Burchell, William John (DNB00)

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BURCHELL, WILLIAM JOHN (1782?–1863), explorer and naturalist, was son of Matthew Burchell, nurseryman, Fulham, and was born about 1782. In 1805 he was appointed by the East India Company ‘schoolmaster and acting botanist’ at the island of St. Helena, which post he held up to 1810. On 15 Feb. 1808 he was made a fellow of the Linnean Society of London. While at St. Helena he became personally known to General Janssens, the last Dutch governor of the Cape, and to Dr. Martin Lichtenstein, afterwards the well-known Berlin naturalist, who was then a young physician on Janssen's staff. Provided with a recommendation from the home government to the Cape authorities and with letters of introduction from Janssens and Lichtenstein to Dutch and German residents, Burchell left St. Helena for the Cape, for the purpose of exploring the interior. He reached Table Bay on 13 Nov. 1810, and after some time spent in Cape Town in making preparations and in acquiring the Colonial-Dutch patois, to which he rightly attached much importance as enabling him to converse with all classes, he started on his travels in June 1811, with a well-equipped frontier-wagon, which cost 88l. complete, and a party of Hottentots, the number of whom never exceeded ten and who were several times replaced during his wanderings. These were his sole companions and assistants during his travels. The venture, he tells us, was regarded in the colony as an imprudent one. Trekking across the Karroo and through the Roggeveldt, he struck the Gariep, or Orange river, in latitude 29° 40′ 52″ S. and longitude 23° 27′ 20″ E.; thence traversing the Bosjesman country at considerable peril, he entered the land of the Corahs (Korannas) and sojourned some time at Adam Kok's station at Klaarwater, in what now is Griqualand. Thence he travelled to Kaabi's kraal, returning to Klaarwater and afterwards to Graaf Reynett in the colony. Traversing the Bosjesman districts once more, he returned to Klaarwater, and afterwards spent some time among the Bachapins at Latakun (Old Lattaku, West Bechuanaland), where he was in August 1812. This ends the published portion of his explorations, but his travels extended over three years longer. He states that his African collections comprised 63,000 natural objects, 500 drawings, and a mass of astronomical, meteorological, and other observations and notes. In 1817, after his return home, Burchell presented to the British Museum a selection from his specimens, mostly of the larger mammalia, forty-three perfect skins, most of them with entire skulls, and many unique specimens. These are now at South Kensington. He also wrote two or three very judicious pamphlets on the subject of Cape emigration. In 1822 he brought out two quarto volumes of his African travels, a work remarkable for the excellence of its literary style and the fidelity of the numerous illustrations, all drawn on wood or stone (coloured) by the author. Some of the panoramic views were executed on the then practically unknown principle of scenographic projection on the surface of a revolving cylinder. The work deals with the explorations made in 1811–12. A third volume was projected but never published. Burchell appears at this time to have contributed a few zoological papers to foreign scientific journals (see Cat. Scient. Papers, vol. i.) In 1825 he planned out for himself a journey across South America from Brazil to Peru, returning by Mendoza and Buenos Ayres. He left England in March 1825, stayed two months collecting at Lisbon, and landed in July at Rio, which he did not leave until September 1826. While at Rio Janeiro he executed the series of views from which Burford's panorama of the city was painted [see Burford, Robert], made numerous astronomical and meteorological observations, formed extensive collections of botany, entomology, and mineralogy in the surrounding districts, and also visited parts of Minas Geraes. From Rio he proceeded by sea to Santos, where he remained three months collecting. Cubatao was his next station, where in a solitary hut in the depths of the Brazilian forests he remained two months. At San Paolo he remained seven months. Then, hiring mules and muleteers, he proceeded to Goyaz, the first European who ever entered that province. While there intelligence of the failing health of a beloved parent induced him to relinquish the remaining portions of his explorations, which would have occupied several years. He journeyed north from Goyaz to Porto Real, remained there until the proper season for descending the river, reached Para in June 1829, and thence returned home. The only published account of these explorations—in which, as in Africa, Burchell had no associate—is contained in two letters to the late Sir William Hooker, printed in the ‘Botanical Miscellany,’ vol. ii. In one he states that the botanical part of his collection already included 5,000 species, and that the entomological portion was eight or nine times as large as his African one, other departments being equally well represented, except South American mammalia and fishes; and in another written in 1830, after his return to Fulham, he says: ‘I have 15,000 species of plants, all gathered by myself in their natural places of growth, in various parts of the world. I say nothing about the other parts of my collection, which are equally extensive.’ Burchell is said to have been offered a handsome pension by the Prussian government on condition of his taking his collections complete to Berlin and residing there; but this he declined in the hope of one day publishing the results of his discoveries in his own country. The hope was never realised. In 1834 the university of Oxford conferred on Burchell the honorary degree of D.C.L. He died at his residence, Churchfield House, Fulham, on 23 March 1863, in his eightieth year. His memory is perpetuated in the scientific names of many animal and plant species discovered by him. His plant collections were presented to Kew Gardens after his decease, and his botanical manuscripts are now in the library there. Burchell was not only an indefatigable naturalist but a good artist and musician, and to those who knew him well an agreeable companion. Dr. Swainson has said of him that ‘he must be regarded as one of the most learned and accomplished travellers of any age or country, whether we regard the extent of his acquirements in every branch of physical science or the range of countries he explored; and science must ever regret that one whose powers of mind were so varied, and so universally acknowledged throughout Europe, was so signally neglected in his own country’ (Lardner, Cab. Cyc. Nat. Hist. vol. ‘Bibliog. and Biog.’ p. 383).

[Information from private sources, and from Burchell's writings; Brit. Mus. Cat. Printed Books; Cat. Scient. Papers, vol. i.; Hooker's Botanical Miscellany, vol. ii.; Linnean Soc. Proc. vii. (1864), p. xxxvi; Sir R. Murchison's address before Royal Geog. Soc. 1863, in Journal Royal Geog. Soc. xxxiii. p. cxxiv; Times, 27 March 1863.]

H. M. C.