Schomburgk, Robert Hermann (DNB00)

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SCHOMBURGK, Sir ROBERT HERMANN (1804–1865), traveller, whose name is permanently associated with the boundary of British Guiana, was son of the Rev. John Frederick Lewis Schomburgk, a protestant minister in Thuringia, by the daughter of J. Krippendorf, counsellor of the princes of Reuss-Gera. He was born at Freiburg in Silesia on 5 June 1804, and educated in Germany. His taste for natural history led him in 1830 to the West Indies, and in 1831 he surveyed, at his own cost, the littoral of Anegada, one of the Virgin islands. His results were printed in the ‘Journal of the Royal Geographical Society,’ 1831, ii. 152–70, and attracted some notice. During 1831–5, under the direction of the Royal Geographical Society, he explored the rivers Essequibo (the sources of which he was the first to reach), Corentyn, and Berbice, and investigated in detail the capabilities of the colony of British Guiana. In the course of these researches he discovered and sent to England the magnificent lily Victoria Regia, now well established in Europe. By his journey across the interior from the Essequibo to Esmeralda on the Orinoco he was enabled to connect his observations with those of his countryman, Humboldt, and to determine astronomically a series of fixed points extending across the watershed of the great rivers of equatorial America (Journal Royal Geogr. Society, 1865, pp. cxxi–ii). For these services the Royal Geographical Society conferred on him in 1840 one of its gold medals. On his return to Europe he represented to the British government the necessity of settling the actual boundary of British Guiana, and on 10 Dec. 1840 he was appointed a commissioner for surveying and marking out the boundaries of the colony. He began in 1841 by marking the line on the north-west. During 1841–3 he extended his survey southward, making Pirara his headquarters, and finishing by a journey thence overland to the head waters of the Corentyn, down which river he descended to Demerara (Journal Roy. Geogr. Soc. 1845, xv. 1–104). His delimitation proposals, known as ‘the Schomburgk line,’ subsequently became famous during the prolonged boundary dispute between British Guiana and the neighbouring country of Venezuela (see Times, 5 Oct. 1895, pp. 5 et seq., 1 Jan. 1896, pp. 10 et seq.; Whitaker's Almanack, 1896, p. 584, with map). On Schomburgk's arrival in England he was knighted by patent on 26 Dec. 1844.

Schomburgk was gazetted British consul in St. Domingo on 25 May 1848, and plenipotentiary to conclude a treaty of amity and commerce between Great Britain and that republic on 23 Feb. 1849. He was appointed British consul at Bangkok, Siam, on 1 May 1857, and there continued his geographical surveys. Besides other excursions, including in 1859–60 an important journey from Bangkok to Chiengmai, the capital of the tributary kingdom of Laos, he repaired to the isthmus of Kra, with a view to ascertaining by observation the value of the recommendation to cut a ship canal across it, whereby the detour by the straits of Malacca might be spared ships trading between Siam and British India. His health declining, he retired from the public service with a pension in December 1864. From the university of Königsberg he received the degree of doctor of philosophy, and from the university of Jena that of doctor of medicine. He accepted decorations from the governments of Prussia, Saxony, and France. He died at Berlin on 11 March 1865.

Schomburgk also wrote: 1. ‘A Description of British Guiana: exhibiting its Resources and Capabilities,’ 1840. 2. ‘The Natural History of the Fishes of Guiana’ 1843 (with portrait of the author) (Jardine, Naturalists' Library, vols. xxx. xxxi.). 3. ‘The History of Barbados; comprising a Description of the Island, a Sketch of the Historical Events, and an Account of its Geology and Natural Productions,’ 1848; this is an excellent work. Complete reports of his surveys of British Guiana for the British government, together with a letter containing some biographical details, were printed in Parliamentary Paper, Venezuela, No. 5 (1896), c. 8195.

For the Hakluyt Society he edited in 1848 ‘The Discovery of the Empire of Guiana by Sir W. Raleigh,’ and in 1849 he translated from the German of Henry William Adalbert, prince of Prussia, ‘Travels in the South of Europe and in Brazil.’

His brother, Richard Schomburgk (1811–1890), botanist, was born at Freiburg in Saxony in 1811, and educated at Berlin and Potsdam, paying special attention to botany, and receiving an appointment in the royal Prussian gardens at Sans-Souci, near Potsdam. In 1840 he accompanied Robert Schomburgk as botanist to the British Guiana boundary survey. He returned to Germany in 1842. In 1847 he published, in German, his account of the boundary expedition, dwelling chiefly on the botanic aspect, entitled ‘Reisen in Britisch-Guiana.’ Becoming involved in political troubles in Germany, he fled to South Australia after 1848 with another brother, Otto, and embarked in the cultivation of the vine, meeting with considerable success. In 1866 he became director of the botanic gardens at Adelaide. He died at Adelaide on 24 March 1890. He was a member of many scientific societies, and received several foreign decorations.

[Alerta! Dominicanos (a defence of Sir R. H. Schomburgk, consul at St. Domingo), Santiago, 1852; Foreign Office List, January 1865, p. 144; Journal Royal Geographical Soc. 1865, pp. cxxi–ii; Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, 1891, xxxii. 240–3; information supplied by Mr. C. A. Harris of the Colonial Office.]

G. C. B.