The Papers of Richard Francis Burton

Scope and Content

The material within this collection comprises of correspondence and publications by and about Richard Francis Burton and his wife Isabel Burton (nee Arundell). There are also two photographs of Burton and artefacts.

Also included within this Collection are correspondence concerning the acquisition of the material by the RAS and some supplementary material regarding Oscar Eckenstein, its original collector.

Administrative / Biographical History

Richard Francis Burton was born on 19 March 1821, the eldest son of Captain Joseph Netterville Burton and his wife, Martha. He had a peripatetic childhood living on the continent as well as in England. His father wished for him to become a clergyman and therefore Burton was sent to Oxford in 1840 but managed to get himself 'rusticated' by attending a steeplechase against University rules.

Burton joined the Bombay Infantry of the East India Company in 1842. This was the start of his explorations and detailed recording of all that he saw. Burton was a very able linguist passing out top in the Company examinations but he was also interested in geography and ethnography including dialects and customs

Burton, as part of the Survey Company, made detailed topographical, ethnographic and linguistic notes resulting in the publication of his History of Sindh.

His life was full of travel and writing including travelling to Mecca and Medina in 1852, disguised as a Muslim, and an expedition to attempt to find the source of the Nile under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society of which he was a member.

He visited North America in 1860 before marrying Isabel in 1861. Burton went to Bioko (Fernando Po), West Africa to take up the position of Consul. In 1865 he was appointed British Consul in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Isabel accompanied him, and then subsequently in Damascus.

In 1872, they moved to Trieste to work in the Consulate and from here he explored the mines at Midian. In 1886 he was made a Knight of the Order of St Michael and St George. He died on 20 October 1890.

Burton was a prolific writer and his travels provided him with material for many books. He was also a keen translator including translating The Arabian Nights stories and the poems of the Portugese poet, Cameons.

Isabel Burton was born on 20 March 1831 in London. Her father was Henry Raymond Arundell and Isabel (christened Isabella) was the first child of his second marriage to Eliza Gerard. They were a devout Catholic family which was one of the reasons why her parents did not wish her to marry Richard, alongside his lack of money and reputation. However she prevailed and they were married in 1861, after which she often travelled with her husband. She also wrote and published material including a biography of Burton after his death. She died in London in 1896 and both she and Richard are buried in a tomb shaped as a Tent at St Mary Magdalen Church, Mortlake, London

Oscar Eckenstein was born on 9 September 1859 and became a renown climber and mountaineer, being a pioneer in the sport of bouldering. He invented the Eckenstein crampon and was the leader of the first serious attempt on K2 in 1902.

It is not known why Eckenstein developed his interest in Richard Burton but he collected avidly. Eckenstein married Margery Edwards in 1918 and they lived in Oving, West Sussex. He died of TB in 1921.


The material is divided into 8 series. Thus:

  • RB/1 Correspondence
  • RB/1/1 Richard Burton Correspondence
  • RB/1/2 Isabel Burton Correspondence
  • RB/2 Publications by Richard Burton
  • RB/3 Publications about Richard Burton and Isabel Burton
  • RB/4 Unpublished Documents about Burton
  • RB/5 Photographs
  • RB/6 Artefacts
  • RB/7 Correspondence concerning the Acquisition of the Richard Burton Archive
  • RB/8 Supplementary Material

Access Information

Open. Please contact the archivist using the email address given here. The archive is open on Tuesdays and Fridays 10-5, and Thursdays 2-5. Access is to any researcher without appointment but it will help if an appointment is made via phone or email. Please bring photo ID

Acquisition Information

The material collected by Oscar Eckenstein was donated to the RAS by Lewis C Loyd. He acquired the material after Eckenstein's death in 1921. It became part of the RAS Collections in 1939 and was initially housed in a bookcase bought specifically for that purpose

Burton's stick and hat were donated in 1949 after they had been discovered in the Foreign Office.

Other Finding Aids

A list made by Bernadette Rivett and Mary S Lovell of all the Richard Burton material held by the RAS is available to view in the Reading Room. Allied material to these papers can be found on the RAS online Library catalogue at

Archivist's Note

These material were catalogued in July 2016 by Nancy Charley, Royal Asiatic Society archivist. Many of the descriptions and listing was taken from the handlist created by Bernadette Rivett and Mary S. Lovell in 1999

Conditions Governing Use

Digital photography (without flash) for research purposes may be permitted upon completion of a copyright declaration form, and with respect to current UK copyright law.

Appraisal Information

The material had previously been listed by Bernadette Rivett and Mary S. Lovell in 1999. The archivist, in appraisal, kept broadly to the descriptions provided in this list but rearranged the papers to place similar material together.

Custodial History

The majority of the Burton material consists of the Collection of Oscar Eckenstein, which not only includes the archives listed here but also a considerable collection of bound volumes believed at the time of donation to be an almost complete collection of all of Burton's publications and most of those of his wife, Isabel, as well.These include some rare publications and some annotated ones.

The stick given to Burton by the King of Dahomey and his consular hat were found by the Foreign Office in 1949

Related Material

The Royal Asiatic Society holds many original Richard and Isabel Burton publications, which all formed part of the Eckenstein Collection. They also hold biographical printed material about the Burtons.

Within the RAS Library Archives there are a series of letters between Bernadette RIvett, Mary S. Lovell and Michael Pollock (RAS Librarian) concerning their cataloguing of the material.

The RAS also has a pencil portrait of Oscar Eckenstein, inscribed "A. Legros 1894". (Head catalogue 026.001). Its source of acquisition is unknown. It is presumed to have been donated at the same time as the Burton Collection.