Our library volunteers have discovered another intriguing volume with a letter to Lord Houghton from the author:

Luis de Camões, 'Os Lusiadas'. (The Lusiads) by Luis de Camões, translated by Richard Francis Burton.


My dear Houghton

There are few men in England except yourself who can pronounce? upon it. The novelty is an attempt to preserve the music of the Portuguese. Please remember that it is a First Edition, with faults. You will never have time to labour through the whole, but please run your eyes over the Ignèz – episode / pp. 127-132 / and the Isle of Love / pp. 334-378 /. The latter is my old friend Zanzibar painted in its brightest colours.

Ever yours truly?

R. F. Burton


The book in which the letter was found is the English translation by Burton of Luis de Camões’ epic poem 'Os Lusiadas', regarded as the foundation of Portuguese literature. This was a poetic account of the discoveries of Portugal’s greatest explorer, Vasco da Gama, and his voyages through the Indian Ocean and the coasts of East Africa and India.

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), the book’s translator, was one of the most controversial figures of the 19th century. Remembered today as an explorer, writer and translator, best known in the end for his English translation of 'The Thousand Nights and a Night', he was an immensely gifted, wildly intrepid, extraordinarily difficult man who flouted convention and authority throughout his life. Destined for the church (a narrow escape for both parties), he persuaded his family to let him pursue a military career in the service of the East India Company. Wherever he went, he immersed himself in local languages and culture and became skilled in working undercover, passing for someone local or at least a plausible traveller. In 1851 while on leave, he gained the support of the RGS and made one of the few journeys at that time by a westerner to Mecca and Medina, returning from the pilgrimage without being unmasked. From then on, his alter ego, Hadji Abdullah (the name reflecting that he had performed the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca) made regular appearances, a travelling merchant of Arab and Persian heritage (to explain away any suspicions about his speech and accent). Apart from this, Burton’s best-known travels are probably the expeditions he made with John Hanning Speke to look for the source of the Nile. After their return, the relationship between Burton and Speke broke down disastrously, Speke gaining celebrity by propounding a theory of his own that was not supported by Burton’s evidence. When challenged by Burton, Speke took his own life.

With little family fortune and extravagant habits, Burton lived by writing colourful accounts of his journeys, and seeking employment in the diplomatic service. He was headstrong and independent, to the extent of making career-wrecking decisions which, combined with bad luck and bad timing, meant that he struggled to gain recognition for his undoubted brilliance until his final years.

In 1861, he married, in the teeth of 10 years’ opposition from her family, Isabel Arundell (1831-1896), whose eccentricity, passion for the Orient and strength of character were a match for his. They were passionately close, and Isabel was indispensable to his exploits, sharing his way of life and dealing with everything practical, editing and seeing his writings through the press, and above all, urging his talents on anyone who would listen and pulling all the strings she could to further his career. The story of their extraordinary partnership is told in Lesley Blanch’s 'The Wilder Shores of Love', a brilliant study of four 19th century women who fell in love with the Middle East. Burton’s impulsive arrivals and departures demanded all her resourcefulness. ‘I am superseded.’ he wrote to her tersely, after being summoned back to London in disgrace from his consular post in Damascus, ‘Pay, pack and follow.’ A phrase that has gone down in legend with diplomatic wives ever since.

It is absolutely no surprise to discover that Richard Francis Burton and Richard Monckton Milnes, later Lord Houghton, shared a deep affinity. Both had a highly developed taste for the exotic (and the erotic), and Burton was able to feed Houghton’s voracious curiosity from his first-hand experience and his deep and wide learning. Even while Burton was a divisive figure with many enemies, he could count upon Lord Houghton as a confidential friend. The letter we have found with 'Os Lusiadas' is a formal one, possibly because Burton knew of Houghton’s habit of keeping an author’s letter with a gift book. Essentially, it is a letter of friendship, but also soliciting a favourable review. Other letters from Burton show a much more intimate camaraderie, with the salutation ‘Caro Milnes’, and signed ‘Your Hadji’ or ‘Hadji Abdullah’. Their content is often, as the saying is today, Not Safe For Work. Burton was someone with whom Houghton could freely share his taste for erotic literature; part of Burton’s notoriety lay in his championing of Eastern texts that would shock much of Victorian society, such as 'Kama Sutra' and 'The Scented Garden'. Some of the extant letters refer to their respective dealings with Frederick Hankey, an Englishman living in Paris who knew how to smuggle forbidden literature from Europe into England through diplomatic channels for favoured clients, and was probably the source of much of Lord Houghton’s fabled collection of pornography.

Burton’s translation of Luis de Camões, 'Os Lusiadas' is one of his lesser-known works, and scarcely remembered today. Letters from Burton to Lord Houghton of 1869 and 1880 show that it was a project that had been long under discussion between them, possibly even suggested by Houghton:

[1869] Caro Milnes One word to say that I go up to Town tomorrow and stay till about the 23d (14 St James Square finds). Thanks for your excellent advice about Camoens. I love him & your forbiddance invests the affair with much of the interest of a [grave?] loss. Why should not people read the Lusiads when the other morning you received a new trans. of Tasso? Please don't explain. It's rank impossible to translate Orientalism out of the East—I reserve it for the days when we settle in Syria. We must speak about the Arabian Nights. Ev yrs Abdullah P.S. First Canto nearly finished. Your note will lift me through it. __________ Trieste Sept. 3 [1880]

I wanted so much to speak to you about The Lusiads. Correction nearly finished and the whole almost ready for publication. I wish so much that you would review it, as you are one of the half dozen capable of understanding it, far ahead of the unhappy Brit Pub. I now keep a critic and all know it. […] Ever yrs affectionately, R. F. B.

In 1883 Burton finally published the work that would make his name and rescue his finances – his translation of 'The Thousand Nights and a Night'. As we have seen, that was also a subject of discussion with Lord Houghton. Burton later wrote, full of irony: “I have struggled for forty-seven years, distinguished myself honourably in every way that I could. I never had a compliment, nor a ‘thank you’ nor a single farthing. I translate a doubtful book in my old age, and immediately make sixteen thousand guineas. Now that I know the tastes of England, we need never be without money.”

By this time, he and Isabel had made their home in Trieste, put out to grass by HM Government in what Burton regarded as a consular backwater, after his abrupt removal from Damascus in 1871. Time spent in England was dependent on the generosity of his friends, and letter survive from him and his wife, to both Lord and Lady Houghton, thanking them for hospitality, and, in Isabel’s case, from time to time seeking support for her husband’s career. In 1877 Isabel published an article in the periodical 'The World', in the series Celebrities At Home, on Lord Houghton at Fryston Hall, describing the warm and lavish hospitality offered to his guests.

Burton lived on in failing health until 1890, Isabel Burton until 1896. After his death, as his literary executor Isabel burnt most of the papers he possessed, including the manuscript of 'The Scented Garden'. She wrote a two volume Life of her husband, defending him against his detractors and claiming him at the end of his life for the Roman Catholic Church. And she created a monument that survives to this day, a spectacular mausoleum in the shape of an Arab tent in Mortlake Roman Catholic cemetery, where they were both laid to rest.

If more books by Richard Francis Burton are be found here at West Horsley Place, it may be possible to add to this tale. Some of his works are in the Crewe Collection at Trinity College Cambridge, and two of them are explored in the library’s blog. 

Image credit:

Sir Richard Francis Burton, by Lock & Whitfield, woodburytype, published 1876
© National Portrait Gallery, London