William Burchell and St Helena

“The American Aloe on St Helena” 17th Feb 1807, including a self-portrait by William Burchell, from Burchell’s Travels [full ref at end]

St Helena is one of the most remote places on Earth, 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) east of Rio de Janeiro and  almost 2000 kilometres (1,210 miles) from the nearest bit of  the African coast.  It’s probably most famous for being Napoleon’s place of exile.  Until the weekly air service started in 2017 it took 6 days by boat to Cape Town, which you might think was a long time, until you consider that  it took the ex-emperor ten weeks to get there on a ship from Britain.

But it ought to be more famous for its extraordinary plant life, and probably would have been if it hadn’t all been driven to the extinction or the very verge of it by man…and his goats!

The first person to attempt an inventory of its natural history  was William Burchell, a Londoner, who emigrated there in the early 19thc and tried to establish a botanic garden, before moving on to South Africa and becoming  probably  “the most prolific collector of botanical and zoological specimens” the world had then known.

Burchell aged 19, from Burchell’s Travels

William John Burchell was born in Fulham, then a village on the outskirts of London, in 1781. His father, Matthew  is usually described as something like a well-to-do nurseryman with nine and a half acres of land adjacent to the gardens of Fulham Palace.  That’s actually a slight understatement of its importance.  The Fulham nursery  had been founded at the beginning of the 18thc  and amongst those who supplied it with plants were Philip Miller of Chelsea Physic Garden, Mark Catesby and Peter Collinson.  It seems that the nursery also managed to acquire a lot of the collection of Bishop Henry Compton, the botanist-bishop of London, on his death in 1713.

“The Gates of Fulham Palace”,  August 1797,  from Burchell’s Travels


Young William was sent to school in Mitcham, not that far away in Surrey and there is a surviving letter home written when he was 14 asking his father to send him a copy of Linnaeus. After school he went wandering around England and Wales, drawing and sketching anything that caught his interest, but even so it looked as if William was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps when he was apprenticed as a gardener at Kew.

As  early as 1803 he was elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society, having been proposed by a quartet of extremely eminent botanists  including Aylmer Lambert, one of the vice-presidents, Charles Koenig who worked for Joseph Banks and was to become keeper of the Natural History Collection at the  British Museum, Richard Salisbury who was secretary of London Horticultural Society, and William Maton, who founded the Linnaean Society Club.   This may have been through his father’s wide social network.

William took drawing lessons from James Merigot , author of The Amateur’s Portfolio (1815) who also taught Pugin, and John Claude Nattes , a prolific artist who wrote Natte’s Practical Geometry (1805).  Both were skilled technicians but also steeped in the theories of the picturesque. Quite a few of his early efforts survive and show his competence.  It’s also quite likely that he visited the newfangled Panorama in London and he obviously found this way of presenting landscape to be very appealing because he was to use such  all-encompassing vistas in his later work, drawing 360-degree views by using an “imaginary cylinder,” and perhaps even a camera lucida.

Burchell’s self-portrait on the outward voyage, 1805,  from Burchelll’s Travels

So you might be surprised to hear that, aged 24,  William  turned his back on all this and in 1805 in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars,  sailed to St Helena. Unfortunately his journal for these early years has been lost, so we do not know what precisely changed his mind but one might wonder why anyone would abandon an almost  guaranteed  comfortable  career and choose to go to what has been described as “a fragment from the wreck of an ancient world.”  It was not even a crown colony but a private island owned and run by the East India Company.

But apart from youthful wanderlust there was probably a sound economic reason behind Burchell’s choice. Remote as it was St Helena was a staging point for ships bound for/from the Cape, India and China, and it was thought there might be rich pickings for those who could sell them essential supplies en route. He went into partnership with William Balcombe, a London merchant with links to the East India Company, and off they set.

On the way the ship called at Madeira and Burchell took the opportunity to go plant hunting. He collected herbarium specimens of several plants which he noted carefully in his unpublished Memoranda Botanica, but when he came to organize them properly on his arrival in St Helena in Dec 1805 he noticed some seeds on one of them and decided to try and add them to the island’s ecology…

What he did  was to undermine Sir Joseph Banks’ comments that “secluded as this rock is from the rest of the world by seas of immense extent it is difficult to imagine how anything not originally created in that spot could, by accident, arrive at it.”

Unfortunately the business partnership did not work out and by June 1806 he was writing home saying he was sick and tired of the anxiety of working with Balcombe and trying to make a profit. [Balcombe eventually left too and later became Treasurer of New South Wales].

At this point as St Helena only had a population of about 2500 [including 900 military, and over a thousand slaves] there wasn’t an enormous job market. So when  an opportunity arose to become the assistant schoolmaster William grabbed it only to discover that he hated teaching.  It was “so disagreeable a duty…one of the most opposite to my inclinations” but he had to earn a living and so stuck it out until June 1809.

Nor was St Helena  a very sociable place. Jamestown only boasted 28 houses and,  apart from the military, the rest of the population was scattered widely, across the mountainous terrain, so as a visitor in 1815 remarked: To strangers they appear to associate very little together.”   However “what lively interest is excited by the appearance of any ship!…and the arrival of the homeward bound Indiamen is the greatest event of the year : it fills the whole settlement with alacrity and joy : they quit their gardens, flock to James Town, open their houses for the accommodation of the passengers, and entertain them with plays, dances, and concerts.”


When St Helena was first discovered in 1502 by the Portuguese it was uninhabited, but green and verdant with an abundance of trees and fresh water.  An English colony was established in the 17thc but the introduction of livestock, especially goats, and wide-scale deforestation for timber and fuel, led to ecological disaster with massive amounts of soil erosion and the destruction of virtually all the original vegetation. It’s estimated that only 1% remains intact.

Worse still little is known about what it was like whilst only 49 endemic species have been identified, mostly in small numbers.  Joseph Banks was  also  concerned about the low rainfall levels on St Helena [only 7″ a year in Jamestown] and the possibility of repeated or even continuous  drought hitting this vital stopover on the global trade and travel route which might have rendered the island virtually uninhabitable.   He managed to persuade the EIC to begin an re-afforestation programme which began to take effect in the early years of the 19thc ie just as Burchell arrived.  

Unfortunately this was done largely with non-native species. The then governor Colonel Robert Patton planted thousands of seedlings of Pinus pinaster, a Mediterranean native,  which by the time of Governor Alexander Beatson were ready for thinning.   Beatson continued the planting programme enthusiastically, according to his Tracts Relative to the Island of St Helena of 1816, distributing about 11,000 saplings during 1811-12 alone.  

Beatson also instigated  a campaign to bring the ‘naturalized’ goats under control.

[For more on this see Richard Grove, “The Island and Environmentalism” in Nature and Society in Historical Contextedited by Mikulas Teich, Roy Porter, Bo Gustafsson 1993]  

aerial shot from Google Earth

So it’s against that background that we should see Governor Patton’s  suggestion to Burchell that he might like to set up a botanic garden further up the steep-sided valley & past the main settlement.

Patton recommended the  appointment of “the modest and unassuming”  Burchell as superintendent to the East India Company, and he was duly appointed “Naturalist” to the Company.  He was also appointed official schoolmaster.  After some delay and prevarication on the Company’s behalf  he was offered a salary of £250pa and the possibility of a house and land for further experiments.  This was  increased to £300 in 1809.


There was already a garden in Jamestown, between the church and the Castle. Officially called Government Gardens they dated back to 1787. However according to Lieutenant Pocock who visited in 1815 they were run “merely for pleasure” and were “small, and much neglected.”

In theory they also acted as a  temporary base  for plants being transported across the globe,  especially those being taken to Europe by ships returning from the Orient, in much the same way as the Dutch had established gardens at the Cape. What they did not do was take any great interest in the island’s indigenous plants.  When Burchell arrived on the scene they were in the hands of a Mr Porteous who also ran the gardens at Plantation House, the governor’s new residence, as well as keeping the meteorological records and reporting on agriculture and crops on the island.

Burchell’s first planting at the new garden took place in March 1807 and the following month he received an unexpected boost.




The gardens were already well enough known get a brief mention in Brooke’s 1808 History of St Helena.

So with a new botanic garden in his control Burchell started work on a proposed Flora for the island and one might have thought he would have settled down and been content, but unfortunately there was another change of fortune. Governor Patton was recalled in May 1807 and  replaced as Governor by Lt-Col Lane who was a far less sympathetic character, at least horticulturally.

Despite Burchell’s protestations holes were dug and vines planted, and the dispute with Lee rumbled on and on.  During this time Burchell was, according to his diary, considering a move to Tristan da Cunha – which was even more remote and  completely uninhabited. However he was waiting for the arrival of his fiancee, Lucia Green,  from England and did nothing precipitate.  Perhaps he should have done because when she arrived on the island  in 1807 she announced that wasn’t going to marry him after all but  the captain of the ship that she had sailed on!


He was despondent, to put it mildly, and as far as one can tell had no more romantic attachments in his long life. He certainly did not marry.

Instead he turned his attention wholly to collecting and cataloguing plants. His notes and sketches are now in the archives at Kew, and many are viewable on-line.

Although he never published his Flora Helenica, one of his botanizing companions, Captain Barnes helped Dr William Roxburgh, superintendent of Calcutta Botanic Gardens,  compile a list of plants seen on the island. This was included by Governor Beatson as an   appendix to his Tracts.   What it shows most notably is the large number of European plants that had been introduced, not just food crops but ornamentals.

Psoralea pinnata (gobblygheer) 1809 from Burchell’s Travels

Once the new garden was in place Burchell began to network, with seeds and bulbs sent, exchanged and forwarded. For example in the spring of 1808

It was soon followed by a parcel of 67 succulent plants from the same source. The traffic was not all one-way. In 1807 he despatched “a small box of mould containing three capsules of Barringtonia for Kew Gardens, together with instructions for the management of it.”  He had collected these seeds from the tree planted by Captain Cook on his way home in 1774.

Eventually Colonel Lane was replaced as Governor by Alexander Beatson who was interested in improving the island’s almost  non-existent agriculture and who became a fervent supporter of afforestation.  Although much more sympathetic initially than Lane he was a utilitarian and really only interested in the economic possibilities of the island rather than any great scientific interest in plants.   So he too clashed with Burchell. Beatson Tracts only mentions the Botanic garden because “its object has been frustrated” so he commandeered part of the ground for experimenting with crops from India and Nepal. For his part Burchell complained that the Botanic Garden was falling into ruin “owing to the little notice and support it receives from the present Government.”

View of Diana’s Ridge, from the summit of Sugar Loaf
8th December 1807, Kew










The constant stream of passing ships kept bringing visitors – many encouraged Burchell to continue his botanical experiments and several influential ones suggested he consider moving to another colony.  He was told that both Bengal and Ceylon needed keen naturalists/botanists/horticulturalists   But he also met people who told him about the Cape. These included Jan Willem Janssens, the last Dutch Governor there who was ousted when the  British seized control from the Dutch  in 1806.  Janssens  was taken back to Europe – via St Helena.  Burchell obviously met him – pretty difficult not to really given the tiny population and size of the island – and heard about the richness of the Cape’s flora.

So when  an invitation came in 1810 from Lord Caledon, the newly installed British Governor to become Botanist to Cape Colony,  Burchell doesn’t seem to have hesitated much. He sent his herbarium specimens back to Britain before handing over the fledgling botanic garden to Dr Baildon, the medical superintendent of the island, although he had to identify many of the plants for him.  In particular he asked Baildon to keep a watchful eye on a “Malay Walnut” tree that was the first he had planted as he “wished it to flourish  as a memorial of me at St Helena.”  Hardly had Burchell left than much of the garden was turned over for the cultivation of a particular cactus which was host to the cochineal beetle.  The tree, however, survived that and  flourish until 1900 when the government wanted to expand the barracks that adjoined the botanic garden, and felled all the trees on the site.

Finally On 16th October 1810 Burchell embarked on the Harriet, an American brig bound for Cape Town…and wrote: “Soon afterwards it became dark, and the town of St Helena was seen for the last time. Here let me pause. First to reflect on the past and then to turn my view to a brighter prospect. I think I can discern it on the distant horizon. I hope. I go.”

The best and most easily accessible source for more info is Susan Buchanan, Burchell’s Travels, published by Penguin South Africa in 2015 which draws on the Burchell material in Museum Africa in Johannesburg as well material at Kew.

Other good sources are:William Burchell on St Helena 1805-1810, Robin Castell, 2011;   “William John Burchell Botanist: Part 1: Burchell in St Helena”, Helen McKay, The Journal of South African Botany, vol.7 1941 pp1-18;  “W. J. Burchell and the botany of St Helena”, W J. Cronk, Archives of Natural History, Jul 2010, vol. 15, No. 1 : pp. 45-60; “On the Flora of St. Helena”, W. B. Turrill, Kew Bulletin Vol. 3, No. 3 (1948), pp. 358-362 ; “The Past and Present Vegetation of St Helena”, Q. C. B. Cronk,  Journal of Biogeography Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jan., 1989), pp. 47-64; Forestry Development on the Island of St Helena, A.R.Barlow, The Commonwealth Forestry Review Vol. 68, No. 1 (214) (March 1989), pp. 57-68

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2 Responses to William Burchell and St Helena

  1. cbholganza says:

    fascinating. indeed, we owe much to foresighted men like burchell.

  2. tonytomeo says:

    That American aloe in the first picture looks more like an American agave of some sort, although It does not look like the common Agave americana.

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