Kids Corner


This Needs Research -VII:
What Do We Know About Richard Francis Burton?





The 19th century Richard Burton I’m referring to here is not to be confused with the 20th century actor Richard Burton of Hollywood and Elizabeth Taylor fame.

Richard Francis Burton (1821-90) was a full-time adventurer - soldier, explorer, geographer, scholar, translator, writer, poet, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, linguist, fencer, and diplomat. And spy / secret agent.

Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia which will give you an idea as to the full ambit of his activities:

He was famed for his travels and explorations in Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian and African languages.

Burton's best-known achievements include a well-documented journey to Mecca, in disguise at a time when Europeans were forbidden access on pain of death; an unexpurgated translation of ‘
One Thousand and One Nights’ (commonly called ‘The Arabian Nights’ in English after early translations of Antoine Galland's French version); the publication of the ‘Kama Sutra’ in English; and a journey with John Hanning Speke as the first Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile.

And here’s more:

Burton was a captain in the army of the East India Company, serving in India (and later, briefly, in the Crimean War). Following this, he was engaged by the Royal Geographical Society to explore the east coast of Africa and led an expedition guided by the locals and was the first European to see Lake Tanganyika. In later life, he served as British consul in Fernando Pó, Santos, Damascus and, finally, Trieste. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded a knighthood in 1886.

He caught my interest in my 20s when I came across cursory mention of him here and there, in a variety of documents and books, each relating to his involvement in Punjab and with Sikhs and Sikhism. However, I was particularly intrigued by the fact that very little was said about him, that each time the writer would quickly flit off hastily to another subject. 

I read accounts of his travels on the subcontinent, by himself as well as by others (e.g., Christopher Ondaatje and Haroon Siddiqui), and then graduated to reading his biographies. There is an excellent one by Edward Rice titled “Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: The Secret Agent Who Made The Pilgrimage To Mecca, Discovered The Kama Sutra, And Brought The Arabian Nights To The West”.

I discovered that in his intense desire to know more - and in great depth - about every culture, language and spiritual system he encountered - he would often convert to the religion (for a while) he would be studying, not in mischief or subversion or frivolity, but in a sincere and genuine attempt to have an immersive and well-rounded experience into all aspects of it.

During his travels, he came across Sikhs and Sikhism and, not surprisingly became a Sikh and a Khalsa for a period, taking on the full vows of the Amrit initiation at Amritsar. He learnt Punjabi and Gurmukhi, becoming reasonably fluent enough in both to have gone on to translate some excerpts from Guru Granth Sahib. 
But little is known about this period (1842-49), other than that we know that he was in Punjab for considerable lengths of time, especially in the decade immediately after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death and prior to Britain’s occupation of Punjab.

There are at least three reasons why little is known about Burton’s activities during this period which is so significant to us.

First, many of his manuscripts - and he was an acknowledged prolific journal keeper and writer - were reportedly destroyed by his widow, Isabel Burton, for some bizarre, unrelated personal reasons. It is possible that some of his work relating to Sikhs and Punjab may have been amongst those documents.

Secondly, my conjecture, based on my extensive readings on and about him, is that he was a secret agent for the British in Punjab during the crucial period which led to the concocted ’Anglo-Sikh Wars’.

He may not have been a willing recruit - because of his sympathies with Punjab and an antipathy to what Britain was nefariously up to on the subcontinent - but may nevertheless have been conscripted because he needed favours from the British senior officials to gain permission to enter some of their occupied territories in Africa. Because Burton had two life-long obsessions: to visit the Kaaba in Mecca, and to find the source of the Nile. 

His work as a spy, and anything and everything related to it, would therefore be still buried in Raj records from the period. Not necessarily because they are still classified, but because none of our scholars have seen it fit to research the subject in earnest.

Which brings me to the third reason why much of Burton‘s time in Punjab is still under a shroud: it is still waiting to be dug out.

It is possible that his translations, his account of his time as a Sikh/Khalsa, his description of the Sikhs of the time, his opinions on the goings on in Punjab, all of this information and more may lie buried along with his secret reports on the state of the Lahore Durbar.

Furthermore, did he have any further interest in, or dealings with Duleep Singh, for example? Both were in England at the same time for quite an extended period. Or in Punjab, before Duleep was exiled. With Rani Jindan - in Punjab, India, or Britain?

There are many, many reasons why all of this could be immensely important. To take but one example, Burton served under the Commander-in-Chief of the British army In India - General Charles James Napier himself. And here’s what Napier later had to say about the British in India:

The English were the aggressors in India, and, although our sovereign [Queen Victoria] can do no wrong, his [sic] ministers can; and no one can lay a heavier charge upon Napoleon than rests upon the English ministers who conquered India and Australia, and who protected those who committed atrocities ... Our object in conquering India, the object of all our cruelties was money … a thousand million sterling are said to have been squeezed out of India in the last ninety years. Every shilling of this has been picked out of blood, wiped and put in the murderers' pockets; but, wipe and wash the money as you will, the "Damned spot" will not "out."

Burton too was similarly a member of a minority of independent minded Britons who remained rooted in ethical values and did not believe that the need to rape and pillage in the name of the Empire took precedence over basic human values.

We need to find out more about Burton. And, I believe, the info is there for the picking, if one has the professional skills to do so.

Just think about it. Burton is probably the first man to have translated gurbani into English. And we do not have his translations.

He was in Amritsar in the 1840s as an insider … and as a brilliant recorder (in prose, poetry and drawing) of details. And we don’t have any of his observations.

Worse, we haven’t even looked for them.

January 13, 2017    


Conversation about this article

1: Biba Kaur  (Chandigarh, Punjab), January 13, 2017, 12:37 PM.

Sadly, never heard of him before. The problem lies in the fact that scholarship here in India has deteriorated into sit-at-home sifting through, and regurgitation of existing knowledge, mixed with a bunch of baseless rumours, meaningless myths and aimless innuendos. Knowledge of languages and at-the-source research is not encouraged any more because department heads and supervisors themselves now belong to a generation which achieved its PhDs and laurels through short-cuts. It is time Sikh scholarship picked up the baton in the diaspora and ran with it; no point waiting for anything worthwhile coming out of India for a while.

2: Harinder Singh (Pune, India), January 13, 2017, 5:47 PM.

We need to have our own Richard Francis Burtons ... a quom of such renaissance men and women.

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 14, 2017, 3:26 AM.

Sher ji, for a second indeed I thought with your range of scholarship you were adding a diversion and talking about Richard Burton of Elizabeth Taylor fame. This Richard Francis Burton was indeed part of the British Empire comprising nearly a quarter of the land mass of the earth, and a quarter of its population. The subcontinent with her simple, compliant subjects were simply blinded and considered Queen Victoria then as divine and even slaughtered propitiatory goats before her image. Sir Richard Francis Burton’s contribution was more practical when a small band of Englishmen were able to rule India for yet another hundred plus years. They usually blinded the populace by mammoth festivals of Imperial strength by making them colossal. Reminds me when in early 1900s Prince of Wales made his first visit to India. A Royal Durbar was organized when the Viceroy, and all the Rajas and Maharajas were invited. As a part of procession that was to pass by was Sant Attar Singh ji with Guru Granth Sahib Bir on an elephant. All of them stood up in respect and Sant ji’s eyes were closed and oblivious. He was singing this shabad fearlessly: "The pleasures of kings and emperors are pleasing, but they last for only a few days." [GGS:645]. As a radio amateur there was something of merit. On the morning of June 22, 1897 Queen Victoria entered the Telegraph room especially set up in Buckingham Palace when she pressed a button thus contacting the Central Telegraph Office. In an instant her simple Jubilee message: “I thank my beloved people. May God Bless them.“ And that simple message bowled over the beloved people of India and thus it willingly remained in shackles for the next 100 plus years. Sir Richard Francis Burton was but one cog in that machinery.

4: Sarjeet Singh Sidhu (Ipoh, Malaysia), January 15, 2017, 1:38 AM.

Whilst I had heard of this Burton and was aware of his journey to Mecca and his translation of the Arabian Nights, I was completely unaware of his involvement in Punjab and with Sikhs. As for today's India, it was cobbled together as a nation from the various kingdoms and fiefdoms, all at loggerheads with each other. That is why “a small band of Englishmen were able to rule India for yet another hundred plus years”. In any case this subcontinent was finally mutilated by the British to appease a few short-sighted leaders. There was no India prior to that; certainly not India as a nation the way it is now recognized. I know this will start a “war” and Chandra Gupta Maurya, Ashok, and the Mughals will be mentioned. But the fact remains that there was never any unity for any length of time. The author T Sher Singh is right in saying that this needs more research. We need to know.

5: Ishverjeet Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 18, 2017, 3:25 PM.

Although History of Sikhs by Cunningham sheds enough contemporary light on our present knowledge of Sikh history until mid-nineteenth century, there are a few other readings that I have found useful: 1) The History of the Sikhs; Containing The Lives of The Gooroos; The History of The Independent Sirdars, or Missuls, and The Life of The Great founder of The Sikh monarchy, Maharajah Runjeet Singh, 1846, by W.L McGregor, M.D. 2) Origin of the Sikh Power in The Punjab and Political Life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh; With an Account of The Religion, Laws, and Customs of Sikhs, 1834 by Henry T. Prinsep. However, these were written before 1846 so there was no mention of Burton. Even so, I found them very revealing as they were written in the same nature we would expect Burton to write: eyewitness and honest accounts. I have managed to obtain digitized copies of both, courtesy of Microsoft Foundation and Google Digital Library, in case anyone wants to read them.

6: Arjan Singh (USA), January 22, 2017, 2:00 AM.

#5 Ishverjeet ji: How can I get access to the copies that you mention above? Can you please provide directions/instructions? Thanks.

7: Ishverjeet Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 26, 2017, 5:02 PM.

Arjan Singh ji, feel free to email me, I can send you the PDF -

Comment on "This Needs Research -VII:
What Do We Know About Richard Francis Burton?"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.