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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

Richard Burton: The Victorian Explorer Who Discovered the Kama Sutra, Made a Secret Pilgrimage to Mecca, and Knew 29 Languages

00:00 01:08:03
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Everybody imagines the World's Most Interesting Man to be a fictional grey-haired lothario who drinks Mexican beer and boasts of his legendary exploits. But what if a man like this really lived?

It turns out he did. He is Richard Francis Burton, a Victorian-era explorer who learned 29 languages, went undercover as a Muslim on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and wrote 50 books on topics ranging from a translation of the Kama Sutra to a manual on bayonet exercises.

In this episode I explore Burton's life and his incredible achievements. He nearly discovered the source of the Nile with his expedition partner, John Hanning Speke. He had a massive facial scar that came from a Somali tribesman throwing a spear that passed through both his cheeks. He travelled 1,500 miles in a solo canoe expedition down Brazil's São Francisco River, discovering a jungle tribe and deciphering their language.

Adventures aside, Burton is best known today for translating the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra into English. He was the most educated explorer of the Victorian age, a time when only men of rough disposition set out to discover foreign lands, in stark contrast to the landed gentry, who were uninterested in international travel, unless it was in the comfort of a steamship to go administer a colony for the sake of the Crown or as a military officer deployed to extend the global landholdings of the British Empire.

Burton published over three dozen volumes, ranging from such topics as linguistics, ethnology, poetry, geography, fencing, and travel narratives. He spoke Greek, Arabic, Persian, Icelandic, Turkish, Swahili, Hindi, and a host of other European, Asian, and African tongues.

Learn about Burton's extraordinary life, and how a beer pitchman could never hope to live up to it.
May 03, 2018
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Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to scottrankphd.com.
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