Scandals in the life of Richard Burton  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Richard Francis Burton was always controversial and there were those in British society who would leave a room rather than associate with him. In his army career he was sometimes known as "Ruffian Dick" and this lack of respect for authority and convention made him many enemies and gave him a reputation in some parts as a rogue.

Firstly, in a society where sexual repression was the norm, Burton's writing was unusually open and frank about his interest in sex and sexuality. His travel writing is often full of details about the sexual lives of the inhabitants of areas he travelled through and many of these details would have been shocking to the average Briton. Burton's interest in sexuality led him to make measurements of the lengths of the sexual organs of male inhabitants of various regions which he includes in his travel books. He also describes sexual techniques common in the regions he visited, often hinting that he had participated, hence breaking both sexual and racial taboos of his day. Many people at the time considered the Kama Shastra Society and the books it published scandalous.

Allegations of homosexuality dogged Burton throughout most of his life, a particularly serious accusation as it was a criminal offence in England at the time. Biographers disagree on whether or not Burton ever experienced homosexual sex (he never directly acknowledges it in his writing). These allegations began in his army days when General Sir Charles James Napier requested that Burton go undercover to investigate a male brothel reputed to be frequented by British soldiers. It has been suggested that Burton's detailed report on the workings of the brothel may have led some to believe he had been a customer. His later writings on the subject of pederasty and the fact that he and Isabel remained childless gave further ground for speculation.

Burton was a heavy drinker at various times in his life and also admitted to taking both hemp and opium. Friends of the poet Algernon Swinburne blamed Burton for leading him astray, holding Burton responsible for Swinburne's alcoholism and interest in the works of the Marquis de Sade.

Burton was also accused of having murdered a man on his trip to Mecca. The story was that on the journey he had accidentally revealed himself as a European and killed the man (in some versions a boy) to keep his secret. While Burton often denied this, he was also given to baiting gullible listeners. Famously a doctor once asked him, "How do you feel when you have killed a man?" Burton retorted, "Quite jolly, what about you?" When asked by a priest about the same incident Burton is said to have replied "Sir, I'm proud to say I have committed every sin in the Decalogue."

These allegations coupled with Burton's often-irascible nature were said to have harmed his career and may explain why he was not promoted further, either in army life or in the diplomatic service. As an obituary described: "...he was ill fitted to run in official harness, and he had a Byronic love of shocking people, of telling tales against himself that had no foundation in fact." Ouida reported 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..." Whatever the truth of the many allegations made against him, Burton's interests and outspoken nature ensured that he was always a controversial character in his lifetime.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Scandals in the life of Richard Burton" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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