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COLONIAL DISCOURSES

Series Two: Imperial Adventurers and Explorers

Part 1: The Papers of Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) from the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office

Publisher's Note

“Burton was a real adventurer; as a scholar he could hold his own with any academic Orientalist in Europe; as a character, he was fully aware of the necessity of combat between himself and the uniformed teachers who ran Europe and European knowledge with such precise anonymity and scientific firmness.”
Edward W Said
writing in Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978)

“A man of large literary attainments and ability, a man of untiring energy and restless activity, and one whose travels probably covered a wider range than those of any explorer of his time.”
The Washington Post

This second series of Colonial Discourses looks at the role played by imperial adventurers and explorers in defining Masculinity and Empire.

Where better place to start than with the papers of Richard Burton (1821-1890)? Burton was at once heroic and controversial and has many claims to our attention:

  • His first colonial experience was serving in the Indian Army, where he learned local languages and infiltrated local culture, shocking his contemporaries;
  • He was an excellent swordsman, writing key works on the bayonet and sword;
  • He was one of the first westerners to penetrate Mecca, making use of disguise and his talent for acquiring languages;
  • He translated the Arabian Nights and used that work to display his erudition and to show that the work was not a bedtime story for children;
  • He was a noted African explorer, preferring to name lakes and mountains by their local names;
  • He was one of the main figures in the western discovery of the Nile, but quarrelled with his companion John Hanning Speke who died mysteriously on the eve of a public meeting with Burton;
  • He translated the Kama Sutra, The Perfumed Garden and other works of Arabian erotology;
  • He was consul at Damascus, 1869-1871, and Trieste, 1872, where he died.


Part 1 is based on the Arundel Papers at the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office (Arundel Collection, Burton 2667/26), only recently drawn to the attention of scholars. There are seven boxes of material in total, covering all aspects of his life and work.


At the heart of the collection is a series of scrapbooks kept by Richard and Isabel Burton, combining cuttings, letters and photographs. The “African Scrapbook”, 1856-1864, one on “The State of Syria”, 1869-1872, and one on “Arabia, Egypt, India, Trieste, Spiritualism and Vivisection” are particularly valuable, but scholars will also find much of interest in those concerning Brazil and Isabel Burton’s Life of Burton. The cuttings are from an extraordinary range of papers from The Liverpool Post to the Rangoon Times.

There is much good material on Burton’s consular activities in Damascus, 1870-1871, and a fine series of letters to Burton from Edward Freeman detailing affairs in the Balkans, an affray in Nazareth and the Midian Expedition. There are letters describing his mining interests on the Gold Coast and a detailed household inventory. Isabel Burton’s manuscript of Iracema is included, as are details of the Burtons financial circumstances and material relating to her will and the destruction of many of the manuscripts. There is publishing correspondence regarding the Arabian Nights and The History of the Sword and there are the Burtons’ own copies of First Footsteps in East Africa, Lusiadas, and The Kasidah. There are also a large number of photographs and important surviving sections of Burton’s notebooks and sketchbooks.


This material helps us to understand the public impression and reception of Burton and to see how he was woven into the fabric of heroic imperialism despite his best efforts to upset the system and to preserve local culture. They highlight both the political value of African Exploration and the personal forces that drove Burton.

Thanks are due to a number of people. Mary S Lovell, author of A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton (1998) kindly allowed us to make use of the notes that she made when exploring the archive to research her book. At the Wiltshire & Swindon Record Office, both John D’Arcy (Principal Archivist) and Stephen Hobbs (Archivist) were also extremely helpful at all stages of the publication.

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