I made a visit to one of London’s most unusual tombs today. No great hardship as it’s only a 30-minute walk from my own front door. It is the final resting place of the famously restless Sir Richard Francis Burton and his forbearing wife Isabel.
His was a life that is hard to summarise in just a few sentences. He was perhaps the preeminent British explorer of the Victorian age, but he was also a soldier, spy, diplomat, linguist, ethnographer, travel writer, poet, translator and bloody-minded controversialist. He claimed to have learnt Latin at the age of three and Greek at four. In adulthood he was said to be proficient in an astonishing total of 40 languages and dialects. In his university years (Oxford), he was an accomplished boxer, fencer and frequenter of brothels. He began his career as a soldier and intelligence agent in India, where he perfected the art of passing himself off as a trader from the Arab Gulf. In 1853, disguised as a pilgrim he became one of the first Europeans to visit Mecca and Medina. He next ventured into Africa in search of the forbidden fortress city of Harar. At Berbera, an ancient Somali port, his expedition was attacked by local tribesmen one of whom drove a barbed lance through Burton’s face, scarring him for life. Undeterred in 1856, he returned to Africa in search of the source of the Nile in the company of fellow explorer John Hanning Speke. Both men fell sick and both went nearly blind. In 1861, aged 39, he married Isabel Arundell, a devout Roman Catholic who was ten years his junior. She evidently exerted a calming influence because Burton not long after joined the British Foreign Office and was sent as consul successively to Fernando Po (an island of the coast of West Africa), Brazil, Damascus and finally Trieste in Italy, which is where he died in 1890.
Burton was in Egypt several times, notably in 1853 enroute to Mecca. In Cairo he stayed at Shepheard’s hotel, where he came to know the proprietor, this blog’s old friend Samuel Shepheard. In the introduction to later editions of his Pilgrimage to Al Medina and Mecca, Burton thanked Shepheard for helping raise money for the expedition. He was back at the hotel three years later. Perhaps he was looking for money again because when Shepheard mentioned the visit in a letter, it was with a testy, ‘Captain Burton has just come to bother me about his expedition to the interior of Africa’.
Many years later, long after Samuel Shepheard had exchanged Cairo for the life of a wealthy landowner back in his native England – and had died there in 1866 – Burton was back at his former hotel. It was 1877 and he was off in search of gold and other valuable metals in the Arabian peninsula. In his account of the expedition, The Gold Mines of Midian, he writes, ‘I cannot pass Sam Shepheard’s old home without a few words upon the subject of its first owner, a remarkable man in many points’. He praises Shepheard for his independence of mind and manner, noting that he once threw a prince out of the hotel because he ‘would not behave like a gentleman’. According to his biographer, Sam was also independently minded when it came to Burton, who he considered a poseur.
On his death, Isabel tried to have Richard Burton buried in the hallowed precincts of Westminster Abbey. The problem was Burton’s later years had been spent in large part translating international erotica, including the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden. His greatest work was a major new 16-volume translation of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, in which he played up the sexual content. As a consequence, the establishment considered Burton far too rakish for the Abbey. (This can’t have come as a surprise to Isabel, who was also very uncomfortable with some of her husband’s enthusiasms, so much so that on his death she burned all his manuscripts, notes and diaries.)
Instead, she had him buried in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalen in the then-village of Mortlake, west of London, in what was then one of the city’s few Catholic cemeteries. She designed the tomb herself, which is in the form of an elaborate desert tent, based on one the couple had made for themselves when they lived in Damascus. She joined him in the tomb when her time came in 1896.
These days the tomb can be visited – though not many do – in a small, unassuming but beautifully tended churchyard beside the railway tracks, not far from Mortlake station. This is how it looked today – thanks to a recent restoration it’s in magnificent condition.
It is about 12-foot square and 12-foot high, with sloping sides, skilfully carved from sandstone to represent the folds of canvas. In addition to a Christian crucifix, there is also a frieze of gold-painted Islamic crescents running around all four sides. Around the back is ladder so visitors can climb up and peer into the interior of the tomb through a glass panel – which is there supposedly because Richard Burton didn’t like the dark. You can see the two caskets, an iron one on the right containing him and one of mahogany on the left containing her. The walls are festooned with camel bells, which were once wired up to ring when anybody entered the tomb, although the door has since been sealed up to prevent against vandalism.
It’s a fittingly eccentric tomb for a very unconventional couple.