Explorers 1. Thunberg

I often think ‘I wonder what it was like here before we spoilt it’ as I travel around Southern Africa. I especially would love to have seen the open grasslands, one of the habitats we have changed the most.

So whenever I can I read the early explorers’ accounts with great interest. As a fellow explorer, I decided to write a short pen-sketch on some of them. Pinch of salt, of course, as I add my own non-expert comment and my ‘kind and knowledgeable locals’ bias. My theory: Despite their tales of derring-do and how ‘they did it all by themselves’, they – like us centuries later – were visitors, shown around by local people who knew what they were doing.

Carl Pehr Thunberg (1743 – 1828) – was a Swedish naturalist and one of ‘the seventeen apostles’ of Carl Linnaeus. He has been called ‘The Father of South African Botany.’ He went to the Cape in 1771, undertaking field trips and journeys into the interior to the north of Saldanha Bay, east along the Breede River Valley through the Langkloof as far as the Gamtoos River and returning by way of the Little Karoo. Local guide JA Auge showed them the way.

In the Cape, Thunberg met fellow Swede Anders Sparrman and Francis Masson, a Scots gardener sent to Cape Town to collect plants for the Royal Gardens at Kew. They were immediately drawn together by their shared interests. During one of their trips, on which I suspect they will have been accompanied by kind and knowledgeable local people, they were joined by Dutchman Robert Jacob Gordon, a soldier on leave from his regiment in the Netherlands. Thunberg and Masson undertook two further inland expeditions: To the Eastern Cape as far as the Sundays River, and to the Roggeveld. In the Knysna forest a buffalo – was it wounded? – gored and killed two of their horses. Thunberg collected a significant number of specimens of both flora and fauna. He was the first professional botanist who personally made extensive collections of South African plants and studied them at first hand. During his three year stay at the Cape he climbed Table Mountain fifteen times and collected over 3000 plant species, of which more than 1000 were new to science.

Thunberg Cape map
– Thunberg’s travels up to 600km east of Cape Town (yellow arrow) –

The beautiful flower Black-Eyed Susan – our feature picture – is named Thunbergia alata after our first traveler / explorer / collector.

Although he was actually the first private visitor to travel far into the interior, he was slow to print, and his account of his travels was published after those of Francis Masson and Anders Sparrman.

Thunberg donated his extensive natural history collections to Uppsala University, Museum of Evolution and Zoological Museum: 27 500 plant specimens, 25 000 insects, 6 000 molluscs and shells, 1 200 birds and 300 mammals.

In his book ‘Travels at the Cape of Good Hope 1772 – 1775’ he wrote: ‘Roads, that can be properly so called, are not to be found in all this southern part of Africa; yet the way which people in general take, when they travel, is pretty well beaten in the neighbourhood of the Cape; farther down in the country indeed, very often not the least vestige of a road appears. Therefore in plains that are either very extensive, or covered with bush, it may easily happen that a traveller shall lose his way; so that he ought to be well acquainted with, and accurately observe the marks, by which he may get into the right road again. He must see then whether there be any sheep’s dung in the fields, which shews that there is a farm-house in the vicinity; and likewise, whether he can discover any herds of cattle grazing, or any cultivated land.’ No drought in the Cape during his travels: ‘Almost every day we were wet to the skin, in consequence of deluging showers of rain, which were sometimes accompanied with thunder.’

Thunberg was regarded as a generous person who cared deeply for others. He became famous and honoured the world over in his own lifetime. He was a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences for 56 years, serving as president in 1784. In 1785 the Swedish king honoured him as a Knight of the Royal Order of Vasa. This meant he got to wear a distinctive green and white habit on formal occasions, with green breeches, a white sash with a gold fringe around the waist, a black top hat with gold hat band and a plume of white ostrich and and black egret feathers and a pair of green boots with gilded spurs. All my life . . . He married Brigitta C. Ruda and they adopted a son and a daughter – ah, a good man; he never wore this kit in front of the children. He succeeded the younger Linnaeus as professor of medicine and botany at the University of Uppsala , a post he held to his death, when he got buried in his top hat. I confess I don’t know if that is true about the top hat or scaring the children.


wikipedia; vanriebeecksociety.co.za; s2a3.org.za;

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