William John Burchell

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William John Burchell
by Thomas Herbert Maguire (1854)
Wagon commissioned by Burchell for his expedition

William John Burchell (23 July 1781 Fulham, London - 23 March 1863 Fulham) was an English explorer, naturalist, traveller, artist and author. He was the son of Matthew Burchell, botanist and owner of Fulham Nursery, nine and a half acres of land adjacent to the gardens of Fulham Palace. Burchell served a botanical apprenticeship at Kew and was elected F.L.S. in 1803. At about this time, he became enamoured of a Miss Lucia Green of Fulham, but faced strong disapproval from his parents when he broached the idea of an engagement.

On 7 August 1805 he sailed for St. Helena aboard the East Indiaman "Northumberland" and intended to set up there as a merchant with a partner from London, William Balcombe (1779-1829). A year of trading saw Burchell unhappy with his situation and the partnership was speedily dissolved. Three months later he accepted a position as schoolmaster on the island and later as official botanist. In 1810 he sailed to the Cape on the recommendation of Gen. J.W. Janssens to explore and to add to his botanical collection. Burchell's intended wife had jilted him for the captain of the boat taking her to St. Helena to join him. [1]

Landing at Table Bay on 26 November 1810, after stormy weather had prevented a landing for 13 days, he set about planning an expedition into the interior, leaving Cape Town in June 1811.

Burchell travelled in South Africa between 1810 and 1815, collecting over 50,000 specimens, and covering over 7000 km, much over unexplored terrain. He described his journey in Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa, a two-volume work appearing in 1822 and 1824, since reprinted in 1967 by C.Struik of Cape Town. There is little doubt that a third volume was planned, since the second volume ends long before completion of his journey. On 25 August 1815 he sailed from Cape Town with 48 crates of specimens aboard the vessel "Kate", calling at St. Helena and arriving back at Fulham on 11 November 1815. He travelled in Brazil between 1825 and 1830, again collecting a large number of specimens, including over 20,000 insects. The journals covering his Brazil expedition are missing, as are his diaries relating to his later travels. His field note books, detailing his plant collections, survive at Kew, and from those the latter part of his trip can be reconstructed.

His extensive African collections included plants, animal skins, skeletons, insects, seeds, bulbs and fish. After his death by suicide, the bulk of his plant specimens went to Kew and the insects to Oxford University Museum. He is known for the copious and accurate notes he made to accompany every collected specimen, detailing habit and habitat, as well as the numerous drawings and paintings of landscapes, portraits, costumes, people, animals and plants.

Burchell was closely questioned in 1819 by a select committee of the British House of Commons about the suitability of South Africa for emigration, given his experience and knowledge of the country. It was no coincidence that the 1820 Settlers followed a year later.

He is commemorated in the monotypic plant genus Burchellia R. Br., as well as numerous specific names including Burchell's zebra, Burchell's coucal and the Eciton burchellii army ant.

Burchell is denoted by the author abbreviation Burch. when citing a botanical name.[2]


Descending from the Sneeuberge near Graaff-Reinet
Rocks in the Asbestos Mountains
Portrait of Speelman, a Hottentot


  1. ^ http://www.rhinoresourcecenter.com/pdf_files/117/1175857244.pdf
  2. ^ Brummitt, R. K.; C. E. Powell (1992). Authors of Plant Names. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. ISBN 1-84246-085-4. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Botanical Exploration of Southern Africa Mary Gunn and LE Codd (Balkema 1981) ISBN 0-86961-129-1
  • Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa (2 vols.) - William Burchell (1822)

External links[edit]