Book review: Burchell’s Travels by Susan Buchanan

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Picture credit of William John Burchell:, source: Fred Burchell

Burchell’s Travels – The Life, Art and Journeys of William John Burchell: 1781–1863
Susan Buchanan
Penguin Books South Africa
ISBN: 9781770227552

Susan Buchanan is a first-time author and Burchell’s Travels is her first book. The book’s fons et origo is an abandoned PhD thesis which, it was realised, was too narrow in focus. It was meant to include a literary study on William John Burchell’s travels in the interior of South Africa (1822–24). Now, 200 years after Burchell’s travels in the Cape Colony, Susan Buchanan has produced Burchell’s Travels – The Life, Art and Journeys of William John Burchell: 1781–1863. The text draws from the works of Burchell cognoscenti as well as from Burchell’s writings, illustrated with over 100 of his sketches and paintings. The publishers have made sure that they give pride of place to Burchell’s life and travels in a highly accessible tome that is as attractive as it is readable. They have ensured that a life of extraordinary experience, in art and science, is appropriately commemorated.

William John Burchell was born in 1781 and died in 1863 in Fulham, near London. He was the eldest son of Matthew Burchell, who owned the Fulham Nursery near London. His travels abroad included visits to St Helena, South Africa and Brazil. It was at the Raleigh House Academy at Mitcham in Surrey that a strong interest in botany was born in Burchell. He received teaching and instruction in drawing while a student at Kew Gardens. Before coming to South Africa he worked as a school teacher on the island of St Helena, where he lived from 1806 to 1810. He came directly to Cape Town from St Helena, arriving in November 1810, and his experiences between then and the time he went back to England in 1815 are related in a double-volume book that appeared in 1822 and 1824, entitled Travels in the interior of South Africa (reprinted in 1967 by C Struik, Cape Town). He processed the material for this book from specimens collected and his writings from his voyages in South Africa, although the period 1812 to 1815 was never reflected. To do the editing for Travels he went from Fulham to the countryside near Sevenoaks, where he produced the two volumes. Sadly, his Travels close at the time he was leaving his stay at Litakun in 1812, with information on the remaining three years of his stay in the Cape, constructed without having his journals as a source.

Credit for this image of Burchell’s drawing of Dithakong (Litakun):

The period 1815 to 1825 back in England was spent exercising a huge amount of energy to get his Travels published and work on his collection. He planted many of the bulbs of specimens collected from South Africa, in his gardens at Fulham. He meticulously documented approximately 2 000 plants in his Hortus Fulhamensis, now with the Herbarium at Kew.

But once again his wanderlust took hold of him. He remembered when he was on St Helena meeting sea captains from Brazil, and at that time almost set sail for its shores instead of for Cape Town. This would have left his travels to the Cape unmaterialised. And so in 1825 he did, in fact, set sail for Brazil. There he continued to collect widely, although no substantial publications of his personal experiences from that time have appeared. Sadly, his notebooks on Brazilian natural history are lost, although there is an article entitled “Mr Burchell’s Brazilian Journey” by Sir William Hooker in Botanical Miscellany, 2, of 1831 which provides certain insights into his time spent there. He collected extensively on his Brazilian expedition, and sent back a massive number of specimens. He also engaged in a great amount of painting, especially of buildings and general scenic views, although also botanical depictions, many of which survive.

On his return to his home in 1830 he heard that his father had died the year before. He continued to live in England until his death in 1863. It was a period of continued energy and travel, in England, and also on the Continent. He became a bit hampered by lumbago and rheumatism, although in 1832 he went travelling once again, this time to Europe, with his sister Anna. Five years later he was off again, to Germany, but due to the ill health of his mother he returned home to care for her until 1841 when she died. He and his sister once again undertook a trip to Europe (1850), underscoring his indomitable spirit for travel. As long as he was able he never ceased from travelling.

In 1855 he undertook another trip to include the Lake District. In 1860 he went to Oxford, after the publication of Darwin’s On the origin of species in London in that year. It is likely that he attended the Huxley-Wilberforce debate there, although he would not be embroiled in it given his own clearly demarcated concepts behind faith versus science.

When not travelling or away, he assiduously attended to his herbarium and zoological collections. Some contend that as he aged he became increasingly possessive of his collections, although this claim has been contested. Age above all might have made him less energetic in his pursuits, but he nevertheless continued participating in the activities of the British Association for the Advancement of Science into his senior years. The last few years of his life were not the happy ones of before. From about 1861 he became an invalid, and in 1863 he took his own life.

According to the editors of the South African Dictionary, A Gordon-Brown and AJ Böeseken, Burchell’s sister, Anna Burchell, presented his botanical collections, drawings and manuscripts, both South African and Brazilian, to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and the entomological collections, drawings and manuscripts were given to the Hope Department, University Museum, Oxford. The following extract from the writing of Roger Stewart, a foremost historian on the life of Burchell, explains Burchell’s last days:

In later life, Burchell became quite isolated and, apparently, a sad figure; it seems that he suffered from depression. In 1863, at the age of 82, he committed suicide rather clumsily. After unsuccessfully attempting to end his life by shooting, he hanged himself in a small outhouse in the garden. The jury investigating his death recorded a verdict of “suicide during a temporary fit of insanity” and added that it was not their duty “to investigate the causes which resolved in this great man taking this step”. Initially, Burchell was refused a Christian burial but, after the intervention of his sister, was buried near his home in Fulham, in the family tomb at All Saints Church, Hammersmith. Burchell’s suicide was a sad and poignant ending to a remarkable man. He made his mark in many different ways, including his sound management of serious medical conditions and the high level of care and concern he displayed towards his “fellow creatures”, in health and in sickness.

It could be no coincidence that in 1819, having been interviewed in his home country, Britain, about the suitability of the region he once explored, South Africa, for potential immigration, the following year British settlers arrived there. Few would have been as qualified as he was to answer the important question. The following extract from a different source describes Burchell in context of his South African visit:

Burchell is remembered mainly for his contributions to descriptive and philosophical aspects of natural history of the country. He is less well known for some significant and novel contributions to the earth sciences, the social sciences and even astronomy. Burchell’s observations in physical geography and geology and his contribution to cartography have received little attention. In natural history, some of his views were prescient of the concepts of evolution and holism. In the social sciences, he provided unique ethnographic descriptions, developed an orthography of two indigenous languages and produced drawings that have attracted international research. William John Burchell is worthy of our memory. (

Authors of texts on Burchell, Roger Stewart and Brian Warner, describe him as a natural historian, in particular, in botany, and argue that he was very skilled and that he was a polymath. His many talents include the fact that he was a geographer, natural philosopher, ethnographer, draughtsman and artist, talented linguist and an accomplished author. They compare him with other multi-talented travellers such as Robert Gordon, John Barrow and Johann Reinhold Forster who had been in southern Africa before him (although Forster had visited for only a few weeks with Captain James Cook).


Credit for this picture of Susan Buchanan:

The true value of Burchell’s South African historiography lies in his Travels, which gives a full account of his expedition in the interior of the Cape Colony from June 1811 to August 1812. Unfortunately the journals have been lost, but the maps, paintings and sketches help “to fill in the narrative gaps”. A four-year, 7 000-km-long journey of scientific exploration and discovery enabled him to amass 63 000 specimens and 500 drawings by the time he returned to Cape Town in 1815. Although there are these lacunae in the record, by all accounts from scholars, the work from Burchell is “most valuable and accurate”. This comment is probably to be seen in context of the fact that he could be referred to as a “scientific explorer with strong Romantic sensibilities” (Buchanan, 9). It has been said about his writing style that it is “glittering” and unmatched, not even by the other pioneer travellers in South Africa (Kolbe, Sparman, Thunberg, Levaillant, Barrow and Masson). His approach to recording his discoveries was innovative as it was extensive, covering landscapes, portraits, costume, zoology and botany. One of the last works to be completed by him in South Africa is dated 13 April 1815, a pencil sketch capturing wagons crossing the Cape Flats with Table Mountain in the background. This practically ends the expedition that he embarked on just short of four years earlier when he started out with his travels into the interior, as seen in a picture by him entitled Train of Wagons at Karreebergen Poort dated 10 September 1811.

Train of Wagons at Karreebergen Poort, dated 10 September 1811. Source:

It is not surprising that a talented scientist and writer such as William Burchell would attract the attention of scholars. He was referred to by Oxford professor Edward Bagnall Poulton, an eminent evolutionary biologist, as “by far the most scientific and greatest of the early African explorers”. One can appreciate this given his extraordinary talents, as a polyglot who was able to speak six languages, a musician who could play no fewer than four instruments, including the bugle-horn, a productive and versatile artist, and an itinerant with a strong humanist eye. His influence extends to South Africa literary circles, where his works have featured in the novels of internationally acclaimed South African writers JM Coetzee and Etienne Van Heerden. Coetzee was particularly impressed by the way Burchell’s narrative was “even to the minutest particular, regarded as a faithful picture of occurrences and observations”. As for Van Heerden’s prose, there is an attraction to Burchell’s map of the Cape Colony. The interest for Van Heerden is personal, as Burchell passed the night at the Van Heerden family farm Doornbosch as a guest of Cootje Van Heerden, one of Van Heerden’s ancestors. Returning from Graaff-Reinet in April 1812, Burchell came to the Van Heerden farm, which he claimed to be one with a superior farm house, “built on a large scale, and in a more substantial manner, than the general class of colonial dwellings” (Burchell, Vol 2, 122).

Burchell’s influence extends not only to South African cartography for his enormous map of the Cape Colony, “A Map of the Extratropical Part of southern Africa”, but also to botany and zoology. His name is commemorated in the scientific name given to the wild pomegranate, Burchellia bubaline. His name is associated with the Burchell’s zebra, Equus quagga burchellii, while ornithologists associate him with no fewer than five birds, including the Burchell’s sandgrouse, Pterocles burchelli. Other creatures bearing his name include the Burchell’s sand lizard, Pedioplanis burchelli, and an endangered freshwater fish, Burchell’s redfin, Pseudobarbarus burchelli.

More recently there has been an upsurge of interest in Burchell and his scientific achievements. These areas of interest extend to the medical world as in an article in the South African Medical Journal entitled “William Burchell’s medical challenges: A 19th-century natural philosopher in the field” by Roger Stewart, a medical doctor (April 2012, Vol 102, No 4 SAMJ). Buchanan has drawn extensively on Stewart’s expertise in the writing of her book on Burchell. Historical and heritage societies in the southern Cape erected a bust and memorial plaque in commemoration of Burchell travelling through the area 200 years before.

The bust and commemoration plaque in the southern Cape commemorating when Burchell passed through the district 200 years ago. It was unveiled on 19 September 2014.

Art historian Maria Cristina Wolff de Carvalho, by focusing on studies of Burchell’s landscapes, shows what she believes to be strong links between science and art in his work, thus a blending of ars poetica and ars pratica. In an article entitled “The Landscape Art of William John Burchell (1781–1863)” De Carvalho says, “The writings, drawings, and encyclopedic collecting of British naturalist William John Burchell (1781–1863) generated what may be called a panoramic approach to studying the landscapes he intimately explored. Yet each element of his far-ranging interests became part of an indivisible whole.” De Carvalho leaves us with details of her mission to bring aspects of Burchell even closer:

The diverse products of his scientific research and artistic creation are now all dispersed among a number of museums and other institutions, most notably the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (herbarium and related drawings and writings); the Linnean Society of London (correspondence); Oxford University Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum (collections of animal specimens, human artifacts, drawings, maps, and writings); Museum Africa, Johannesburg (drawings and watercolors); and the Instituto Moreira Salles in Rio de Janeiro (eighteen attributed watercolors). With the understanding of Burchell’s unique method that I have gained from these archives, I plan to mine their troves further, with the ultimate goal of preparing an artistic-scientific catalogue raisonné of Burchell’s written and artistic oeuvre. Along the way, I hope to organize exhibitions and symposia and to publish introductory books for a more general readership so that his contributions will receive the attention they deserve. (The Landscape Art of William John Burchell (1781–1863), Maria Cristina Wolff de Carvalho, Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado, São Paulo Paul Mellon Senior Fellow, 2011–2012)

Out of all of Burchell’s remarkable achievements while he spent the five years in South Africa, his botanical art probably ranks among the most significant. South African botanical historian John Rourke cites the importance of Burchell’s drawings as more important scientifically than artistically because of the way in which the morphological characteristics of the species that he studied are recorded (Buchanan, 14). For a better understanding of Rourke’s point made above, one could read up on what Burchell himself has to say about the importance of botanical sketches:

At all times a sketch is a most faithful and comprehensive memorandum, and describes most things much more fully than the pen can ever do. Whenever time will not admit of using both, there can never be doubt whether the pencil should be preferred to the pen: it is in fact often the most expeditious mode of making a description. (Burchell, Travels, Vol 1, 411).

While we are fortunate today to have Burchell’s Travels in book form (albeit limited as it covers the period up to 1812 and so another three years are lost), it would have been equally great to have had a historical documentation of his travels to Brazil. We have the St Helena journal based on the time he spent there, but a journal of his Brazil experiences (the journals are lost) would surely have added to other historiographies of what is referred to as the Age of Wonder (Richard Holmes’s term for the years between Cook’s first expedition and Darwin’s voyages). Burchell fits the mould as a Romantic explorer of Romantic science, although his methods were also scientific in their application. What makes Burchell more important than some of the other explorers is that he contrasts the landscapes rather than merely record a one-sided emotional response. In this way his accounts become more universal in their application.

Buchanan’s book covers Burchell’s art and journeys across the full scope of his life (1781–1863). It spans 224 pages with Penguin Random House producing a tome worthy of a competent author and a deserving subject, travel historiography of the early Romantic period.

Burchell’s is a love story of a different kind. His own personal experience of unrequited human love made him turn his attention more strictly to a love for open landscape. Buchanan’s book tells this story, an extraordinary human exploration.

Chapter 1, “A splendid education” (Fulham, 1781 to 1805), recounts his early years, confirming that Burchell was talented at drawing. Ironically, the very thing that Burchell went out looking for in his Romantic travelling and discovery is what promoted his father’s business – exotic plants and a nursery/herbarium, at a time when there was an interest in gardening and plants introduced from abroad, especially from the Cape.

Credit for this etching of William Burchell (1816), one of the portraits out of 100 “great men” in the V & A Museum, Kensington, London:

Chapters 2 and 3 cover his stay on St Helena (1806) and then his coming to the Cape (arriving in November 1810). Thirty years before Burchell arrived on St Helena, Charles Darwin observed that the island “rises abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean”. Burchell’s sketch of Lemon Valley on St Helena (1808) nicely illustrates Darwin’s words.

The image of Lemon Valley on St Helena done in 1808 by William Burchell. Credit:

He became a school teacher on the island, but found this work odious in the extreme and was relieved by changing careers. He began collecting botanical specimens instead. Soon his interests extended to the collection of minerals. Keeping a journal occupied his time. Poignant sketches of local scenes came from his ink stylus, today forming part of the valuable Burchell archive. Having spent five years on the remote island it was time to go. He set out for Cape Town “solely for the purpose of acquiring knowledge”. Buchanan describes his arrival at the Cape and provides the reader with interesting accounts of it, as well as a feast for the eye of Burchell’s drawings, sketches and paintings, including the painting of the inside of Burchell’s wagon.


Credit for this reproduction of the aquatint by Burchell entitled Crossing the Berg River dated 23 June 1811:

Chapter 4 covers the expedition to Klaarwater, a journey undertaken between June, to October 1811. It is this picture enshrined in South African discoverer-prints, an aquatint, where Burchell captures the African light and colour that makes it valuable for South African iconography. Out of it we see coming his Romantic sensibility which he “quickly executed at the moment the scene or image impinged on Burchell’s retina”. Of significance from this journey into the interior are the balanced accounts by Burchell of the social life in towns, villages, and farms in the district. As in the previous chapters the text is richly accompanied by Burchell’s illustrations, a classic being the painting entitled The Rock Fountain, in the country of the Bushmen, dated 9 September 1811.

Credit for this classic painting by Burchell entitled The Rock Fountain, in the country of the Bushmen, dated 9 September 1811:

Chapters 5 and 6 continue with an account of Burchell’s journey to Klaarwater, after which he then journeys to Graaff-Reinet – see his map to follow the itinerary. It was on this leg of the journey that he visited the farm of the ancestors of Etienne Van Heerden at Doornbosch.

A portion of Burchell’s map of the Eastern Cape

Chapters 7 and 8 cover the expedition to, and sojourn at, Litakun (today, Dithakong), describing the experiences in tricky cross-cultural situations which are explained in the Buchanan text.

Credit for the sketch by Burchell of his first interview with the Chief of the Bachapins:

It’s as if Burchell is driven by something along the lines from ST Coleridge. And so he begins his journey back to Cape Town, which is covered by chapter 9 in the Buchanan text, entitled “Keep moving!”.

Keep moving! Steam, or Gas, or Stage,
Hold, cabin, steerage, hencoop's cage –
Tour, Journey, Voyage, Lounge, Ride, Walk,
Skim, Sketch, Excursion, Travel-talk –
For move you must! 'Tis now the rage,
The law and fashion of the Age.

Burchell returned to Cape Town in April 1815. He was ready to return home. He prepared to leave via St Helena for England, where he arrived in November of that year. A year later his portrait (etched) was included in “a hundred portraits of great men”, which today can be viewed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. After a five-year period in England he set out for his journey to Brazil to build on his previous travelling experiences, for collecting specimens, and to keep moving.

Painting of William Burchell by Thomas Herbert Maguire Burchell aged 73 – 1854. Credit:

Chapter 10 of Buchanan’s book explains Burchell’s journey from 1825 to 1830, landing in Rio de Janeiro on 18 July 1825. Optimism, fortitude amid much hardship characterised his visit. His panorama of Rio de Janeiro is one of the classics coming from his repertoire while in Brazil. As the South African landscape and vegetation never ceased to amaze him – described by him in words such as “luxuriance and richness”, Buchanan describes how Burchell continued in energy to capture scenes in his drawings and aquatints, reflected in her book.

Credit for the painting of Rio de Janeiro by William Burchell, probably painted in May/June 1826:

The final chapter, chapter 11, entitled “A Life of Science”, brings to an end descriptions of an extraordinary life. The tragedy of suicide becomes the Burchellian reality, an irony after such a life spent exploring. One hopes for Burchell it was a life well examined and worth living. It certainly was, for South African historiography!

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  • Naòmi Morgan

    Superb review, detailed, informed, sensitive and objective. If I did not own the book already, this account of it would have convinced me to acquire it. Fine writing style as well, in keeping with the 18th century subject matter.

  • Ek gaan hierdie skoolvakansie, 1 tot 10 Oktober, min of meer met Burchell se roete met die grondpaaie ry van Ceres en die Karoopoort deur Sutherland, Fraserburg, Loxton, Vosburg, Pampoenpoort tot by Prieska. So kan mens iets ervaar van die plekke, ruimtes, plante en diere wat Burchell gesien het.

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.