The advancement of science was one of the major reasons for exploration. With the Age of Enlightenment, people wanted to discover, name and classify the flora and fauna of the whole world, which took them to far-off places such as Africa and South America to collect specimens. Among those who established themselves as discoverers was William John Burchell (1781-1863).
Burchell’s father was already in the business: as a botanist and owner of one of the most prestigious of London’s nurseries, his son had little choice but to become an apprentice at London’s botanical gardens in Kew. At the age of twenty-four he then sailed to the island of Saint Helena, in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, where he worked first as a trader, then became its schoolmaster and resident botanist.
Saint Helena has a pleasant climate, but being volcanic is largely barren and quite tiny. In 1810, Burchell expanded his horizons when he sailed to South Africa to explore and supply new species to wealthy British collectors.
In 1811, Burchell left the relative comfort of Cape Town on a four-year journey during which he collected over fifty thousand specimens, and covered over four thousand miles (7000 km) of largely unexplored land. This watercolour shows Liesbeck’s River, Cape Town, South Africa, which he painted on 9 March 1811. Although it may look deserted, in the far distance is a Dutch-style windmill (left) and several farms. Today known as the Liesbeek River, this short waterway is entirely urbanised, and flows from the slopes of Table Mountain, seen in the distance here, appropriately near Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.
A view more typical of this period shows his party Descending from the Snow Mountains, on 23 March 1812. This shows Sneeuberge between Middelburg and Graaff-Reinet, a botanically rich part of South Africa which must have provided Burchell with many exciting new species.
In addition to collecting specimens, he painted many botanical illustrations, including this showing Mahernia violacea = Hermannia violacea K. Schum., a mallow, from 19 May 1813. Most of these are now in the collections at Kew Gardens, London.
Burchell was also an amateur ethnographer, and took the time to record the peoples that he met, as in this Portrait of Speelman, a Hottentot from 1814. These peoples are known properly as the Khoikhoi, non-Bantu indigenous nomadic pastoralists who still populate parts of South Africa. These works were later published in his two-volume account of his Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa.
This engraving of William Burchell’s Ox-wagon (1822) shows one of the modes of transport he used in South Africa.
Following his return to Britain in 1815, he provided information to a select committee of parliament which was evaluating areas which were suitable for British emigrants. Five years later, about four thousand emigrants known as the 1820 Settlers went out to colonise the Eastern Cape area. Burchell then set about raising funds to carry out a similar expedition in South America.
In 1825, he left Britain for Brazil, where he spent the next five years amassing more specimens, covering an even wider range of fauna. In addition to botanical records which went to Kew, his large collection of insects was given to the Oxford University Museum.
Burchell’s drawing of Meia Ponte from 1827 is a panoramic view of what’s now the central Brazilian town of Pirenópolis, when it was little more than a bridge with a church and a few houses nearby.
His oil painting On the River, Near Santos, Brazil dates from 1835, though, by which time he had returned to Britain. It shows an area in the south-eastern part of the country which was developed rapidly with the coffee trade early in the twentieth century.
Like many explorers, Burchell didn’t take kindly to advancing years. In 1863, when he was into his eighties, he hanged himself in his garden shed.