Who is history’s greatest badass, and why?

Answer by Rory Young:

Look carefully at this man's face.

This is what the face of a man who combined genius with open-mindedness, courage with perseverance and curiosity with fearlessness looks like.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, the only man in history who could claim to be a scholar and polymath of the highest order as well as a fighter and adventurer second to none.

Do you see the scar on his cheek?. There was also one on the other side of his face. The cause;  he was impaled by Somali Waranye warrior's spear. It entered one cheek and came out the other, slicing through his palate, teeth and jaw . Afterwards it had to be wrenched out by one man hauling on it while others held his head. He also received ten other wounds in the same incident.

This happened on the first of his expeditions into the African interior. He would go on many more, not only in Africa but also Asia and South America, in the process – together with John Hanning Speke- discovering the source of the Nile.

Now take a look at this picture.

This is Burton again, dressed as a pilgrim on his way to Mecca. Burton did the Haji as a non-muslim!  In 1853 he successfully traveled to Mecca in disguise amongst a group of pilgrims on foot and returned safely.

Does he remind you of Lawrence of Arabia perhaps?

Well, there are some crucial differences. Burton didn't dress as an Arab, he became an Arab. He spoke the language so fluently and knew the detailed customs so perfectly that he could and did pass himself off as an Arab. He even underwent circumcision to properly play the part.

Not only did he pass himself off as an Arab but he also successfully passed for a Pashtun and numerous other ethnic groups among the very groups themselves. Not surprising considering he was proficient in nineteen languages by the time he was twenty. In fact he would speak twenty nine languages by the time he died, including Greek, Jataki, Hindustani, Marathi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Pushtu, Sanskrit, Icelandic, Swahili, Amarhic, Fan, Egba, Asante, Hebrew, Aramaic and a dozen European languages.

He was also an accomplished writer. However, no mundane topic would ever do for Sir Richard.

Burton was the man who introduced the Kama Sutra to the rest the world…

and the Arabian Nights..

and the Perfumed Garden..

He also wrote books on sword fighting

and bayonet fighting

as well as many detailed geographical papers and accounts of his explorations.


Burton was not the most heroic man and certainly not the most decent. Although clever he wasn't the greatest in that regard either.

He was however one serious badass.

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