Richard Burton - The Devil Drives

Sir Richard Francis Burton - Interesting and Bizarre

There was a time when the English male was not under constant pressure to express his 'feelings', sublimate his natural tendencies by baking cakes or suppress his urge to head off in search of adventure and do dangerous and possibly stupid things.

He was not exhorted to weep at the slightest mishap or good fortune, rather to disregard both imposters, if we can borrow from Kipling. Manliness, in short, was not frowned upon.

What would society make of characters like Sir Richard Francis Burton today? One suspects that Burton would be rather frowned upon in any age. Like many English heroes - T. E. Lawrence, Lord Byron, Dudley Moore - he had a troubled relationship with his mother country. Indeed he preferred to be away from it.

Burton was a restless and highly-intelligent man whose boundless curiosity and desire for stimulation drove him into military adventure and exploration  And because of this curiosity he tended to master the languages of the countries he visited and document what he learned of the cultures he immersed himself in.

He was called "the most interesting man of the 19th century". Or, as Graham Green put it, "one of the most bizarre characters whom England has ever produced". Who's the most interesting man of the 21st century? The most bizarre might be easier. Whoever it might be, Burton would have eaten him for breakfast in an erudite and well-informed manner.

The Devil Drives - Eland Books

As you now need to read about the life of this Victorian force of nature, The Devil Drives [Amazon],a biography of Burton by Fawn Brodie is a great place to start. Brodie described Burton as "fascinating beyond belief". Much more than can be said for the many celebrity dullards of today who insist on churning out biographies of mind-bogglingly inconsequential tittle-tattle.

Originally published in 1967, The Devil Drives is well-researched and shows a love of subject. Burton's life makes it an easy read. Brodie's psychoanalytical speculations on what made Burton tick are of their age but don't detract.

Eland Books has an edition out right now. They have a fine set of travel books, actually. Must look into their catalogue some more.

In the book you'll learn that Burton:
  • Offered someone a duel in his first hour at Oxford.
  • Was so keen to fight in India he got himself expelled from Oxford to join the army of the East India Company.
  • Learnt most Indian languages when in India.
  • Left the army of the East India Company army on bad terms following a 'thorough' investigation into Bombay's bordellos.
  • Wrote a book on using the bayonet, which was adopted by many armies.
  • Visited Mecca in disguise. 
  • Had a spear thrown through his face in Africa.
  • Had a major falling out with fellow explorer John Hanning Speke re locating the source of the White Nile.
  • Translated The Arabian Nights.

Style Tips

Burton looks dressed for a night out in Shoreditch below. Nice loose trousers for adventuring in.

Tweedy's Thought: Planning a reckless adventure? If so, let us know and we'll be happy to report on your progress or notify our readers when your body is repatriated.


  1. Graet Information.I value your effort a lot.You are keeping past alive.


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