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Anthropology: One-man multidisciplinarian

Clare Pettitt reassesses the legacy of Victorian polymath Richard Francis Burton.

Richard Francis Burton (1821–90) thirsted for and mastered knowledge in so many fields — from geography to sexology — that his real legacy for science is muddied. The flamboyant polymath was an eminent explorer, a pioneer of ethnography and a linguist fluent in more than 25 languages (from Arabic to Swahili) and a number of dialects. He wrote or translated more than 40 volumes, including The Lake Regions of Central Africa, published 155 years ago, and the first English edition of The Arabian Nights (1885). He was also an enthusiastic amateur of botany, geology and zoology, even running an experiment on monkey communication while living in Sindh (now Pakistan). Overall, this furiously energetic multidisciplinarian both contributed vastly to knowledge of other cultures and continents, and sometimes misread them to his — and their — cost.

These complex interests were the fruit of a turbulent mind. The eldest son of an army family, Burton had a protean character shaped on the road as his parents moved their young family restlessly around France and Italy. He started to learn Latin at three years old and Greek at four, and quickly picked up French, Italian and local dialects. At the University of Oxford, UK, contemptuous of the teaching methods, he honed his mastery of languages but was expelled for attending a steeplechase. He was soon propelled into the Bombay Infantry and immersed himself in Indian languages and culture. Violent and mesmerizing by turns, he was viewed as both prodigiously gifted and morally suspect by his contemporaries — as an 'other', just as he himself was possessed by otherness.

Ethnographic pioneer and explorer Richard Francis Burton, photographed around 1860. Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

By 1853, Burton had turned to exploration. Still beset by inner conflicts, he could also attract conflict with others. His great 1856–59 expedition to East Africa with John Hanning Speke, instigated by the Royal Geographical Society in London, was a case in point. It made “formidable contributions to imperial knowledge production”, according to historian Adrian Wisnicki. Although both men were seriously disabled by disease, Burton became the first European to see Lake Tanganyika. He kept dense geographical and cultural notes and meteorological records, and collected specimens for what are now the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Royal School of Mines in London. But the expedition led to a bitter rivalry between the two over the source of the Nile, with Speke claiming it as the lake that he dubbed Lake Victoria, and Burton feeling that the evidence failed to add up. Long after their return, in 1864, the British Association for the Advancement of Science called for a debate in London, but Speke died of an unexplained gunshot wound the day before. “The charitable say that he shot himself, the uncharitable say that I shot him,” Burton wrote to a friend.

Nature special: Interdisciplinarity

Burton was shocked, but published The Nile Basin that year, reiterating his position in the Nile controversy first detailed in The Lake Regions of Central Africa. Burton felt that Speke's account, Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1863) had dressed Africa up in flowery, fundamentally unscientific rhetoric, claiming for instance that a mass of dirty huts (in Burton's words) was a village built on the most luxurious principles. Burton insisted on using indigenous names and learnt local languages so that he could communicate directly with people he met — and his investigations would prove invaluable to future explorers. “I undertook the history and the ethnography, the languages, and the peculiarities of the people,” he is quoted as saying, adding scornfully that to Speke “fell the arduous task of delineating an exact topography”. Geography, Burton established, was a social as well as a physical science. The explorer Henry Morton Stanley would prove in 1875 that Speke had correctly identified the source of the Nile, but he used Burton's notes to get there. As Burton put it in Zanzibar; City, Island, and Coast (1872), future expeditions “had only to tread in my steps”.

Burton's immersion in a multitude of languages and cultures gave him a unique perspective on humanity.

Throughout a life of trailblazing travel and diplomacy — from Somaliland to Benin, Arabia, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas — Burton's first epistemological framework for colonial encounters was the 'Orientalist' one of linguistic scholarship. But as an ethnographer, he was original. He mingled with the people whose cultures he studied, understanding that knowledge is embodied and must be historically contextualized. This was criticized in Victorian England, with its horror of 'going native', but places him ahead of his time. Burton was always quick to acknowledge the contingencies and accidents that brought him into contact with local people, and never tried to efface himself from his narrative. Only in the late twentieth century did anthropologists such as John and Jean Comaroff suggest that the obvious weaknesses of ethnography as a 'science' are also its strengths, as “participant observation ... connotes the inseparability of knowledge from its knower”. Studies from the 1970s onwards supported this view, including Annette Weiner's The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1988), a reappraisal of Bronislaw Malinowski's study of the Pacific Trobriand Islands, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922).

In other ways, and much less attractively, Burton was very much of his time. His respect for Muslim culture did not preclude his succumbing temporarily to a vicious racism that became particularly extreme in the 1860s and cannot be exonerated. By the mid-1860s he had become one of Britain's foremost promulgators of the polygenist thesis that Africans constituted a distinct and inferior species, and he helped to found the Anthropological Society of London, established after a dispute with the monogenist Ethnological Society. By his last decade, Burton had come to his senses, embracing the view that all of civilization came from Africa, and felt that “negroes ... have shown themselves fully equal in intellect and capacity to the white races of Europe and America”. But the damage had been done.

Despite this sorry chapter, Burton's immersion in a multitude of languages and cultures gave him a unique perspective on humanity, with “the enormous advantage of being capable of comparing native with foreign ideas and views of the world”. He knew that other cultures could never be fully 'translated' or subsumed into English, and that this militated against the ethos of Empire. He was perhaps less Orientalist than comparativist and relativist. His contribution to the fledgling social sciences was all the more powerful, perhaps, for having been fed by so many streams of knowledge, even if this makes it less visible to us today.

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Correspondence to Clare Pettitt.

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Pettitt, C. Anthropology: One-man multidisciplinarian. Nature 525, 319–320 (2015).

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