Burton, Richard Francis

Burton, Richard Francis (1821–1890)

(pop culture)

Richard Francis Burton, the writer and explorer who first opened the world of Asian vampires to the West, was born March 19, 1821, in Hertfordshire, England. He never participated in the school system as his parents were constantly on the move. Instead, he was educated by tutors at different locations around the world. He became fluent in half a dozen languages as a youth and mastered new ones at a regular pace throughout his adult years.

In 1842 he became a cadet in the Indian army and began his adult career, which, like his childhood, was one of wandering. While in India he learned several of the Indian languages and gathered a number of manuscripts of Indian works. Following his return to England in 1849, he published his first books, early studies of Indian languages, and a series of papers for the Asiatic Society. However, by this time he had his eye on what was to become his most famous venture, a pilgrimage to Mecca. Disguising himself as a Muslim he joined the Hajj in Egypt and made his way to the shrine forbidden to all non-Muslims. His three-volume account, A Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah, appeared in 1855.

He returned to India, which he used as a launching point for his explorations of Africa. In 1858 he penetrated the then unexplored territories of Central Africa and discovered one of the sources of the Nile. He followed this with a trip across America to Utah and wrote a book on the Mormons. He also served as a consul in West Africa and South America. He first visited Damascus in 1869.

In the early 1860s Burton lost many of the manuscripts that he had gathered through the years in a fire at the warehouse where they were stored. One of the manuscripts that survived, however, was a collection of tales of King Vikram, a historical figure in India who had become a mythological giant, much as King Arthur had in British history. The particular set of stories translated and published by Burton were the Indian equivalent to the more famous Arabian Nights tales. They were of further interest, however, in that the storyteller was a vampire, in the mythology of India, the vetala, or betail.

According to the story, King Vikram had been tricked by a yogi to come to the local cremation grounds and then further tricked to travel to a certain location and bring back a body he would find. When Vikram found the body, it turned out to be the vampire.

When Vikram reached the cremation ground, his final audience with the yogi revealed a much about the Indian attitude toward the afterlife and included a confrontation with several vampire figures. There was, for example, a Kali temple, with Kali in her most vampiric setting, described in some detail. Vikram and the Vampire was first published in 1870.

In 1872 Burton became consul in Trieste, Italy and lived there for the rest of his life. He published two more outstanding books, The Book of the Sword, a comprehensive history of the weapon, and fifteen volumes of The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night. The latter became, and has remained, Burton’s most popular book. Its immediate sales provided him with enough money in royalties for a more than comfortable retirement.

After his death at Trieste, on October 20, 1890, Burton’s wife burned a number of his writings, including his private diary and his commentary on The Perfumed Garden, a Persian sex manual. (He had earlier published an edition of the renowned Indian sex manual the Kama Sutra.) As his literary executor, she took complete control of his writings, regulated their publication, and tried to suppress knowledge of those aspects of Burton’s romantic life which might have brought offense to Victorian society. In 1897 she oversaw the publication of a new edition of Vikram and the Vampire, for which she wrote the preface.

Sources:

Burton, Isabel. The Life of Sir Richard Burton. 1893. 2nd ed.: 2 vols. London: W. W. Wilkins, 1898.
Burton, Richard F. Vikram and the Vampire. 1870. Rept. London: Tylston and Edwards, 1897. 243 pp. Rept. New York: Dover Publications 1969. 243 pp.
Godsall, Jon R. The Tangled Web: A Life of Sir Richard Burton. Leicester: Troubador, 2008.