The Tomb of an Explorer


Early one October morning, a British man died in Trieste. He had been remarkable in life, so it’s quite fitting that he lies here, in this tent-tomb incongruously set in a sleepy English town on the edges of London. This is the tomb of Sir Richard Francis Burton; explorer, geographer, diplomat, linguist and writer, a man who could have walked straight out from the pages of a Boy’s Own adventure.



Richard Burton (in disguise)

Richard Francis Burton was born in Devon on 19 March 1821, the son of an Irish-born British Army officer and his heiress wife. Like many an ‘Army brat’ before and since, Burton travelled around in his childhood, and he lived in England, France and in Italy. He was educated by tutors, and then at a preparatory school in Surrey, before going up to Oxford in 1840. He had shown an early gift for languages, learning French, Italian, Neopolitan, Latin and Romani in his childhood, and began studying Arabic while at Oxford, alongside his studies there. Burton was intelligent, but had a habit of antagonising others, once challenging another student to a duel. He was eventually expelled from Oxford without taking his degree in 1842, after he broke the rules about horse-racing.

He enlisted with the army of the East India Company, and was sent to India, where he just missed the First Afghan War, much to his disappointment. India gave him great opportunities to study languages and culture, and he learned Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki and Marathi, Persian and Arabic while there. He also studied with a Hindu teacher, and learned about Islam.

In 1851 Burton negotiated leave from the army, and sponsorship from the Royal Geographical Society to do some exploration. This would be the adventure that would make his name, because he decided to complete the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, despite not being Muslim. To do so, he used a number of disguises to pass himself off as Muslim (and even had himself circumcised) and used the knowledge of Muslim culture he had to complete his pilgrimage undetected. He wrote about his adventure in his book, A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah.


Richard Burton

Now rather well-known to the British public, Burton was sent to Aden by the East India Company, where he prepared for another expedition, again with sponsorship from the Royal Geographical Society. This time, he was to explore the African interior. First, Burton travelled to Harar, Ethiopia, where he became the first European to enter the area. Then, after returning from this adventure, he met up with Lieutenant John Hanning SpekeLieutenant G. E. Herne, Lieutenant William Stroyan and their African bearers, and headed off to the interior. Unfortunately, when they were encamped in Somalia, they were attacked by local warriors. Stroyan was killed, Speke was captured and wounded, and Burton received a javelin through the face. Speke and Burton managed to escape, but the authorities took a dim view of the failure of their expedition.

Nevertheless, in 1856 Burton was able to go exploring once more, again into Africa in search of the source of the Nile, alongside Lt Speke. They set out on 27 June 1857 and had a rough time of things. They struggled to find trustworthy bearers, members kept leaving (sometimes stealing things in the process) and they were ravaged by diseases that rendered Speke blind and half-deaf, and Burton unable to walk for a time. By February 1858 they managed to reach Lake Tanganyika, but were unable to do the surveying they were supposed to do, because much of their equipment was lost, stolen or damaged. They did what they could, and Speke carried on the exploration when Burton became ill again. Speke discovered Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical lake, which he named after Queen Victoria.

The two men made their way home separately, and then became embroiled in a very public quarrel. Speke gave a lecture stating that he had discovered the source of the Nile in Lake Victoria, which he had. Burton, though, argued that Speke couldn’t prove it was the source of the Nile, because he hadn’t been able to survey it properly. Burton seems to have been more than a little miffed that Speke was lionised all over London, and claimed they had an agreement to give the announcement of their discoveries together. Both men tried to damage each others’ reputations, and Speke went on another expedition to prove his claims. He didn’t convince Burton, but he did convince the Royal Geographical Society, who awarded him their Gold Medal. On 16 September 1864 Burton and Speke were scheduled to debate one another at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The day before, Speke accidentally shot himself while hunting.


Richard Burton, 1876

Burton was sent to an out-of-the-way diplomatic post in Bioko, Equatorial New Guinea. He had just married, but couldn’t take his wife with him as the climate was considered ruinous to health. He explored the coast of West Africa while there, and then in 1865 was reunited with his wife when he was posted to Brazil. There he travelled through the highlands, canoed down the São Francisco River and visited the battlefields of the Paraguayan War.

He was transferred again in 1868 to become British consul in Damascus. He and his wife considered this the happiest times of their lives, though Burton antagonised quite a few people while there. Then as now, the Middle East was in a delicate political position, and Burton antagonised the local Jewish population in particular. He was recalled, and sent this time to Trieste, a quiet port-city in modern-day Italy. It wasn’t an exciting post, though it gave him plenty of time to write and to travel.

Richard Burton died in Trieste on 20 October 1890 from heart failure. He was 69.


Burton produced many accounts of his explorations for both a professional and the popular market. He also translated a number of works which were considered pornographic at the time, including the Kama Sutra, , The Book of the Thousand Nights and a NightThe Perfumed Garden of the Shaykh Nefzawi and The Supplemental Nights to the Thousand Nights and a Night. He also introduced Hindu tales to the West, and wrote under a pseudonym a poem about Sufism.

His frank writings on the sexual habits of the cultures he met were not terribly welcome in Victorian England, and much of his work was published by private subscription to avoid prosecution. He wrote frankly about homosexuality – which caused a number of rumours to spread about his own private life – and about sexual techniques of the areas he had visited.

Burton’s outspoken nature meant that he antagonised many, and his fondness for talking about and collecting information on sexual matters was shocking at the time. He wasn’t really suited to being a diplomat, and Ouida (the literary pseudonym of Maria Louise Ramé) wrote of him that “Men at the FO [Foreign Office] … used to hint dark horrors about Burton, and certainly justly or unjustly he was disliked, feared and suspected … not for what he had done, but for what he was believed capable of doing.”



Isabel Burton

Burton was survived by his wife, Isabel (20 March 1831 – 22 March 1896). She was born into the Arundell family, the head of which was Baron Arundell of Wardour, while her mother was from another noble family. They were Roman Catholics and Isabel was educated by the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre.

Isabel said that she fell in love with Richard Burton the first time that they met, while she was on a school trip to Boulogne, though they wouldn’t begin courting for another four years, and weren’t married for ten. Richard Burton was not Catholic, and he didn’t convert on marriage nor any time thereafter. Isabel married him against the wishes of her parents. She was an intelligent woman, and an ardent supporter of her husband.

When Burton died, Isabel burned some of his papers and manuscripts, including the unpublished revision of The Perfumed Garden, possibly because it included a long discussion of homosexuality. She wrote a two-volume biography of her husband, and an autobiography of herself. She died from cancer on 22 March 1896, and lies buried with her husband.



It seems quite fitting that a man famed for his adventures should have an interesting tomb. It was designed by Isabel, after her husband had said he wanted them to “lie side by side in a tent” for eternity. It is designed to look like a Bedouin tent, and has an interesting mixture of Christian and Islamic symbols. There is a crucifix on the front, and the star of Bethlehem above, with stars and crescents and Arabic lamps.


Burton hated the dark, and the tomb was designed with a stained-glass window at the back, which has now been replaced with a clear panel. There is a ladder at the rear of the tomb which allows visitors to look through the panel and into the tomb itself. Inside, the steel coffin of Burton and the mahogany one of Isabel can be seen. There is also a marble altar, a crucifix, religious paintings, candle-holders and censers. On the floor are several lamps, and some water flasks (believed to hold water from the Zamzam well in Mecca). There are also decorative wreaths (some in domes) and camel bells on top of Burton’s coffin, and stretching from the ceiling to Isabel’s coffin, which has a battery-operated shaker at it’s head, which causes the bells to ring when the door is opened.


It’s a fascinating tomb – and the carving of it is magnificent. It was designed to look as though the ‘cloth’ was rippling in the breeze, made from sandstone with the interior made of marble. I have no idea why Isabel arranged for bells to ring if the door was opened, or why, when it was restored, a clear pane of glass was substituted for the broken stained glass of the original. It is one of the most interesting tombs of London – which is saying something – and well-worth a visit!

Further Reading


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