted lands in India, Africa, and the Middle East, and was the first person to translate the borderline-pornographic content of The Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights into English.  He also had a gnarly attitude, a glorious beard, and a hot temper that drove him to kill more people than a Dirty Harry movie.

Burton was kind of a bastard as a kid, getting into fights all the time and pissing people off all across Western Europe and the British Isles, but he also showed a super-genius aptitude for languages and cultures that can only be described as Indiana Jonesian.  So, despite being kind of a crotch-punching punk hooligan, Burton somehow got himself accepted into one of the best colleges in the world — Trinity College at Oxford.  At Oxford, R-Burt studied fencing and Arabic, challenged a couple of jackass kids to duels when they talked some bullcrap about his totally bitchin' 'stache, and subsequently got summarily expelled for a combination of drinking, gambling, and challenging people to no-holds-barred back-alley deathmatches.  When he left, he made sure to trample the university's flowerbeds with his horse on the way out of town, which kicks ass.

Richard's dad bought him a military commission serving in India with the appropriately named British East India Company, and this worked out pretty decently for our homedog RFB.  He learned to speak Arabic, Hindi, and a couple other relatively obscure local dialects, studied the customs of the Shi'ite Muslims, was made an honorary Brahmin (the highest caste in their caste system) by some Hindu spiritual leaders, and became the first Westerner to ever achieve the honor of being named a Sufi — a member of the mystical inner circle of Islam.  It's probably worth noting that this dude didn't actually practice Hinduism and was not a Muslim, making this achievement roughly equivalent to a non-Catholic tricking the Pope into making him an Archbishop and letting him crash in one of the really nice guest rooms at the Vatican.  While in India, Burton also kept some pet monkeys (he even attempted to try to learn their "language" by watching them interact with one another... it didn't work out so well), smoked a lot of opium and pot, briefly worked as a government assassin, and earned the hilariously awesome nickname "Ruffian Dick" because he was always kicking people's asses in duels (and also because he was kind of a dick to people he didn't like).

Eventually Burton decided to put his mad crazy skillz as a badass James Bond super-spy to the greatest test he could devise for them.  In 1851, he became one of the first (if not the first) European to complete the Hajj — the holy pilgrimage of Islam.  He had never been to Mecca or Medina (the two main cities encompassing the ritual journey), knew nothing of the geography, and possessed very little knowledge of the solemn pilgrimage's practices aside from what he had picked up in his days as a Muslim mysticist.  Well, it's not like a little thing like "trying to fake out millions of people while blaspheming to the point where you will be arrested or killed on sight if discovered" was going to stop this psychotic Mack Truck of Adventure from being more over-the-top than a Stallone movie about armwrestling cattle.  He somehow faked his way through the entire pilgrimage, lived to tell the tale, and his writings on the subject blew up like crazy when they were published back home in the UK .

Seeing as how this still wasn't enough adventure for this insane powerhouse of almost being killed by the natives, Burton traveled to Africa in 1854 with the Royal Geographical Society, where he hoped to achieve the modest goal of discovering the source of the Nile River.  Before all that, however, Burton decided that he'd so much fun being completely surrounded by people interested in killing him on sight that he dressed up like a native Ethiopian somehow and snuck his way into the Somali capital city of Harar — a place that was forbidden to Westerners on pain of death.  Burton left the Geographical Society's camp in Eastern Africa, wandered out into the desert alone, and returned nearly a week later with insane stories of the inner workings of this "lost" city.  Oh yeah, while in Africa, Burton also discovered Lake Tanganyika, mapped inland waterways of the Nile and the Congo, charted lost territory in the heart of the Dark Continent, and got a totally gnarly scar on his face when a couple hundred Somali warriors tracked him down and hucked a javelin right into his pie-hole.

After whipping nuts in Africa, India, and the Middle East and then going off to write the bestselling novel of his fantastical explorations, Burton finally settled down to a life that involved marginally less threat of painful death on a daily basis.  He served as a regional diplomat in Western Africa, Brazil, and the Middle East, yet despite being an ambassador of the Crown, Burton still didn't seem to avoid the whole thing where people were always trying to kill him for some bizarre reason or other.  Being chased by tribal warriors was kind of "his thing," kind of like how you can't watch an episode of 24 without Jack grabbing some guy by the collar and screaming "WHERE IS THE BOMB?!" right in his face as loudly as possible. For instance, one time Ruffian Dick was attacked by 200 horsemen sent by the Governor of Syria to assassinate him for some reason I don't remember. I have no idea how he actually got out of that, but I can't imagine it was pretty or civil or didn't involve at least a modicum of neck-stabbing. He also founded the Anthropological Society of London, wrote a bunch of books ranging from a detailed history of swordfighting to an ethnographical work describing orgies in Sub-Saharan Africa and rural India, and was knighted by Queen Victoria.  Still controversial and balls-out in his old age, Burton's no-holds-barred writings about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll didn't pull any punches and was like the 19th century equivalent of Eric Cartman swearing on prime-time cable television. Burton died in 1890 at the age of 69, which is fitting in a lot of ways.

Legend has it that the poison-tongued French enlightenment poet Voltaire built his house directly on the border of France and Switzerland so that when military troops from either side would come to arrest him he could just run across the border and escape their jurisdiction.

Lord Byron was a totally badass British writer who popularized the Romantic Poetry movement.  This guy got busy with hundreds of women, convinced Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, and is now a national hero of Greece because of his work raising money and fighting in the Greek War of Independence against the Turks in 1823.  As if that's not enough, his daughter, Ada Lovelace, is remembered as being the world's first computer programmer, having dropped some Bill Gates shiznit on Charles Babbage's Analytical Machine all the way back in 1843.

For Further Reading

The Devil Drives by Fawn McKay Brodie

The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton by Lady Isabel Burton

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton by Edward Rice

The Life of Sir Richard Burton by Thomas Wright

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Ben Thompson graduated cum laude from the honors program at Florida State University with degrees in history and political science, and has run the war hammer of a website,, since 2004. Even though he's never flown a jetpack over the Atlantic Ocean or punched someone so hard that his head exploded, he is considered by many to be the world's foremost expert on badassitude.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of...
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  2. The Kama Sutra Used Flexible $6.95
  3. The Arabian Nights: Tales from a...
    Used Mass Market $5.50
  4. Frankenstein (Dover Thrift Editions)
    Used Trade Paper $1.95
  5. The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir... New Trade Paper $24.95

  6. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton:... Used Trade Paper $12.95
  7. The Life of Sir Richard Burton... New Trade Paper $39.75

Ben Thompson is the author of Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live

5 Responses to "Badass Authors: Sir Richard Francis Burton"

    Allan November 7th, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    A finnish guy Wallin was the first in Mekka and Medina. I guess he is quite badass...

    greg March 25th, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    holy crap Ben is a genius. i die laughing when i read his stuff... "the equivalent of being a non-catholic and convincing the pope to make you an arch-bishop..." :D. man i love how he puts awesome acts into perspective.

    Sterling April 29th, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    What did Voltaire have to do with any of that??

    Sir Burton July 3rd, 2010 at 5:05 am

    Love the bio - He's been my main inspiration for many years hence my blog name.

    I'm a badass with a sword too, speak a few weird Languages, practice the Tao of sex, and keep getting into trouble for my outspoken views...

    I loved the part in the River series by José Farmer where Burton meets Cyrano de Bergerac - now that's two badass intellectual swordsmen !

    Eric October 21st, 2011 at 4:26 am

    Ada Lovelace wasn't his daughter

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