I am writing in response to Spero Kessaris' Feb. 25 letter, in which he condemns director Bob Rafelson for suggesting that Sir Richard Burton, the hero of Rafelson's film "Mountains of the Moon," might have had a homosexual relationship with John Hanning Speke.
Like Kessaris, I am a "Burtonophile," one of the secretive company who believes this great man of the 19th Century represents everything lacking from our world: an insatiable curiosity for the unknown, unbounded intellectual and physical courage, a swashbuckling style.
We tend to be possessive about Burton, which is why we all loathe his wife, Isabel, who felt the same way. In fact, she was so determined to re-create him that on the night of his death in 1890 she burned thousands of his papers and manuscripts, including his private journal. This journal might have provided the answers to hundreds of questions about Burton's life, including whether he ever engaged in homosexual acts.
We know he had an intense interest in sexual customs--witness his translations of the Kamasutra and "The Perfumed Garden," as well as his treatise on homosexuality, "The Sotadic Zone." We know that while in the Indian army he prepared a detailed report on the homosexual brothels in Kashmir, and this report later ruined his fortunes in the army--his superiors wondered how he could have known so much about these vices without participating in them.
Lastly, we know that Burton happily flouted all social or sexual mores--if he wanted to sleep with a man, he would have done so and then blithely written a text on the experience.
That his more rigid wife chose to destroy his journals gives a hint as to their possible contents.
As for John Hanning Speke, he had no interest in women, and his descriptions of the sexual exploits of the African chieftains he visited does have a strong trace of revulsion for their heterosexual lasciviousness. Certainly his relationship with Burton was strongly emotional--and there is no more reason to assume that there couldn't have been a sexual element than there is to assume there was one.