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Saturday, November 14, 2015


This book draws from the rich source of Burchell’s writing and is beautifully illustrated with over 100 of his sketches and paintings. (Review by Cherry MacIldowie)

William John Burchell was a man of supreme accomplishments and an explorer without exception. 

He pushed literary, scientific, geographical, physical, social and emotional boundaries. Human qualities surfaced in his abundant artworks and excerpts from his writings. For Burchell, exploration never ceased throughout his life.

Susan Buchanan has compiled a comprehensive study of the man in Burchell’s Travels - The Life, Art & Journeys of William John Burchell 1781-1863.

Interestingly, he came from a prosperous and extremely well-connected family who owned the Fulham Nursery and Botanical Gardens during the reign of George 111. Indeed Burchell is buried in the adjacent churchyard of All Saints Church, Fulham. This was a time of huge interest in gardening and plants introduced from abroad, particularly those from the Cape. So it is no surprise that the discovery, growing and cataloging of plants spilled over into the many other fields of his interests and became a lifelong passion.

Burchell’s artistic talent was visible from a young age and he was fortunate to have been taught by a number of eminent teachers and he studied botany seriously. He illustrated, most proficiently, his travels, which commenced after he completed school.  He systematically dated but did not sign his artworks.

The first foray into serious travel took him to the Island of St. Helena where he spent five years. Here he undertook, through various mediums to capture the natural beauty, the animals, the buildings and the people that inhabited the island. An extraordinary man, his interests extended far beyond botany.  He collected minerals, experimented with chemicals and invented an anemometer – a machine to measure the direction and force of wind. 

Despite speaking six languages, William was also an accomplished musician on four instruments. He discovered that writing music on coloured paper “saves the eyesight very much”. He was a forerunner of environmental issues and noted that the injudicious cutting of trees as “wanton waste” and increasing price of coals would be to the “irreparable detriment of the Island”, indeed we suffer those consequences to this very day, two centuries later. Although possessed with a will of iron, he was a sensitive man and had a romantic style to his descriptions of everything.

In 1810, at the age of 31 Burchell was invited to go as Botanist to the Cape Colony.  Once there he observed acutely the linguistic, cultural and social changes in the colony and stated “The Boers must be heard, the Hottentots must be heard and the slaves must be heard”.  His epic journey through the Cape Colony lasted four years and covered 7,000 kilometres, mainly through unexplored terrain. During this time he collected over 50,000 plant and animal specimens and built up a vast collection of sketches and paintings, many of which can be seen in museums throughout South Africa.

200 years after publication, Burchells Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa is still of historical, anthropological and scientific importance.

Being a keen birdwatcher, I had previously known the name Burchell to be the man who named the Burchells Coucal, or the Rain bird as we commonly call it. There is also the Burchells courser, Starling and Sandgrouse and the crimson breasted gonolek. This is aside from the animals like the Burchell’s zebra, white rhino, Burchell’s Sand Lizard, Redfin fish and a couple of butterflies. He was the man who named wild pomegranet and discovered the clivias at the mouth of the Great Fish River, to name but a few species. Aside from all of this, cartographers applaud Burchell’s enormous map of the Cape Colony. He accurately charted his journey providing metorological data, distances traveled and measurements of latitude.

This book draws from the rich source of Burchell’s writing and is beautifully illustrated with over 100 of his sketches and paintings. I did find it to be rather scholastic and lofty in the style it is written, but it is worth persevering just to learn about “the life, art and vision of an extraordinary man”. Upon leaving South Africa, Burchell then went to Brazil where he discovered many thousand more species of animals and plants.

Susan Buchanan has an honours degree in Psychology and a Masters in English Literature.  She has worked as a social worker and as an administrator in the English Department at the University of Cape Town. Her English Studies developed her interest in autobiography, 19th Century literature, natural history and William Burchell.

Burchell’s Travels - The Life, Art & Journeys of William John Burchell published by Penguin - ISBN 978 1 77022 755 2. Recommended Retail Price R280. – Cherry MacIldowie