Explorers 8. Burchell

I’m exploring the explorers who were lucky enough to see ‘Africa In The Earlies.’ Before the anthropocene. Before plastic. This guy is one of the best. I mean, just look at his wagon! It even beats my kombi! And my 1975 Bushman Tracker1 Off-Road trailer!

William John Burchell (1781-1863) – naturalist and explorer, was the son of a botanist and proprietor of Fulham Nursery, London. At the exceptionally young age of 23 he was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London on the basis of his reputation as a botanist.

Two years later he became the (English) East India Company’s naturalist on the island of St Helena. One of his tasks was to develop a botanic garden where plants from the Far East could recover on their way to England. He did botanical surveys of the island, collected and sketched its flora, studied its geology, and collected insects. In 1810, following interference in his plans for the development of the botanic garden by a new acting governor, he resigned his post and sailed for the Cape.

There, he collected plants in Cape Town and on trips to Tulbagh and Caledon. He learned some Dutch and made preparations for traveling, including having a wagon made to his specifications.

It had to accommodate fifty scientific reference books, his flute, his drawing materials, his bed, his specimen boxes, his work desk, rifles and ammunition, a medicine kit, and items like snuff and beads to give as gifts. He ‘painted his wagon’ on the trail – this impressive picture, he wrote, took him twenty seven days to complete, in total 120 hours of work! I think it’s superb! MY kind of picture!

– find the muscadel, the geometric tortoise and his telescope –
– and I’m going to get me a bigger book box! – look at his! –

In June 1811 he left for Klaarwater (now Griquatown) in the company of some missionaries, whose station he would use as a base. From there he traveled with Khoi guides for almost four years and 7000 km. Burchell was a humanist who firmly believed that ‘the good and worthy of every nation are equally our countrymen … and equally claim our hospitality and friendship.’ It is likely that this ethic explains why he was so well received by the local inhabitants on his southern African travels.

Personable and unassuming, he wrote eloquently of his love for South Africa. He learned to speak some Dutch while in Cape Town, and spoke it to his Hottentot companions, Speelman and Juli. He was immensely talented: he could draw and paint; he could play several musical instruments; he had an understanding of science, in particular flora and fauna.

Perhaps his most enduring legacy is this map of his travels. It not only follows his route carefully but is annotated, showing intriguing details of places he named, animals he first came across, and people he met. The map reflects local Hottentot or Dutch names – he was always respectful of names already given to places, and never replaced them with Eurocentric ones, like other explorers did. ‘Victoria this, Victoria that’!! For instance, he referred to the Orange River as the !Gariep River, the original Hottentot name.

First he went on short trips from Klaarwater to present Schmidts Drift on the Vaal River and to the Asbestos Mountains. He then travelled to Graaff-Reinet and back, following a route through areas not previously explored botanically. His next trip took him to Dithakong, north-east of Kuruman, and further north into the country of the Thlaping as far as the present Heuningvlei, and back again. In January 1813 he traveled to Graaff-Reinet, and from there to Grahamstown and to his most easterly point at the mouth of the Fish River. He then slowly returned to Cape Town through the coastal districts, arriving in April 1815.

Although Burchell traveled mainly through regions of the Colony that had been visited before, his descriptions were more accurate and comprehensive than those of other travelers, and – unlike some others! – his enjoyment and appreciation was obvious: ‘Nothing but breathing the air of Africa and actually walking through it and beholding its inhabitants can communicate those gratifying and literally indescribable sensations… and … a scene … which may be highly instructive for a contemplative mind …

He collected 63 000 natural history specimens, most of them plants, seeds and bulbs, and 56 fungi and 90 lichens; but also skins, skeletons, birds, insects and fish. It was probably the largest natural history collection ever to have been made by one person in Africa and contained many new species. His notes on these specimens were accurate and detailed and included not only exact localities of species, but also the distribution of plants in the areas he passed through.

– Burchell’s collections – showing 6 of his 63 000 things! –

He made some 500 valuable sketches depicting landscapes, botanical and zoological specimens, and portraits of native inhabitants. He was a versatile scholar and some think the greatest naturalist that South Africa has known.

Burchell left the Cape in August 1815. During the following years he wrote the first description of the square-lipped rhinoceros, and prepared his major travel journal for publication. Travels in the interior of southern Africa appeared in two volumes, and included accurate and painstaking descriptions of his explorations up to Dithakong, plus a large and detailed map of the region up to 24 degrees south and as far east as the Keiskamma River.

– detail on map – including exact location verified by sextant –

Unfortunately the third and last volume of this classic work was never published and his diaries relating to the later period are missing.

Burchell was a courageous and resourceful person with a penetrating intellect. His plant collection went to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. He donated 43 of his animal skins to the British Museum but only seven were stuffed. He visited the Museum a few years later to find his precious skins ruined by maggots and moths. The rest of his records went to Oxford University. Sadly, he reacted rashly to this treatment and resented some of the criticism he received, thereafter largely withdrawing from most public interaction. By the age of 82, he was a disillusioned recluse. After an unsuccessful attempt at suicide by gunshot, he hanged himself in a garden shed.


After his death his sister presented Burchell’s botanical collections, drawings and manuscripts to the herbarium of Kew Gardens, while his insect and bird material was given to the University Museum at Oxford. He was a perfectionist, and his catalogue of this collection was a model of careful work. In addition to the birds described as new in his Travels, others were described by W. Jardine and other ornithologists. He provided some of the first descriptions of freshwater fishes from South Africa in his Travels, namely those of the small mouth yellowfish and the sharptooth catfish. He is commemorated in the names of several species, including Burchell’s zebra, Burchell’s Sandgrouse, Burchell’s Coucal, and the plant genus Burchellia.


s23a.org; Oxford University Museum of Natural History; Following in Burchell’s Tracks – magic by Lucille Davie; Blog on Burchell; Cape History by Lynne Thompson; For the best info on Burchell, read Susan Buchanan’s book; Roger Stewart and Brian Warner have written a very interesting biographical sketch;

1 Comment

  1. Jon Taylor says:

    Interesting man. I like his description of enjoying walking through Africa . . which may be highly instructive to a contemplative mind. So he was a skilled meditator I reckon.

    Liked by 1 person

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