Robert H. Schomburgk and the 'flower of the Empire'

[Originally posted June 1, 2013 
This month’s contribution to the blog is written by Sandra Thompson, 
who is our 'distance cataloguer', and has also been doing some great biographical research on our authors.
Many thanks, Sandra! (K. Boyes, ex Library Manager/ Head cataloguer)] 

The RGSSA's catalogue contains an impressive collection of rare books and atlases including well over 100 works published by the Hakluyt Society. Several were written by an extraordinary German-Prussian geographer, naturalist and explorer, Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk (1804–1865). Skilled in multiple science disciplines, a gifted botanist and painter, he was a contemporary of Charles Darwin. His ambition to be an explorer was inspired by the expeditions of fellow Prussian, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), a patron and mentor to the Schomburgk family. He was a social visionary who acted upon his convictions, a committed activist well before his time, and railed against slavery and the exploitation of indigenous peoples.

Detail, 'Caribi village, Anai', 
Twelve views in the interor of Guiana
Refer RGSSA catalogue

'The opening ceremony of a Paiwori feast and dance is delineated in the plate, which represents the Carib village Anai; the large canoe in the middle, filled with the intoxicating drink is surrounded by the dancers, every one bearing some object in his hand. Their gaudy feather-dresses [headdresses], the peculiar expression and drollery of their faces, perhaps produced by deep libations before the dance commenced, have been attempted with the pencil, but can scarcely be conveyed by the most skilful artist.'

    When you look for biographical information on Robert Schomburgk, the frequent conclusion is that 'no-one knows who he is', as the editor of The Guiana travels of Robert Schomburgk concludes in his preface:

'I have for some years tried to interest publishers in a full biography of Schomburgk, but without success, the common response being ‘No-one knows who he is’. Publishers seem willing to produce biographies of people of whom there are already numerous such works, but shy away from forgotten but equally worthy subjects. That Schomburgk is such a worthy subject, and deserves resurrecting; I have no doubts about …'

Schomburgk’s descriptions of his expeditions and discoveries in South America make extraordinary reading. They use masterful descriptive imagery and deserve to rate among the best works of travel and adventure. In Twelve views in the interior of Guiana, he paints this picture of nature as it raged around him at the remote village of Pirara:

'I shall never forget the splendid spectacle I witnessed one evening after darkness had set in, when towards the north the whole horizon was illuminated: for the grass on the savannas which had been burning for the last four days had communicated the fire to the mountain chain, which now blazed at a distance of many miles. A thunderstorm from the northwest much enhanced the sublimity of the scene, and mingled its forked lightening with the fiery columns which, as if arranged in battle array, seemed to storm the heights of the Sierra, and the vivid lightning and the rolling of the thunder were the batteries employed for the on-set.'

the 'botanising' brothers

Robert and his younger brother, Richard Schomburgk (1811–1891), are indeed very well known for their work in botany. Richard is honoured by a genus of tropical orchids, the Schomburgkia, native to South America. His name is well known to many South Australians. In 1865, he migrated to South Australia and with no formal qualifications in botany—although he was a recognised plant collector and an instinctive gardener—became the director of the Adelaide Botanic Garden. 

Robert Schomburgk is commemorated by the rare orchid, Schomburgkia humboldtii (R.H.Schomb), and by an extinct species of deer named in his honour, the 'Schomburgk’s Deer', once native to Thailand.

a vegetable wonder!

Detail, Additional coloured title page, Twelve views in the interior of Guiana

Robert Schomburgk also identified the giant Amazonian water lily that captivated the imagination of Victorian society.
It was given the botanical name 'Victoria regia' after Queen Victoria (sometimes as Victoria regina, now renamed Victoria amazonica), and commonly known as the 'flower of the Empire': it has the scent of ripe bananas and pineapple. He wrote home:

    'A vegetable wonder! All calamities were forgotten. I felt as botanist, and felt myself rewarded. A gigantic leaf, from five to six feet in diameter, salver-shaped, with a broad rim of light green above, and a vivid crimson below, resting upon the water. Quite in character with the wonderful leaf was the luxuriant flower, consisting of many hundred petals, passing in alternate tints from pure white to rose and pink. The smooth water was covered with them, and I rowed from one to the other and observed always something new to admire.
    '... The diameter of the calyx is twelve to twenty-three inches; on it rests the magnificent flower, which, when fully developed, covers completely the calyx with its hundred petals. When it first opens it is white, with pink in the middle, which spreads over the whole flower the more it advances in age, and it is generally found the next day of pink colour. As if to enhance its beauty, it is sweet scented. ... We met them hereafter frequently, and the higher we advanced the more gigantic they became. We measured a leaf which was six feet and five inches in diameter, its rim five and a half inches high, and the flower across, fifteen inches.'

Robert Schomburgk was not the first botanist to find Victoria regia; he was aware of its discovery and existence in other parts of South America. However, he was first to locate a specimen in British Guiana, on his second commission for the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). It was on New Year’s Day 1837 that he was so astonished to find a specimen of the giant water lily that he later helped cultivate in England and through Europe. (Richard was not on this expedition, although some sources incorrectly credit him for the discovery. The confusion may arise due to the fact that both brothers used the initial 'R'.)

Robert H. Schomburgk, 1804–1865: Early Career

Robert Hermann Schomburgk was born in 1804 at Freyburg in Saxony, which came under Prussian rule in 1815, now in modern Germany. His father was a Lutheran minister who schooled him in Latin, French and mathematics. As he showed an early interest in nature, he was given some formal tuition in botany, which remained his life-long passion.

    By the age of thirty, Schomburgk’s accurate surveying skills came under notice of the Royal Geographical Society in London who commissioned him to survey vast inland tracts of the Colony of British Guiana in South America. He would eventually be knighted for his services by Queen Victoria in 1844 and recognised for his outstanding work as an explorer, geographer and naturalist.

    In 1828, Schomburgk left Europe for North America to establish himself as a businessman in the British Colony of Virginia; he failed at tobacco farming. Then, travelling to the free port of St. Thomas Island, a possession of Denmark, he lost everything in a fire the following year. At the time Schomburgk could not have known that his misfortunes would eventually secure his future. After the fire, he travelled to Puerto Rico, soon heading to the British Virgin Islands. There he accurately mapped and surveyed a portion of the coastline of the island of Anegada, the most northerly in the group. Not previously surveyed and an area notorious for its shipwrecks, his maps and description of the island so impressed the RGS that he was then commissioned to survey British Guiana in South America.

Travels in the Interior of Guiana, 1835–1839

Based in Georgetown, Robert Schomburgk spent the next four years (1835-1839), exploring the river regions and vast inland tracts of British Guiana. He would undertake three major survey journeys on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and collect and identify many specimens of unknown plants, birds and insects. It must be noted that the tropical climate, biting insects and mountainous terrain are still inhospitable today.
Twelve views in the interior of Guiana / from drawings executed by Mr. Charles Bentley, after sketches taken during the expedition carried on in the years 1835 to 1839, under the direction of the Royal Geographical Society of London, and aided by Her Majesty's government ; with descriptive letter-press, by Robert H. Schomburgk.  
London, : Ackermann and Co., 1841.
38 pages : illustrations, 12 colour plates, map
Refer RGSSA catalogue

A description of British Guiana, geographical and statistical :exhibiting its resources and capabilities, together with the present and future condition and prospects of the colony.  
Schomburgk, Robert H. (Robert Hermann), Sir, 1804-1865.
London : Simpkin Marshall, 1840.
155 pages, [1] folded leaf of plates, map
Refer RGSSA catalogue

The Guiana travels of Robert Schomburgk, 1835-1844. Volume 1, Explorations on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society 1835-1839. 
Aldershot : Ashgate, 2006
xiii, 406 pages : illustrations, maps
(Works issued by the Hakluyt Society ; 3rd series, no. 16) 
Refer RGSSA catalogue

    Schomburgk’s first commission for the RGS was into southern Guiana to survey along the Rupununi River that rises in Kanuku Mountains. The local Macusi villagers in this mountain region used the plant based poison, 'curare'. He returned to Georgetown with a specimen and the knowledge of its preparation.

'Caribi village, Anai, near the River Rupununi,' Twelve views in the interior of Guiana

    'Anai is situated near the mountains of the same name, and about seven miles from the left bank of the Rupununi, in latitude 3º 56' N. The house partly boarded up with spars of the Manicole palm, served us as a residence for nearly six weeks during our first expedition. ... During my last visit, in 1838, I found the village abandoned, and the spot, which was formerly occupied by the house overgrown with bushes.'

    The second expedition surveyed another vast region of eastern Guiana along the Corentyne and Berbice Rivers that forms a border with Dutch Guiana, now Suriname. As mentioned, it was on this expedition that he found a specimen of the giant water lily, Victoria regia, which is the national flower of modern Guyana.

    Schomburgk's third survey expedition was into the western region of Guiana that borders Brazil and Venezuela. He surveyed along the upper Orinoco River (which means 'a place to paddle'). This established the source of the Essequibo River in Guiana, then into the Rio Branco basin (now in Brazil) and also a region around Mount Roraima, the highest point in Guiana (2,810 m). He would not reach the summit as planned, later wishing that he 'had wings, because he could not reach such heights'.

'Roraima, a remarkable range of sandstone mountains in Guiana', Twelve views in the interior of Guiana

    'Vague accounts of a mountain, steep as a wall, and from the summit of which water flows in abundance, had been given to me during my first visit to Pirara in 1835 and 1836.
    '...At an abandoned settlement we got the first view of these remarkable mountains... Wrapped in dark clouds, ... they rose like gigantic walls, and contributed to the enchanting view which we enjoyed, while the vegetation surrounding us displayed an interesting and peculiar aspect. In lieu of granite rocks we observed only compact sandstone more or less crystaline...'

Boundary Expeditions in Guiana, 1841–44
The Guiana travels of Robert Schomburgk, 1835-1844. Volume 2,The boundary survey, 1840-1844.
Schomburgk, Robert H. (Robert Hermann), Sir, 1804-1865.
Aldershot : Ashgate, 2006.
(Works issued by the Hakluyt Society; 3rd series, no. 17)
Refer RGSSA catalogue

Robert Schomburgk made four major inland expeditions on commission for the British Government to survey and establish the land boundaries of British Guiana as they largely exist today. On these expeditions he was accompanied by his brother, Richard, who then went on to make another three explorations without his brother. Richard contracted yellow fever which delayed the first expedition that eventually set out in April, 1841. This expedition marked the western boundary of Guiana with Brazil and Venezuela along the rivers Barima, Barama, Waini, Amakura and Cuyuni.

    The next expedition took them to the Brazilian frontier again, to the mission town of Pirara where the British had sent troops to assert territorial rights over the Brazilians. Schomburgk had urged this action to protect the local people who were being exploited by the Brazilians whom he suspected were 'slaving' in the area. Schomburgk's placement of the boundary markers fuelled nationalist tensions over border territory. The Brazilian and Venezuelan authorities officially complained to the British Government about the markers, which were subsequently removed. The boundary is known as the 'Schomburgk Line', and formed the basis of a British claim of territory at a land tribunal in Paris, 1899. The Schomburgk Line settled this boundary dispute with Venezuela in favour of the British. They were awarded a large part of territory in Guiana but not the whole claim.

In 1904, the issue of the Brazilian boundary was settled by the King of Italy, the Schomburgk Line again playing a major role. It must be noted that Schomburgk used the 'inferior' method of 'traverse' surveying. Trigonometric surveying was known at the time and far more accurate. The argument about Schomburgk’s surveying technique would continually bring his boundary demarcations under question. However, in the difficult mountainous and river-land terrain of British Guiana, the cost of trigonometric surveying was too prohibitive for Schomburgk.

'Brazilian Fort St. Gabriel, on the Rio Negro', Twelve views in the interior of Guiana

This plate demonstrates three significant aspects of Guyana as Robert Schomburgk knew it: the life of the indigenous South American Indians, the already established presence of European influences, and the tropical terrain with its mountains, roaring rivers and tumbling rapids which faced him and his party. He wrote:

    'We entered the Rio Negro or Guainia, as the Indian tribes call its upper course... Below this [the place where the Rio Negro crosses the equator] the river is impeded by rapids and falls, which follow in quick succession, and a steady hand at the helm, and a quick eye, are of the first importance; these excellent qualities we had in our pilot Bernardo from Xié, and we landed safely towards sunset at San Gabriel, a Brazilian fortress crowning a projecting eminence on the river’s left bank.
    'The small fort upon the hillock is built of stone, and was erected in 1763, to prevent the incursions of the Spaniards...
    'That kind of boat, which is represented in the view of San Gabriel as ready to enter the surge at the foot of the cataract, is called an Igaritea. Arrived at the cataract, it is drawn by means of ropes through the rushing water, and over the rocks which impede the passage of the river.'

    The third boundary expedition surveyed south-west Guiana, tracking along the Takutu and Ireng Rivers that form part of the border with Brazil and then returned to the Kanuku Mountains. They also surveyed the region around Mount Roraima, difficult mountainous terrain that forms the triple border point of Guiana, Brazil and Venezuela. Robert had effectively established the western border of Guiana from the source of the Takutu River to the settlement at Point Barima on the Atlantic Ocean.

    Schomburgk's last journey was to track the upper Corentyne River to its source, which is the Kutari River on the eastern border of Guiana with Dutch Guiana. The Corentyne River forms the whole eastern border of British Guiana.
Journal of an expedition from Pirara to the upper Corentyne, and from thence to Demerara : executed by order of Her Majesty’s Government, and under the command of Mr. Robert H. Schomburgk. 
[London : Printed by John Murray, 1845]
Schomburgk, Robert H. (Robert Hermann). Sir, 1804-1865.
104 pages : folded map
Refer RGSSA catalogue

Robert Schomburgk made many valuable contributions to the history, geography and botanical discoveries of the Colony of British Guiana. He surveyed many of Guiana's rivers to their source, and established boundaries. Demonstrating his concern for the welfare of indigenous people, he deplored slavery and did everything in his power to stop it occurring in Guiana. For this alone, he is a most favoured son in modern Guyana.

After British Guiana

As a result of his courageous exploration and invaluable contribution to establish the new Colony of British Guiana, Robert Schomburgk was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1844. In 1846 he was sent on diplomatic service to Barbados.
The history of Barbados : comprising a geographical and statistical description of the island, a sketch of the historical events since the settlement, and an account of its geology and natural productions. 
Schomburgk, Robert H. (Robert Hermann), Sir, 1804-1865.
London : Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1847.
xx, 722 pages, [7] leaves of plates : illustrations, 1 colour map
Refer RGSSA catalogue

Appointed as British Consul General and Representative of Business, he spent the next nine years at Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. In 1857, he was made British Consul General in Bangkok and surveyed large areas of Siam, now Thailand. In 1864, due to illness he returned to Berlin and died the following year.

Notes on the Schomburgk Collection

Aside from the geographical information given to the RGS in London, Schomburgk collected thousands of dried plant specimens, some dried fruits and other 'botanical objects'. A complete collection of his plants can be seen at Kew Gardens in London.
Maps archived in the Berlin State Library.
60 bird specimens were given to the Natural History Museum, South Kensington, England.
Fishes caught in the rivers, preserved in spirit and drawings.
Preserved animals and skulls given to the Linnaean and Zoological Societies, both in London, England.
Ethnological collection now in the Museum of Mankind, formerly the Department of Ethnography of the British Museum, London.
106 wood specimens given to the British Admiralty.
Seeds and living orchids sent to Kew Gardens.
Botanical illustrations given to the Natural History Museum.

Hakluyt Society:
Originally posted June 6, 2013 on our previous blog site  
All external links retrieved October 2019
Posted and researched by Sandra Thompson
RGSSA remote cataloguer


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