Barnet Burns claimed to have been born in Liverpool, England; the year of his birth was probably about 1806 or 1807. At the age of 13 or 14 he went to sea as a cabin-boy. He spent some time in Jamaica in the service of Lewis Lecesne, a merchant. Burns later followed Lecesne to England, and was placed by him in the Lancastrian school in London. In 1827 Burns sailed from England in the Wilna, spending some time in Rio de Janeiro, and then received a berth as a steward on the Nimrod, bound for Sydney. He worked for the Bank of Australia for two years, and about 1830 came to New Zealand on a voyage trading for flax. During the eight months spent in the country, he learnt to speak Māori.
So impressed was Burns with New Zealand that in February 1831 he entered into an agreement with Joseph Barrow Montefiore, a Sydney merchant, to return as a trader. He sailed in the Darling which landed him at Māhia where he was the first European flax-trader. He wrote: 'So here I was amongst a set of cannibals…not knowing the moment when they might take my trade from me, and not only my trade, but my life.'
Burns was protected by a Ngāti Kahungunu chief whom he called 'Awhawee', whose daughter, Amotawa, he married; they had three children. When, after 11 months, a vessel arrived from Sydney with orders to close the trading station, the Māori were angry, but Burns refused to leave with the ship as Amotawa was about to give birth.
Shortly after the birth, and during the temporary absence of most of the tribe, the neighbouring Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti threatened to steal Burns's remaining goods. He escaped with Amotawa and her father, 'Awhawee', by war canoe and headed for Poverty Bay. Three weeks later Burns was settled 12 miles inland when Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, with whom he was now living, was threatened by another tribe. Burns wrote that he had joined in the battle at the particular wish of his chief. The enemy was routed and, according to Burns, only four slaves were killed and eaten.
During a flax-buying trip with some Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, a party of Ngāi Te Rangi attacked, slew and ate the group with the exception of Burns. He saved his life by agreeing to live with them, fight for them, and be tattooed. He escaped when the tattooing was about one quarter finished and found his way back to Amotawa and 'Awhawee'. Soon afterwards the Poverty Bay tribes made a concerted and successful effort to wipe out Te Whakatōhea in the district, with Burns leading 150 of the 600 attackers.
Around 1832 a visiting trading vessel, the Prince of Denmark, took Burns up the coast to establish a station at the Ūawa River, and from 1832 to 1834 he traded flax to Sydney. He considered these his happiest years in New Zealand, which he now decided to make his permanent home. He claimed to have been made chief of a tribe of more than 600 and his tattooing was completed. These two circumstances gave him mana, and advantage in his business dealings.
Burns sailed for Sydney on the Bardester on 13 October 1834 to transact business apparently connected with land, and was induced, in February 1835, to accompany the ship to England for the same purpose. He never again saw New Zealand. His son Hōri Waiti, who was born after Burns had left the country, was adopted by relatives in Tokomaru Bay; there are numerous descendants living on the East Coast.
In England Burns turned showman and lecturer, sometimes using the name 'Pahe-a-Range'. He was tattooed all over, his face and thighs in the manner of the Māori, his arms and chest in the fashion common among sailors at the time. Dressed in Māori costume, he displayed his remarkable tattooing as he told of his adventures in New Zealand and showed the head of a hostile chief. A lecture given in Chichester in May 1836 was described as 'one incongruous jumble of impudence, of ignorance, of low wit, and bare-faced presumption.' Another contemporary account, however, records him as making intelligent remarks on New Zealand, and on Māori beliefs and customs. At some of these lectures he was accompanied by a mysterious Mrs Burns, who performed 'several admired airs and Waltzes upon the Musical Glasses.' During his last recorded lecture, at Leicester in 1858, Burns broke down, and was dangerously ill for three months.
The only contemporary record of Burns's exploits is contained in his booklet, A brief narrative of the remarkable history of Barnet Burns, which first appeared in 1835. In it Burns recounted the events of his extraordinary and often dangerous life in New Zealand. It aroused widespread interest and was reprinted in several different towns, seemingly to coincide with Burns's lectures; the ninth and last reprint appeared in 1859. The book contains an appendix giving a partial vocabulary of the Māori language; in April 1836 Burns was said to have been engaged in assisting an unnamed person in the Isle of Wight to translate the Scriptures into Māori.
Burns originally intended to return to New Zealand. In March 1836 a relative, Thomas Morgan, opened a correspondence with Lords Palmerston and Glenelg at the Colonial Office. Burns had expressed a wish to communicate 'valuable information' about New Zealand to the government. He proposed the establishment of a small colony of artisans and tradesmen under his protection, and offered to supply the British government and merchants with timber and flax. What became of the suggestion is not known, but Burns later applied to go to New Zealand on the Tory. He died at Plymouth on 26 December 1860, aged 53.