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William John Burchell


In June 1811, just more than 200 years ago, a 29 year-old Englishman set out from Cape Town on a journey that was to last for the best part of four years and during which he would travel 7 000 km. William Burchell was the son of a prosperous nurseryman, Matthew Burchell of Fulham. William had studied botany at Kew and on the Continent before, in 1805, sailing to St Helena where he taught and was later appointed naturalist to the English East India Co. After five years on the island he sailed for the Cape.

Apart from the first stage of his travels, from Cape Town to the London Missionary Society’s station at Klaarwater (now Griquatown, 155 km west of Kimberley), when he travelled together with missionaries, his only companions on his travels were his Khoekhoen servants. The pace of the oxen pulling his specially designed wagon, he regarded as ideal for any serious naturalist, giving him the opportunity to observe plants, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals. He made frequent halts in order to go off botanizing, but worked steadily every day with the exception of Sundays when he would hoist the British flag and drink half a glass of wine. When eventually in August 1815 he left the Cape for England he took with him 63 000 specimens, of which 50 000 were of plants, as well as more than 500 drawings. The next four years were spent classifying this collection before in 1819 he retired to Sevenoaks to begin writing up his journals. The first two volumes of his Travels in the interior of Southern Africa appeared in 1822 and 1824 respectively.

Burchell later spent five years in Brazil where he amassed another outstanding natural history collection. He never married, but was once engaged to a girl who, during the voyage from England to St Helena to join him, fell in love with the ship’s captain. This may have helped influence Burchell’s decision to go on to the Cape. Aged 81 he died by his own hand in March 1863.
After William’s death his sister, Anna, gave his botanical collections, drawings and manuscripts, both South African and Brazilian, to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. His entomological collection was given to the University Museum, Oxford.

Burchell was a perfectionist and his painstaking work laid the foundations on which countless others have built, enriching us all. Nearly a hundred of his drawings are today to be found in MuseuMAfrica (formerly the Africana Museum) in Johannesburg, while some 700 botanical specimens are housed in the Selmar Schonland Herbarium in Grahamstown.

It is apparent that Burchell had planned a third volume covering his wanderings at the Cape, for the record of his travels stops abruptly on 3 September 1812 when he was in Graaff-Reinet. No trace of work on a possible third volume has ever been found, but we do know that he visited the Great Fish River and spent time at “Reed Fountain”, today the farm Barville Park to the east of Kariega Park. From there he crossed the Kariega River on his way westward to Uitenhage, travelling along the valley that lies to the south and within sight of the restaurant at the Main Lodge, before fording the Jagers Drift on the Bushmans.

But at Kariega there are other reminders of this extraordinary man. During his travels he not only wrote descriptions of vegetation types never before recorded, but also described genera and species new to science. Four of these are easily spotted at Kariega:
  1. Wild pomegranate - Burchellia bubaline. This ornamental shrub with bright red flowers, dark green leaves and grey bark, has extremely hard wood. It flowers from September to December and is to be seen in the bush in the vicinity of the restaurant at the Main Lodge.
  2. Burchell’s coucal – Centropus supercilliosus. A medium sized, glossy black, white and brown bird with a most distinctive, melodious call resembling bubbling water. Perhaps because of this and its habit of calling before, during or after rain, it is also known as the Rain Bird. It is most likely to be seen or heard in bushy areas near water.
  3. Burchell’s zebra – Equus quagga. This is now classed as being the same species as the extinct Quagga, which apparently indicates that the Quagga was never extinct and the Zebra is a Quagga. Only to taxonomists would this appear to be in no way unusual! Zebra are often visible from the restaurant at the Main Lodge. 
  4. White rhinoceros – Ceratotherium simum. This animal is also known as the Square-lipped or Burchell’s rhino. They are larger than the black rhino. White rhino are grazers as opposed to browsers. 

Look out for these during your visit and lift half a glass of wine, or whatever else you may choose, to this most remarkable Englishman and naturalist whose work has never been equalled.