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William Burchell: Who was he?

William John Burchell was born in London (Fulham) on 23rd July 1781. He is probably the best naturalist most people have never heard of. He was an English explorer, naturalist, traveller, artist, and author. His thousands of plant specimens and field journals from his South African expedition are held by Kew Gardens and his insect collection by the Oxford University Museum.

William Burchell’s father, Matthew Burchell, was a botanist and owned Fulham Nursery plus nine and a half acres of land adjacent to the gardens of Fulham Palace.

William enjoyed privileged schooling, at Raleigh House Academy in Mitcham, Surrey and undertook self-study. He also maintained friendly relationships with famous naturalists of the time. Driven by his thirst for knowledge and desire to travel, Burchell undertook extensive fieldwork. His travels in search of knowledge included St. Helena (1805-1810), where he was appointed official botanist to the English East India Company; South Africa (1810-1815); and Portugal, Tenerife and Brazil (1825-1830). In 1830 he finished his travels returned to England.

While Burchell’s primary interest was natural history and, in particular, botany, it may be argued that he was a polymath, who also had several skills. He certainly ‘knew a lot about a lot, and he could do a lot’[1] – that’s perhaps a good definition of a polymath. Although Burchell had much in common with fellow 19th century naturalists, he was different: he was also a geographer, natural philosopher, ethnographer, draughtsman and artist, a talented linguist and an accomplished author.

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Portrait of William John Burchell in 1854, by Thomas Herbert Maguire (1821-1895) © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Picture Credit
: [Cropped], Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lost Love
A minute of the East India Company Court of Directors in November 1807 records the decision ‘That Miss Lucia Green be permitted to proceed to her uncle at St Helena’.  In December 1807, Lucia set sail to join Burchell in the East India Company’s ship Walmer Castle. By the time the ship arrived in St Helena in April 1808, Lucia had struck up a relationship with Captain Luke Dodds.  On her arrival, she told Burchell that she no longer wanted to marry him.  Burchell was devastated yet had to stand back and watch Lucia sail away with her Captain, to be married in Lingfield, Surrey, on 29th May 1810[2].

The South African Journal of Science provides this abstract[3]:

“In November 1810, Burchell arrived in Cape Town and, in mid-1811, he set off on a 4-year, 7,000-km journey of scientific exploration. When he returned to Cape Town in April 1815, he had amassed 63,000 specimens and 500 drawings. He 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.”

The Dictionary of South African Biography praises Burchell:

“His work as a naturalist has never been equalled. His careful preparation, execution and completion of his objectives, detailed annotation, and brilliant appreciation of nature set science a goal seldom achieved. Much of what he discovered has enriched the work of others.”

During a four-year scientific exploration of South Africa, he amassed a collection of over 63,000 specimens. And yet, Burchell’s contributions to science have been largely overlooked. As William Swainson bemoaned, “science must ever regret that one whose powers of mind were so varied…was so signally neglected in his own country.”[4]

The Journeys
Two years after his Kew apprenticeship, at age 24, he travelled on board the East Indiaman Northumberland[5] to St. Helena, South Africa and then Brazil. He established himself briefly in St. Helena as a merchant and then became involved in the local Botanical Garden.

Burchell travelled in South Africa through 1815, collecting over 50,000 specimens, and covering more than 7000 km, much over unexplored terrain. He described his journey in Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa[6], a two-volume work appearing in 1822 and 1824[7]. He is believed to have planned a third volume, since the second ends long before completing his journey. On 25th August 1815, he sailed from Cape Town with 48 crates of specimens aboard the vessel Kate, calling at St. Helena and reaching Fulham on 11th November 1815.

The South African public mostly remembers Burchell for his work and study of animals, not plants.

Burchell was qualified to teach mathematics on St. Helena and, while he made no novel contributions to the subject, he applied his knowledge effectively in celestial and dead-reckoning navigation and in cartography.

Burchell and his Colours
On his travels, Burchell embraced indigenous dyes in the manufacture of paints and ink. While on his African trek, he produced a metal-based paint from sibilo[8]. Burchell also developed a long-lasting, bright yellow ink and paint from plants of the Thymelearum (Thymelaeacae) family. While he was en route to Graaff-Reinet, his assistants shot a black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). When his writing ink dried up, Burchell wrote his detailed morphological descriptions with an ink he made from the animal’s blood.

Burchell painted colour charts between 1825-1830 to aid the identification of the plants he was collecting whilst travelling in Brazil. The charts show 60 colours ranging from white to Indian ink, along with assigned names and numbers to assist in describing the appearance of the plants. Burchell included colour names like Dragon’s Blood (red), Gallstone (yellow), Cologne Earth (dark brown), Antwerp (blue), and Italian Pink (which is actually yellow).

A second, similar colour chart has sections of Burchell’s travel itinerary written alongside it. Having these colour references to hand whilst travelling would have been invaluable to him. Over the last three decades of his life, he catalogued the specimens he collected extensively and used these colour charts to add detail and maintain accuracy within his work.

His material from Brazil, totalling more than 52,000 specimens, was only catalogued in 1860. Naturalists regard these catalogues as basic sources of exceptional historical value on the botany of St Helena, South Africa and Brazil.

After he died in 1863, Burchell’s sister Anna donated Burchell’s collections and manuscripts to Kew[9].

A Sad Ending
After serving a botanical apprenticeship at Kew, William Burchell had been elected F.L.S. (Fellow of the Linnaen Society) in 1803. His contemporaries did not fully recognise his achievements, and he became a solitary and unhappy figure in later life. He died in Fulham in 1863, ending his own life by hanging himself in a small outhouse in his garden, after a failed suicide attempt by shooting. He is buried near his home at All Saints Church, Fulham.

Sourced/Excerpted from and Further Reading


  1. Source:
  2. Source: British Library at
  3. At:
  4. Source:
  5. Source: The Northumberland was launched in 1805. She made six voyages as an extra ship of the British East India Company (EIC), between 1805 and 1818. In 1810 and 1811 she served as a transport in the British invasions of Mauritius and Java. She was sold to be broken up, in 1819.
  6. Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa
  7. Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilisation as we know it.
  8. Sibilo is a powdered black micaceous or iron ore used as a cosmetic by certain African peoples.
  9. Source: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, at


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