Sir Robert Schomburgk (1804-65): German Traveller Who Explored Northeastern South America with the Royal Geographical Society and Surveyed the Boundaries of British Guiana for Her Majesty's Government

Article excerpt

What was his background?

Robert Schomburgk, the son of a Protestant minister, was born at Freiburg in Saxony on 5 June 1804. He was mainly educated at home, and at the age of 14 was apprenticed to a businessman. However, his real interest was in natural history, in particular botany.

In 1828, Schomburgk travelled to the USA, and the following year to the West Indies. In 1830, all of his possessions were destroyed in a fire, and he turned full time to his scientific work. His work attracted the attention of Captain Alexander Maconochie, the first secretary of the newly formed Royal Geographical Society, and it was largely through his patronage that Schomburgk gained RGS for support for his plan to explore northeastern South America. This venture was the first scientific expedition to receive RGS funding.

What did he achieve?

Schomburgk's earliest explorations in the interior of British Guiana, in 1835-37, weren't particularly successful, although, during the last, his discovery of the giant water lily brought him to public attention. It was his 1837-39 journey from Georgetown to Esmeralda on the Orinoco, where he connected his survey with that of Alexander von Humboldt, that made his name as a geographer. On his return to Europe in 1839, he received numerous awards, including the RGS Patron's Medal.

Schomburgk's explorations in British Guiana revealed the need for the colony's frontiers to be laid down. …

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