A beguiling account of a epic journey in Africa 200 years ago


Review:  Myrna Robins

Burchell’s African Odyssey – Revealing the return journey 1812-1815,  by Roger Stewart and Marion Whitehead (Struik Nature)

When reviewing an impressive piece of Africana like this it seems apt to start with praise for the joint authors. They have produced a text which moves seamlessly from William John Burchell’s own readable journal entries to supplementary information.

The combination is a literary odyssey that never flags.

It involved considerable and lengthy research that included scouring primary information, studying Burchell’s map, his collections, manuscripts, letters and art. Having re-mapped his journey on Google Earth they developed the narrative by organising their information into a chronological sequence.

In the opening chapter they place the importance of Burchell’s discoveries in perspective for readers here and in the UK. To take a single example, gardeners cultivating the popular red hot poker, clivia and torch lily can thank Burchell for introducing them to horticulture.

Burchell arrived in Cape Town from England in 1811, as a keen but inexperienced 29-year-old naturalist. He travelled 7 000km over four years, collecting thousands of plants, mammals, insects, birds and reptiles now kept at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and at Oxford University.

It was during his three-year journey back from the interior, from the southern Kalahari to the Karoo and the southern coastal belt to Cape Town that he collected most of his specimens.

This book is the first documented account of the return journey.

Burchell had already spent five years on St Helena island where he collected and documented the island’s plants before heading to Cape Town, ready to explore South Africa’s interior.

He had been just been jilted by his former fiancée and was never to marry, but focused on using his extensive knowledge of horticulture and his excellent academic education to the benefit of scientists more than two centuries later. Add to this his drawing and writing talents and we have a record, incomplete as it is, that is beautifully illustrated.

Once his custom-built ox wagon, serving as home, office, and warehouse was completed,  he set off in mid -June 1811 along with 10 Khoekhoe employees, two teams of oxen and a small flock of sheep.

He reached Litakun, a settlement inhabited by Khoekhoe and San people north-east of Kuruman and 1 000km from Cape Town. His journey provided much experience for the return trip which was to start there, as his employees had had enough and threatened to leave if he continued north.

After a hot, dry start, with no water for three days, they reached the Kuruman river and made camp for nearly a month for humans, dogs and oxen to recuperate. He added several specimens to his collection of reptiles, birds and plants.

The next stage – covering more than 650 km – saw the party trek from Kuruman to Klaarwater where summer rains yielded several flowering plant specimens. Graaff-Reinet was next on the itinerary but first there was a hair-raising interlude: the Gariep river had risen so much that the ford was impassable. Never defeated, Burchell organised rafts to be constructed while he unpacked and disassembled the wagons. They then successfully floated the parts, contents and collections in lots across the river.

After resting, undertaking repairs, and taking on new employees in Graaff-Reinet, Burchell headed to Grahamstown via Albany, Uitenhage and Algoa Bay after which he set off for the forests of the Tsitsikamma and Outeniqua region.

He followed the  Great Wagon Road through the Langkloof to Plettenburg Bay, stayed for a prolonged period in Knysna, before continuing via  George to a campsite near the old Post Office tree in Mossel Bay. Today the only memorial to his contribution to natural history can be found in George.

Travelling via Swellendam and Stellenbosch, Burchell arrived back in Cape Town on April 14, 1815. Four months later he sailed for London along with his 48 packages of plants, seeds, bulbs, insects, skins and bones, over 500 drawings, books, artefacts, geological specimens, field notes, journals and letters.

Roger Stewart has studied Burchell for 15 years – when he not publishing historic African historic maps – while Marion Whitehead, a freelance photojournalist, has published a book on South African passes and poorts and a guide to the flower route.

This title represents an extraordinary achievement in filling the gap in the accounts of Burchell’s travels and highlighting his contributions to natural history and horticulture.

He was a polymath, and I prefer to expand any description of Burchell to include the following: an adventurous traveller, a brilliant naturalist, an early ecologist, a natural philosopher, a meticulous record-keeper, a talented artist and a man who revelled in nature, beauty and peace.

This volume is a beguilingly produced hardback, copiously illustrated with maps, Burchell’s own sketches and drawings, and includes informative boxes on some of the plants and animals he collected and described.

One thought on “A beguiling account of a epic journey in Africa 200 years ago

  1. David Bristow

    The book, like Burchell’s journey (s) is a very fine thing, as is your review. On the strength I would buy had I not already been given a copy. But I think Struk Nature missed a trick not making it a bit more of an impressive format.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *