I just finished reading Edward Rice's biography, which is not really a brilliant book but is certainly not bad, and with a life as fascinating as Burton's, that is enough. I enjoyed it very much and highly recommend it.
When he left college, Burton traveled to India as an officer in the private army of the British East India Company. Because of his gift for languages and dark, "gypsy" appearance, he was soon employed as a secret agent, traveling western India in native disguise. We know very little about what he did, beyond the rumors that swirled around him and ended up in some of Kipling's stories. I have been thinking about this lately and have wondered if maybe this is a good thing. Perhaps it is more pleasing for us to imagine Burton's escapades as romantic adventures rather than know what sort of sordid company business he was really up to.
At this time most British officers in India took native "wives," and Burton was no exception. This began his long sexual involvement with the women of the non-western world. Part of his method for learning languages was to seek out prostitutes and make them his instructors. He made himself something of an expert on human sexuality, and besides his numerous translations of erotic works he became a crusader against "female circumcision." Of this practice he wrote,
The feelings, love, and desire of women grow less, while their trickery, cruelty, vices, and insatiable extravagance increase. . . .You may be thinking, but wasn't this the Victorian era? And it was, but by burying such observations in the vast mass of ethnographic material he generated, often in the footnotes, Burton was able to get them into print. His translations of the Kama Sutra and other erotic works were issued in small print runs and marketed as suitable only for "scholars," bearing the imprint of an imaginary Indian publisher in Benares. Thus Burton managed the difficult trick of becoming known as a great sexual adventurer while remaining respectable enough to earn a knighthood.
Burton was also a spiritual quester, searching across all religions for the "gnosis" or secret knowledge that would open up the universe to him. In India he was initiated into a semi-secret tantric order that encouraged making music with human bones as a way to cure the disciple of excessive devotion to the body. From there he passed on to Islam, developing a lifelong interest in the religion. He was initiated into Sufi sects, memorized much of the Koran, and debated theology with learned imams. When he died his torso was found to be covered with dozens of small scars, like knife wounds. At the time this was played up as evidence of many battles, but since Burton was never in a battle, Edward Rice's explanation is more convincing: he had joined a sect of Sufis who danced with sharp swords, naked from the waist up, regularly wounding each other in their frenzy.
Burton also had an outsized personality, and was given to towering rages, sulky silences that lasted for months, intense hatreds, and powerful loves. He spoke forcefully for his opinions one week and then changed them the next. He crusaded all his life against slavery, and often criticized the East India Company and the British government for poor treatment of natives, but he flew into a rage when he encountered a black man in the first class lounge of a steamer bound for West Africa. ("No way for a ruling race to act," he said.) He had many enemies and never shrank from criticizing the powerful, which explains why his army rank never rose above Captain and he never achieved the other honors one might have expected for such a famous imperialist. He was also short of money his whole life and hatched many schemes for riches, mostly involving gold or diamonds, none of which worked out. He died in Trieste, a minor diplomatic post where he had been sent largely to keep him out of the way, working on as many as eleven books at once and dreaming of the wealth he would never have.
Burton's most famous adventure was his journey to Mecca, made in 1853. He traveled in disguise, posing as an Indian Muslim to explain the minor imperfections in his Arabic. He was not the first westerner to do this, but he probably was the first Englishman, and the book he wrote about his pilgrimage became a best seller. Some accounts I have seen of this journey speak of Burton as one of the first "non-Muslims" to visit Mecca, but as Edward Rice shows, that may not be an accurate statement. Burton traveled as a Muslim, making all the requisite prayers and ablutions, and many who knew him at the time thought he was a Muslim. He certainly had himself formally converted, reciting the necessary formula ("there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet") in front of an imam. He wrote several times about the superiority of Islam over Christianity. And yet, while he was in Britain he attended Protestant services, and he was buried as a Catholic. The one work of theology he published is a nearly incomprehensible mystical mishmash, but it is based more on Sufism than on Christianity. It seems likely that Burton journeyed at Mecca as a haji, taking the spiritual side of the journey as seriously as the ethnographic exploration. What he actually believed about god and about Islam is impossible to say.
Later on Burton explored Somalia and then joined a famous expedition to central Africa, searching for the source of the Nile. The accounts of the Nile expeditions are gruesome narratives of suffering, as Burton and his companion Speke were laid low by one African disease after another. When they were too sick to walk, their African servants carried them; but sometimes the Africans from the coast were also sickened by the diseases of the interior, and there were whole weeks when the expedition did nothing but lie around and hope to get better. Speke was blinded by infections, and then deafened in one ear after he tried to dig out a beetle that had lodged in it with his knife -- this small beetle was part of a swarm that covered everything inside Speke's tent one night, including his whole body. Under these conditions Burton not only endured, but managed to make fairly accurate maps and fill several notebooks with ethnographic and linguistic observations.
Burton then became a diplomat, serving in West Africa, Brazil, Damascus and Trieste, publishing multi-volume books about all these places and searching for gold. It is an extraordinary story, and long before I reached the end of Rice's book I was finding it hard to believe that one man had done so much. But he did.
Many of Burton's works have been placed online at burtoniana.org. As an introduction to his writing I recommend Vikram and the Vampire, a collection of Indian folk tales.