Sir Richard Burton

We at Feral Trek unanimously agree- and agreement of any sort among these miscreants and misfits is rare indeed- that Sir Richard Burton was the greatest explorer of all time. Geographical, intellectual, spiritual, and sexual- he stretched every boundary to fit the contours of his soul.  “More” “Further” “Onwards”- these were his rallying cries. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses he followed “knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” With every last ounce of his soul he despised the “slavery of civilization.”

Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Civilization, man feels once more happy.

To list his accomplishments risks hyperbole- but it’s all true: soldier, orientalist, master Sufi, mountaineer, cartographerethnologist, geographer, translator, writer, spy, linguist, poet, elite fencer, hypnotist, hashish smoker, and diplomat. He was the first European to enter Mecca at a time when the punishment to do so was death and the first European known to have seen Lake Tanganyika. He traversed the Alps and Arabian deserts and led an expedition with John Spekes to explore the east African coast, with the hope of finding the source of the Nile (Lake Victoria). A preternatural polyglot- he knew more than 25 languages, including Arabic, Egba, French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, German, Persian, Icelandic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Swahili. Over 80 books bear his name as author or translator, ranging from poetry, falconry, and fencing to the amazing Wit and Wisdom from West Africa. He translated the erotic masterpieces the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden amidst Victorian prudery and repression. In my opinion his greatest literary achievement was a complete and unexpurgated translation of the One Thousand and One Nights (commonly called The Arabian Nights). His copious footnotes and appendices are an exemplar of scholarly poetics. I do not know if Nietzsche had heard of Burton, but “Ruffian Dick,” as he was called at Oxford, could have been his model for the Ubermensch, or at least Zarathustra. In any event, he would have wholeheartedly agreed with Burton’s personal code:

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. All other Life is living Death, a world where none but Phantoms dwell, A breath, a wind, a sound, a voice, a tinkling of the camel-bell.

The best Burton biographies: The Devil Drives (Fawn Brodie) and Captain Sir Richard Burton (Edward Rice).

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