Burchell at the Cape

The last post looked at William Burchell, the son of a London nurseryman who after emigrating to St Helena in 1805, began the process of cataloguing its flora and fauna and setting up a botanic garden. Frustrated by the attitude of successive governors to his work  in 1810, he decided to leave to following an offer to become the botanist in Britain’s newly acquired colony at the Cape of Good Hope.

Even though the job didn’t in the end materialise, Burchell was to remain there for 5 years and wrote up his extensive journeys  in Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa, published in 1822-24,  a readable and detailed account of his 4,500 miles of  exploration and collecting. Apart from giving”a faithful picture of occurrences and observations… even to the minutest particular” on every aspect of life, it is illustrated with his lively sketches and watercolours.

Burchell  was, unlike many other plants hunters, not answerable to  any organization or private patron so he could  explore study and collect wherever, whatever and however he liked, and in the process he made an extraordinary contribution to science, and botany in particular.

Burchell  reached  Cape Town in November 1810, and was soon impressed by “the elegant style of architecture, regularity and cleanness” of the settlement, and its social and cultural life. However, within a couple of days he was out exploring the immediate hinterland noting  that “as soon as we had passed the houses my attention …was entirely engrossed by the rich and wonderful variety of plants that grew in every spot…[and] I recognized some well-known flowers which I had seen nursed with great care in the green-houses of England.”

At the foot of Table Mountain

What surprised him most was  that no-one was really interested in growing these things in their gardens. “It may naturally be supposed that in a  country abounding with most beautiful plants and flowers the gardens of the inhabitants contain a great number of its choicest productions..but such is the perverse nature of man’s judgement , that whatever is distant, scarce, and difficult to be obtained, is always preferred to that within his reach and that is abundant or maybe procured with ease, however beautiful it maybe…Those who wished to show me their taste in horticulture, felt a pride in exhibiting carnations, hollyhocks, balsamines, tulips and hyacinths; while they viewed all the elegant production of their hills as mere weeds.”

He climbed Table Mountain, collecting 51 species on the ascent and 97 more on the summit  and remarking that “the view looking downwards … is awful and singularly grand.” Even the fire that they cooked breakfast on was noted botanically: it “blazed with the fuel of Cliffortia ruscifolia, Mimetes hartogii, and Aulax pinifolia.”

After some short trips in the immediate vicinity of Cape Town he finally left for the interior in June 1811 ‘with a mind free from prejudice’ and ‘solely for the purpose of acquiring knowledge. That sounds straightforward  but in reality it was an extraordinary feat. His intention was, he wrote, to attempt to visit “the less frequented or unknown parts” and this meant travelling across extremely inhospitable and even dangerous country in a wagon  or horseback, taking a large number of servants.

An expedition a couple of years earlier had disappeared and more than 20 people and their 4 wagons were assumed dead. One result of this was that  it was hard to recruit servants, indeed the last ones were only hired on the day he left  and often during his journey found himself unable to proceed where he wanted because of “the fears and unwillingness of his men to venture further.” But to help him communicate he amde great efforts to learn Dutch which was then the  lingua franca of the Cape.

Burchell built his own wagon, following local patterns which were “admirably well adapted for rough and uneven roads” – that is where there even were roads. It was loaded with gifts, and goods  for barter as well as clothes, fishing tackle, medicines, 50 books, water casks, ams and ammunition, stationary and art materials..and “a multitude of other things”, including a union flag.

Burchell’s pianting of his collecting wagon. The sketching took him four days and the painting 27, in total 120 hours. He says he started on 12 February 1820 drawing the tortoise, elephant tooth and hippopotamus tusk, and two days later drew the press screws, memorandum book, flute and shell. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy later that year.  Oxford Museum of Natural History

Cape Colony was not uninhabited or completely unknown territory, apart from the indigenous people there were only a handful of Dutch settlements and isolated farmsteads  scattered across the more fertile areas  but it was poorly mapped, there were very few roads and large sectors, especially those off those few roads, were arid semi-desert or extremely mountainous and had remained unexplored by Europeans.  On several occasions its clear that Burchell was the first European to visit.

He spent most of the next 4 years or so on the road on a long triangular route, and kept notebooks as he travelled, writing them up every night in his wagon. When he was choosing material for the  Travels he kept the text easy-flowing and readable by adding lots of footnotes and  a boatnicl and zoological index. He always used indigenous languages arguing that “the aboriginal Hottentot names ought, on no account, be aletrered; they should on the contrary, rather be sought for and adopted, as being far more appropriate to Southern Africa, than a multitude of foolish names of modern imposition.” Any Englsih alternatives were added in brackets.  It was a reflection of his interest in the cultures and views of every group he met:  “the Boors must be heard, the Hottentots must be heard, amd the slaves must be heard.” Rare sentiments at the time.

The trek began  by heading north east to the tiny Dutch settlement of Tulbagh, then through the Karoo and the Roggeveld plateau, both virtually uninhabited  to the then borders of the colony.


Crossing over [no passports or customs controls!] he became the first recorded European explorer to travel through  land occupied by Bushmen [now the San people], until he  reached a mission station founded in 1805 at Klaarwater [(meaning “the end of water” in Afrikaans & now Griekwastad in Northern Cape ] in October 1811 some 4 months and 875 km  after he set out.

He had imagined Klaarwater as “a picturesque spot surrounded by trees and gardens with a river running through a neat village where  a tall church stood, a distant beacon to mark that Christianity had advanced thus far into the wilds of Africa.” It took one glance to convince him “how false may often times be the notions which men form of what they have not seen.”  The land was arid and an  “open, bare and exposed place” ,with just  a few simple reed huts, and a church that was little better.

This grave disappointment was a minor consideration set against  the dangers of crossing flooded rivers and precipitous mountains,  intense physical discomfort and hardship, constant risk of hunger and thirst,  wild beasts, snakes and insects, accidents, illness and extreme weather all of which are described and illustrated in the Travels.


Descent from the Snow Mountains

Despite his disapppointment He based himself at Klaarwater for some four months, travelling around from there, before heading further north to Litakun [now Dithakong] capital of the Tswana people and a settlement the same size as CapeTown.

After two more months began his return journey by an even longer route.  Unfortunately the book only covers the time up until his departure from Litakun although additional volumes were almost ceratinly planned. Howveer, the manuscripts, if they existed, have not been found but his drawinds and field notes did survive, and  luckily he also published  an accurate  map of his travels.”

These all show, that he turned back  south eastwards, towards the  coastal border of the colony, and then turned west following what is now known as the Garden Route to Cape Town.

He reached there in April 1815.

The last third of this trip, some 800km, running parallel to the coast, took him 14 months, and almost half that time  was spent on one comparatively short stretch.  The slow progress was beacsue it the richest collecting ground imaginable. It was just 3% of his total trek distance, but took 15% of the time and produced about 40% – nearly 21,000 – of his botanical specimens .  One side effect of this is that are fewer sketches or paintings of this section of his travels, presumably because he was too busy dealing with identifying, labelling and preserving the specimens

Burchell’s system of collecting and recording plants is so extensive and precise that we know the exact place site where every plant was collected. As Kevin Davie commented after he cycled along a large part of Burchell’s route on its bicentenary: “In the age of climate change and the destruction of habitat and species, he has given us a unique record from 200 years ago. A rare gift indeed.”

The young Burchell – still only 30 when he started out –  has been hailed as “surely one of the first ecologists…he gave enumerations of the plants from various localities exhibiting the geographical and local associations” [Hutchinson,  A botanist in southern Africa,1946; p. 625.]

“In this arid country, where every juicy vegetable would soon be eaten up by the wild animals, the Great Creating Power, with all-provident wisdom, has given to such plants either an acrid or poisonous juice, or sharp thorns, to preserve the species from annihilation in those regions, where, good and wise purposes, they have been placed.

“The harmony which pervades every part of the universe, is not less wonderful and beautiful in the distribution of animals and vegetables over the face of the globe, than in the planetary system, and in the sublime arrangements of myriads of worlds throughout the inconceivable infinity of space.

“In the wide system of created objects, nothing is wanting, nothing is superfluous: the smallest weed or insect is as indispensably necessary to the general good: as the largest object we behold. Each has its peculiar part to perform, conducive ultimately to the well-being of all.”

This all bears a striking parallels  with the ways that Charles Darwin was beginning to think, although what Burchell ascribed to God, Darwin was to ascribe to time and eventually evolution. Perhaps it’s not surprising then to discover that the two were in touch, and its thought that Darwin took a copy of  Travels with him on the Beagle in 1831. Burchell was also invited  to the first public talks intended to begin publicising the new thinking that was the theory of evolution.

Although Burchell was not the first major plant hunter in South Africa, he actually visited 10 of its 11 biomes [not that he would have known!] and  disco ered more than anyone else, before or since. Furthermore he has to be  the founding father of the country’s botanical classification. His  14 volume manuscript Catalogus Geographicus Plantarum Africae Australis Extratropicae, which lists  all the plants he found according to place and date of collection. Burchellia bubalina,  a kind of wild pomegranate has been named in his honour.

But Burchell was more than just a great botanist. He was interested in every branch of natural history and several creatures are named after him including Burchell’s zebra, Burchell’s coucal, Burchell’s starling, Burchell’s grouse, Burchell’s sand lizard, and even the white rhinoceros  to which Burchell gave the  scientific name is sometimes called Burchell’s rhinoceros.

He made important observations in the earth sciences during the expedition too. being the first to record geological features such as glacial pavements, and the presence of asbestos deposits. He also was the first person recorded to draw on indigenous medical knowledge to treat an injury.

He contributed greatly to the mapping of the Cape. The large fold-out map in Travels was a carefully reduced version of the enormous  map he drew up on his return in 1815 which stretched to approximately 7 ½ feet by 8 ½ feet (2.9m x 3.3m). He also notes astronomical data, and was the first person recorded to draw on indigenous medical knowledge to treat an injury.

He also recommended the establishment of a public garden in Cape Town, and must have gifted with the gift of prophesy because  Kirstenbosch which he described “the most picturesque I had seen in the vicinity.” was eventually chosen as the site for the country’s botanic garden  almost 200 years later in 1913.

Burchell left for Britain in August 1815 with 48 crates of specimens – over 63,000 items in all – including plants, animal skins, skeletons, insects, seeds, bulbs and fish. He called in at St. Helena on the way before finally reaching London  in November 1815.  The finest of his natural history collections were donated to the British Museum, but  many were damaged  in storage there which led to an acrimonious  dispute between Burchell and the  museum’s authorities. As a result  the keeper famously named Burchell’s zebra Asinus burchelli (Asinus is from the Latin, meaning ass or fool).

Given that few Europeans had travelled extensively in South Africa, and none for as long, Burchell’s knowledge and experience was drawn upon by Parliament.  With the great increase in Britain’s population and the need to populate the empty new colonies such as Australia, Canada and South Africa  there was a considerable encouragement for emigration and a select committee persuaded him to write a pamphlet extolling the virtues of migration to the Cape: The following year 4000 or so settlers, mainly poor known as the  1820 Settlers left for Cape Colony.

You might have thought that after all this Burchell  would have sat back on his laurels, but like Francis Masson his fellow collector in South Africa he obviously got itchy feet, and like Masson instead of returning to the Cape he opted for the New World.

More of that in another post soon



About The Gardens Trust

Email - education@thegardenstrust.org Website - www.thegardenstrust.org
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Burchell at the Cape

  1. Ann Mackay says:

    Burchell’s starling is extraordinarily beautiful – what an amazing sight that must have been for him!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.