Burchell in Brazil

“Morenia Pöppigiana”
from von Martius Historia naturalis palmarum [1824-1850]

Two recent posts have looked at the plant collecting and travels of William Burchell in  St Helena and his more famous trek across South Africa.  Today’s looks at the rest of his long life and especially his long plant hunting  trip to Brazil.

Burchell had returned to Britain from South Africa in 1815 still aged only 35 and was feted by all the leading botanists of the day, including William Hooker, then the first Professor of Botany at Glasgow University and later the first director of Kew.  He couldn’t have run the family nursery, even had he wanted to, because his father had leased the land and business to another nurseryman. What was he to do?

It took him ten years to decide, and it was to lead to another extraordinary journey and an even greater collection of botanical and natural history specimens than he had made in South Africa. The Dictionary of National Biography is laudatory:  “His work as a Naturalist has never been equalled … his objective, detailed annotation and brilliant appreciation of nature set science a goal seldom achieved.”

Unfortunately Burchell’s journals for this expedition do not survive and although there are about 200 of his Brazilian sketches and paintings  in Museum Africa in Johannesburg they have not  not been digitised or, for the most part, even published. This has meant I am using images from other contemporary sources, which made me realise quite how many Europeans went to Brazil in this period.

Churchfields shortly before its demolition in 1898. It had been refaced in the years after Burchell’s death in 1863

Of course Burchell did other things while he was waiting. The family home, Churchfields, next door to the nursery, had a garden and William began there, trying to grow some of the 2000 sorts of seeds and 276 species of bulbs that he had bought back from the Cape. He obviously also needed to  catalogue the rest of the vast collection of 60,000+ specimens. and decide what to do with it. And of course he could turn the daily journal he had kept on his South African trek into a readable book.

He started  writing in 1819, the first volume appearing in 1822 and the second in 1824. Work may well have started on a third when a last-minute opportunity arose that Burchell, who, at the age of 44, clearly still had itchy feet,  could not refuse.

No-one seems to know how or why, but Burchell was asked [or found a way] to accompany Sir Charles Stuart who was travelling as Britain’s  Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Portugal and Brazil.  It meant that all diplomatic niceties of papers and permissions to travel were sorted but without any  official duties so he could go where he liked and  collect as much as he wanted.

At this point there must be a short aside to explain why Sir Charles was being sent to Portugal and its huge South American colony.  The Napoleonic Wars had devastated much of Portugal and the Portuguese  royal family had fled to Brazil.  This resulted in an opening up of Brazil’s ports  to European commerce. The King, John VI, did not return to Europe until 1820 and when he did he left his son Dom Pedro as Regent.  It didn’t take long for Pedro to declare independence and he was proclaimed Emperor of Brazil in 1822. His father was not happy. Sir Charles was sent to persuade our oldest ally to accept reality and then to go to Rio and persuade the new regime to continue these  new and open commercial links between Britain and Brazil.

Unlike his previous adventures  in southern Africa Burchell was far from unique in wanting to go to Brazil.  The lure of the immense and largely unknown country, especially its interior, had led to a series  of other European plant hunters to  go out in the previous couple of decades.

These included Allan Cunningham and James Bowie who were sent sent by Joseph Banks,  as well as Burchell’s great friend William Swainson. Banks and Aylmer had also sponsored Friedrich Sellow in 1814.   The French botanist Augustin Sainte-Hilaire spent six years in Brazil between 1816 and 1822 collecting 24,000 plants on his travels, as well as many other natural history specimens and writing this up in several books.   John Forbes had visited in 1822 on his way to Africa, and encountered the Russian consul, Georg von Langsdorff  who was organising a scientific expedition to the interior.  There were also a major Austrian expedition led by Carl Friedrich von Martius  accompanied by 14 natural scientists and botanist including  Johann Baptist von Spix  and Johann Pohl , and two artists, which aimed to carry out a comprehensive study of the country’s flora, fauna, resources and culture. It  accompanied  the Archduchess Maria Leopoldina of Austria on her way to be married Dom Pedro. A little later  Maria Graham,  the wife of a British  naval officer and a knowledgeable plantswoman also collected and wrote about Brazil and its plants, after she became governess to the royal children. [She will be subject of another post soon.]


The mission left in March 1825 for Lisbon where they remained for two months. While Sir Charles did diplomatic business Burchell took lessons in Portuguese but also botanised in the country around about the city, sketching as he went.   Then sailing   via Madeira and Tenerife, they finally reached Rio in July 1825.

Panorama of Rio de Janeiro,  1849 by Edward Gennys Fanshawe, 
Royal Museums Greenwich

Burchell’s plan had originally been to proceed overland from Rio to Peru, and then to make his way south again to Buenos Aires, but by the time the embassy arrived they found Brazil  at war with Argentina over Uruguay which made travelling slightly more complicated [to put it mildly.]  Even with Sir Charles helping getting permission  proved difficult.

While he waited – and waited –  Burchell  concentrated on  improving his Portuguese and preparing for his exploration, including commissioning a special tent to be made – 11feet long, 8 wide at the bottom and 8 high in the centre.



Sir Charles concluded the commercial agreement in November 1825 and returned to Britain in May 1826  but still Burchell waited for permission. It was not until September that year that he was able to leave Rio with the necessary paperwork  to cross the interior provinces of the country into Peru.

Unfortunately Burchell did not publish an account of his travels but he did leave a series of notebooks now in Kew which contain a very detailed herbarium specimen list with notes on when and where things had been collected. This was analysed in 1967 in Phytologia and as a result  his  itinerary can be mapped accurately.

Burchell began by sailing south  to Santos where he stayed for 3 months before moving on to a hut in the Cubatao mountains for another 3. By the time he left there for São Paulo he had already reached no. 4,626 in his herbarium listing.

Seven months in São Paulo where he rented a house for 6 shillings a month, was spent organizing mules and porters to assist him on the journey through “unexplored ground with respect to Science, for only one or two collectors have visited it and these have not yet published any account.”

There were few roads and he had to travel rough to reaching the interior town of Goias – the first Englishman to get there – and where once again he had to stop for several months this  time for the rainy season. By now his herbarium had reached 7063 specimens. But it was at Goias that his plans had to change.  He received letters from Fulham informing him that his father was ill  and “naturally declining”   and wishing that he would return home.  Easier said than done.

The idea of Peru would have to wait but how to get home? It was either turn round and retrace his steps or push on to the rivers of the Amazon catchment, find a way of going down one to the mouth and hope for a ship home from Para [now Belem], the gateway to the whole Amazon region. Neither was going to be quick but he decided on river travel to Para perhaps because he knew that the route was unknown to science. He was also the first English person to attempt the journey. From Goias he set off to reach  Porto Nacional on the  Rio Tocantins, but found when he got there in November 1828 he had to wait another 5 months before the river was considered safe enough to navigate because of its “rocky falls, rapids and whirlpools.”   So it was not until June 1829 before he finally reached Para only to discover his father had died almost a year earlier. He then had to wait until February  for a passage back to Britain.

From Travels in Brazil in the years 1815, 1816, 1817  by
Prinz Maximilian von Weid


There were of course some upsides to all these  long stopovers. Each  “added largely to my collections both in zoology and botany” and boxes of specimens were sent back whenever the opportunity arose.

His letters back to Britain  tell of his excitement.  Even soon after his arrival he wrote: “As to the botanical riches of this country (at least what little I have hitherto seen) you cannot form an an adequate idea, even though you pictured to yourself all the fine plants of our hothouses growing wild and furnishing the hills and valleys with their utmost luxuriance. At the Cape of Good Hope you are walking in a richly stored greenhouse: here you walk into one of the great hothouses of nature…”

Burchell finally reached Fulham again in March 1830 to find that he now had heavy family and business responsibilities. He was his father’s executor and also the executor of Robert Salisbury the botanist who had proposed him for membership of the Linnaean Society. The whole experience made him depressed.  And there was more on the same lines.

His collection of Brazilian specimens was enormous.  In something of a minor miracle all his boxes of specimens  miraculously arrived back safely  unlike those of many other plant hunters. He wrote to William Hooker on his return telling him that he hoped “the time will soon come, when I may enter on the great and interesting task of arranging my collections, for I now possess 15,000 species of plant, all gathered with my own hand in their natural places of growth”. There was just one problem. Churchfields though a substantial house was not so large that he could unpack, sort and store everything.  He thought about moving or extending the house but couldn’t afford to do it. Nor could he afford Hooker’s suggestion of employing a librarian/archivist/assistant to take on much of the work.


Inertia set in. He wrote to his best friend and fellow botanist William Swainson, “What have I travelled and laboured so hard for? Only to sit still in years of inactivity to grieve at the sight of my unpacked boxes.” There were 132 parcels in the  herbarium collection alone, and he didn’t look at them properly for the next 17 years. Working through them, re-labelling and writing up catalogue entries, at the rate of between 3 and 35 a day  then took him 3 years.

The saddest result of all this was no publication and thus no dissemination of the knowledge of what he had found. Nevertheless in 1832 he was elected a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and in 1834  awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University in recognition of his work. This was in part due to the acceptance of botany as a scientific subject at long last.

But family concerns, financial and health matters slowly took their toll. His mother died in 1841 and William Swainson emigrated to Tasmania the same year.  Burchell’s depression increased and he seems to have lost the emotional strength and resilience he must have shown on his travels. He did no more exploration, and little more plant hunting after this, although he did travel in Europe with his sister, to meet taxonomists and  botanists including A P de Candolle, in Geneva, Adrien-Henri de Jussieu in Paris and  Carl Meissner in Basle.

But  the depression  did not go away and finally in March 1863 he tried to shoot himself, and when this failed he went into an outhouse and hanged himself.  An inquest declared this  was because of “temporary insanity”  but it still meant that he was denied church burial, a terrible thing for someone as staunchly religious as Burchell . However that ban was overturned  and he was interred in the family tomb in the churchyard in Fulham All Saints.

Burchell in 1854

After his death, his sister Anna gave his plant specimens, drawings and manuscripts to Kew and his insect collection  to Oxford University Museum.

Despite the Dictionary of National Biography ‘s praise spelled out in the opening paragraphs of the post, Burchell ended up being overlooked during his later life with his friend William Swainson, claiming as early as 1840,  that “science must ever regret that one whose powers of mind were so varied … was so signally neglected in his own country.”

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