Arcadian Times




Sir Richard Burton & The Thousand and One Nights

The Thousand and One Nights - The Tales of Shahrazad and Richmond Green do not immediately spring to mind as having a connection. The connection is Sir Richard Burton (19 March 1821 – 20 October 1890), a Victorian adventurer and translator of The Thousand and One Nights.

Burton attended The Richmond Academy school in 1832 formerly situated at the corner of Little Green and Duke St. The Burton family lived in Maids of Honour Row on the opposite side of the Green. They left Richmond due to a very serious outbreak of measles at the school, the Burton family deciding to return to France where they had previously lived.

Their life then took in travel between France, Italy and England. Due to this Sir Richard Burton became a linguist at a very early age. He studied at Trinity College, Oxford in 1840 and incidentally there came across John Henry Newman (Cardinal Newman). His life can be described as one that included adventures, scholarship, linguistics, science, diplomacy, orientalism and a measure of scandal.

Between 1842 and 1853 he joined the army of the East India Company.Whilst in India he studied Hindu and other languages of the regions of India as well as learning Arabic and Persian.

In 1851 he prepared to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca. He learnt the culture and customs and disguised himself as a Pashtun which he thought would cover any imperfections in his accent. He undertook the journey in 1853. An account of his journey can be found in A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855).

After an eventful life that included travel and exploration in Africa, controversy and marriage in 1861 to his beloved Isabel (née Arundell), it was in 1884 he translated The Thousand and One Nights into English. The Burton translation can be read online. The translation uses very stylized Victorian language but capture the exotic mystery of these ancient tales. The Burton translation was notable because it contained the erotic elements of The Tales and lengths were taken to bypass Victorian publishing laws on such publications.

Baghdad had in the 8th Century become a centre of culture and learning, with its Caliph, Harun Al Raschid (Ad 766-809) possesing a library of some 6000 books. Harum wanted to amass all the learning of the known world in Baghdad and the splendour of this period, the height of Baghdad's glory can be reflected in the tales of The Thousand and One Nights.

The Tales which are framed - stories within stories, reflect the Arabic tradition of story telling. The settings of the Tales include Damascus, Basra, Mosul, Shiraz and Baghdad, place names that are familiar in current news stories. The oldest Arabic manuscript of Thousand and One Nights is dated from the 14th century, however scholars believe the Tales have been in existence since the 9th century.

Sir Richard Burton is buried with his wife in St. Mary Magdalen's Church, Mortlake in the borough of Richmond. Their extraordinary tomb is shaped as a Bedouin tent, representive of his special connection and passion for Arabic culture.

Article: Arcadian Times, October 30, 2009