Explorers 2. Sparrman

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 and a pinch of salt. Here’s short pen-sketch number two: Another Swede.

Anders Sparrman (1748 – 1820) – was a Swedish botanist, naturalist and abolitionist – and another of ‘the seventeen apostles’ of Carl Linnaeus.

He sailed for the Cape of Good Hope in January 1772 to take up a post as a tutor. When Captain Cook arrived there later in the HMS Resolution at the start of his second voyage, Sparrman was taken on as assistant naturalist to Johann and Georg Foster. After the voyage he returned to Cape Town in July 1775 and practiced medicine, earning enough to finance a nine-month journey to the eastern Cape. Traveling by horse and ox wagon and accompanied by a local guide, the young Daniel F. Immelman, he first went to the warm spring at present Caledon, where he ‘took the waters’ and collected for about a month. He then continued towards Mossel Bay and via Attaquas Kloof, near Robinson Pass to the Little Karoo, following the Langkloof eastwards to Algoa Bay. The furthest point they reached was on the Great Fish River near Cookhouse. His excavation of a stone mound in the Eastern Cape has been described as the first archaeological excavation in southern Africa.

– Sparrman reached 800km east of Cape Town (arrowed) –

His account of his travels in South Africa was published in English in 1785 as ‘A voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, towards the Antarctic polar circle, and round the world: But chiefly into the country of the Hottentots and Caffres, from the year 1772 to 1776.’ (2 volumes). It is regarded as the first personal account of extensive travels in the settled parts of the Cape of Good Hope and the first fairly accurate account of the territory and its natural history. He spoke of the local people having ‘a great quantity of cattle, and seemed to live very happily in their way. As soon as ever they had taken their cattle up from pasture they milked them; an occupation they inter­mixed with singing and dancing. We seldom see such happiness and contentment as seems to be indicated by this festive custom, in a handful of people totally uncultivated, in the midst of a perfect desert. . . we were received by them with a friendly simplicity and homely freedom, which by no means lessened them in our thoughts as men. They presented us with milk, and danced at our request; at the same time giving us to understand, that our fame, as being a singular people with plaited hair, as well as flower-collectors and viper-catchers, had reached them long before our arrival.’

He described much fauna and flora, including the aardwolf, the Greater Honeyguide, the African buffalo and the Essenhout tree which he named Ekebergia capensis after his sponsor Ekeberg.

– Ekebergia capensis – pic: Geoff Nichols –

Other naturalists named this bream and this grasshopper after him:

– grasshopper Lamarckiana sparrmanii and bream Tilapia sparrmanii

Sparrman was regarded as a competent and likeable person during his years of scientific activity, clever and steady, though a little prim. According to Per Wastberg, a lifelong admirer – who admittedly may have invented some of Sparrman’s traits in his ‘biographical novel’ – Sparrman adored life and the richness of nature and saw happiness in the native African population who lived in harmony with their surroundings. He saw how slavery was destroying the African people and – out of sync with his era – he was a staunch abolitionist, attending and speaking at Wilberforce’s London forums. He avoided the populist travelogues of the day which aimed to entertain people by promoting deceits such as the ‘savagery’ of the natives.

Despite his groundbreaking achievements scientifically, he died in poverty, a physician to the poor, forgotten and maligned by his peers and society.

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

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