Untold lives blog

105 posts categorized "Science and environment"

30 March 2021

An Alternative to the Suez Canal?

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1868 created a new trade route between Europe and Asia as an alternative to the long sea journey around the Cape of Good Hope, but a different route had also been given serious consideration.

Isthmus of Suez and the River Euphrates in a detail from a map of ArabiaThe Isthmus of Suez and the River Euphrates in a detail from a map of Arabia by William Henry Plate (1847), IOR/X/3205, India Office Records, British Library
 

A survey of the Isthmus of Suez in 1798 had incorrectly shown the Red Sea to be 8.5m higher than the Mediterranean, an idea finally put to rest by a more accurate survey carried out by British army officer Captain Francis Rawdon Chesney in 1830.  Chesney’s recommendation however was for the establishment of a permanent steam-boat service on the Euphrates River as part of an overland route linking the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and in 1834 the UK Parliament voted a grant of £20,000 towards determining the navigability of the Euphrates during the winter months.

Opening of report recommending the Euphrates Expedition by the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Steam NavigationReport recommending the Euphrates Expedition by the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Steam Navigation (1834), IOR/L/MAR/C/573, India Office Records, British Library

The crew of the Euphrates Expedition, commanded by Chesney, departed England on 31 January 1835.  Also on board, in pieces that could be assembled when needed, were the two iron steam vessels the expedition would use, named Tigris and Euphrates in honour of the rivers they would be traversing.  The expedition arrived at Sowedich [Samandağ, modern-day Turkey] in April and then travelled overland to Bir [Birecik, Turkey] on the Euphrates, where the steamers were assembled and the survey commenced.

Dimensions and crew of each of the steam vessels  from Chesney’s official report of the expeditionDimensions and crew of each of the steam vessels, from Chesney’s official report of the expedition (1850), IOL.1947.c.142, India Office Records, British Library

The expedition was not without problems, including an initial reluctance by the East India Company to be involved in a project which had been planned “without [their] participation or concurrence” (IOR/L/MAR/C/573, f. 29).  There were also various delays caused by vital passage or supplies being denied by Ottoman officials, despite permission having been obtained from the Government of the Ottoman Empire, which the British suspected to be intentional obstructionism with possible Russian influence.  But the most tragic setback came when the steamers were caught in a storm that, in the words of one of the officers, “came hurling on towards us with the most fearful rapidity” (IOR/L/MAR/C/574, ff. 183-85).  The crew of the Euphrates were able to secure her to the bank, but the Tigris was blown back into the centre of the river and sank within minutes, with the loss of 20 men.

Drawing of the Tigris immediately before her sinkingDrawing of the Tigris immediately before her sinking, by Captain James Bucknall Estcourt (1836)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The expedition was completed in June 1836 and the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society proclaimed it a success, stating that “everything which could reasonably have been looked for, has been accomplished” (The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 7 (1837), p. 411), while the Resident in the Persian Gulf wrote that the establishment of a permanent steam service on the Euphrates was “worthy of the deepest consideration” and suggested ways in which it could strengthen Britain’s already dominant position in the Gulf (IOR/L/MAR/C/574, ff. 342-44).  Further explorations were carried out in the 1840s, but in 1854 preparations began for the building of the Suez Canal and an official overland route between the Mediterranean and the Gulf never became a reality.

Matt Griffin
Content Specialist, Gulf History, British Library Qatar Foundation partnership

Further reading:
The Euphrates Expedition of 1836: Ingenuity and Tragedy in Mesopotamia
Papers of Edward Philips Charlewood, Officer on the Euphrates Expedition
Dr Johann Helfer and the curious case of an unexplained footnote

04 March 2021

The Garden of Aden: The Experimental Vegetable Garden at Aden

Ill-health plagued the East India Company Army in the 19th century.  Army rations consisted of bread and meat, supplemented by other items which the soldiers bought for themselves.  Despite the work of Dr James Lind on scurvy a century before, malnutrition was common in the army.  At Aden, this diet was even more unsuitable owing  to a lack of fresh water, which was needed to render the salt meat provided palatable.

Army review on Woolwich Common 1841 showing soldiers, horses and cannons
Army review on Woolwich Common by the Queen, 1841 in The Records of the Woolwich District Volume II by William Vincent, (Woolwich: J. R. Jackson, [1888-90])

It was in these conditions that the Executive Engineer at Aden, Lieutenant John Adee Curtis, created an experimental vegetable garden in 1841.  Curtis’s aim for his garden was to supply the hospital and the troops stationed at Aden.  He calculated that, when it was fully productive, it would even be able to supply a small surplus which could be distributed to the prisoners who would tend the garden, helping to prevent scurvy in jails.  This would also cut down on labour costs, although Curtis claimed that ‘the garden has been almost entirely watered by the wastage which occurs in drawing water for the public works from the well situated at one angle of the enclosure’, reducing the work involved.

Water tanks at AdenWater tanks at Aden, mid 1870s. Photographer unknown, British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, T.11308/3 

The troops did not derive any benefit from its produce in the first year, as most of the vegetables were cut down and buried in the soil to rot, improving it for the following year.  However, between October 1841 and January 1842 the roads were closed and the hospitals lacked supplies.  During that time, the garden supplied them with 1943½ lbs of vegetables. 
In his letter asking for an extension of the scheme and the garden, which was 100 square feet, Curtis is enthusiastic about the future.  He does not mention what types of vegetables were grown, but he is confident that ‘with good seeds all Indian vegetables may be produced in Aden throughout the year’, and that in a few years, the soil may be improved enough to grow European vegetables.  Not all of his seeds germinated, but he attributes this to faulty seed, as he claims that all the plants which germinated produced vegetables.

The British also moved away from a reliance on salt and tinned meat at Aden, and negotiated for fresh meat.  This not just provided a healthier diet for those stationed at Aden, but also improved relations between the East India Company and the local citizens.

No more is heard of the experimental vegetable garden after 1842, but the military board’s continued funding of the garden in 1842 and the creation of another similar garden at Karachi a year or so later suggests that the project was continued for at least a short time.

Toy British soldiers dressed in red uniforms standing in a line
Toy British soldiers from Funny Books for Boys and Girls. Struwelpeter. Good-for-nothing Boys and Girls. Troublesome Children. King Nutcracker and Poor Reinhold (London: David Bogue, [1856]). Images Online

Anne Courtney
Gulf History Cataloguer

Further Reading:
The experimental vegetable garden at Aden appears in IOR/F/4/1930/82915 and IOR/F/4/1998/88694.

 

07 January 2021

Severe weather hits Britain in January 1763

In January 1763 parts of Britain were hit by severe weather conditions.  London was badly affected, with reports that the River Thames was as hazardous as the ocean.  Seagulls were seen near London Bridge, a sign of how cold conditions were that winter.

Ice at London Bridge when the River Thames froze in February 1814  showing boats stranded and people walking on the frozen waterIce at London Bridge when the River Thames froze in February 1814 - British Library K.Top.27.41 Images Online 

The directors of the East India Company resolved at their meeting on 26 January 1763 to help the poor of London ‘in consideration of the severity of the season’.  They gave ten guineas to several parishes for the relief of the poor: St Andrew Undershaft, St Olave Hart Street, St Katherine Coleman, St Mary Rotherhithe, All Hallows Barking, St Katharine Cree, St Helen’s, and St Peter Cornhill.  St Bartholomew by the Exchange received five guineas.  The maritime pensioners living in the Company’s almshouse, Poplar Hospital, were awarded an extra month’s pension at a total cost of £200.  Another ten guineas was donated towards helping the poor of Poplar.

Extract from East India Company directors' minutes detailing winter payments to poor people in London

British Library, IOR/B/78 p.289 Court of Directors minutes 26 January 1763 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A group of gardeners dressed in mourning pulled a cart without horses through Cheapside.  They asked for charity because the weather had prevented them from working.

In Cambridgeshire, Anne Sizer went to buy bread in Soham and became lost on her way back home.  She wandered into the fen, lay down, and froze to death.

On a lighter note, a gentleman from Lincoln’s Inn took on a skating challenge for a considerable bet.  He had to pick up 100 stones from the frozen Serpentine River in Hyde Park, laid out one yard apart in a direct line, and return with them separately to the starting point.  The time allowed was 1¼ hours but he managed to complete the task with ease in 52½ minutes.

Snowdrop with white flowers and green spreading leaves

Snowdrop from Sophina Gordon, Flowers, Earth's silent voices (Philadelphia, 1865) BL flickr

Not all regions were affected.  Dublin escaped the chill, and the weather was so mild in South Wales that snowdrops, daisies and primroses were blooming.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive e.g. Leeds Intelligencer 18 January 1763; Sussex Advertiser 24 January 1763.
London Chronicle or Universal Evening Post January 1763 via Google Books.
British Library, IOR/B/78 p.289 Court of Directors minutes 26 January 1763.

18 July 2020

300th anniversary of Gilbert White

This is a guest post from Clodagh Murphy, written in 2019 while undertaking a placement with the British Library Modern Archives team as part of the KCL Early Modern English Literature MA: Text and Transmission. 

18 July 2020 marks the 300th birthday of Gilbert White (1720-1793), a parson and pioneering naturalist, whose work has been credited with establishing ecology and natural science as we know it today.

White was born at the Vicarage at Selborne, and in 1728 moved with his parents and siblings to The Wakes in Selborne. White enjoyed ‘a childhood immersed in the wisdom of hanger, beech, and stream’, and developed an interest in the natural world that he was to sustain all his life. The Wakes was to become the place where White would establish the ecological practices and methods that would eventually form his most revered work: The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne (1789). 

After graduating from Oxford in June 1743, White embarked on a series of curacies, travelling around the country until he turned his attention back to Selborne, after the death of his Grandmother in 1759 left The Wakes in his possession. White began to develop a ‘formal study of the garden’ at The Wakes, and started to log his observations in a journal titled the Garden Kalendar, which includes entries on such operations as the growth of melons and cucumbers. In 1767, White’s correspondent Daines Barrington devised a new notebook that he called the Naturalist’s Journal; a record-keeping design which appealed to White, who subsequently set aside his Garden Kalendar and begun this new journal. White’s Naturalist’s Journal was eventually published alongside his Natural History of Selbourne, and is held in the British Library.

Tabulated page from the Naturalist's JournalPage from the Naturalist's Journal, Add MS 31849

White’s interest in the natural world at Selborne continued to develop until ‘reaching maturity’ in Flora Selborniensis (1766). This volume, consisting of further recordings of the garden at Selborne, was published in 1911 under the title A Nature Calendar and ‘convincingly demonstrates one of White’s principal strengths as a naturalist—an openness to enquiry’.

This curiosity led to White’s ‘principal accomplishment’: The Natural History and Antiquities at Selbourne.

Title page of the Natural History of SelborneTitle page of the Natural History of Selborne

White’s Natural History was published by his brother, Benjamin, in 1789 and is comprised of a series of letters between White and two other naturalists: Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. The Natural History was an immediate success and is considered one of the earliest contributions to natural science.

Gilbert White manuscripts at the Library

The original manuscript is kept at the Gilbert White museum in Selborne, but the Western Manuscripts collection at the British Library holds thirty letters from White to Pennant that contain the original form of most of the first part of White’s Natural History (Add MS 35139). The library also holds White’s Garden Kalendar (Add MS 35139), and a printed edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad that given to White by Pope in 1743. The edition contains autograph inscriptions, such as “Given to me by Mr. Alexander Pope on my taking the Degree of B.A. June 30th 1743” and ‘the sole authentic likenesses’ of White in two sketches: one labelled ‘Portrait of G. W. penned by T. C.’ and another of White wearing an academic cap.

Clodagh Murphy,

Research Assistant at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL), University College London

@clodaghmurph_y

@livesandletters 

 

Further reading

The Gilbert White & Oates Collections

KCL, Early Modern English Literature MA: Text and Transmission course details

Manuscript of Gilbert White's Garden Kalendar, Add MS 35139

 

11 June 2020

Strange News for Strange Times

We might feel like we’re living through a surreal period of strange news at the moment, but that’s nothing compared to some of the stories reported in news pamphlets of the early 17th century.  During this period reports of freak weather, unearthly sightings of ghosts, monstrous births and more were frequent.  The question is, did people living in the 17th century think these reports were as strange as we do today?

In 1616, news broke of three dead bodies rising from their graves in a town in Germany.  In the aftermath of a ‘tempest’, the townspeople believed they saw three corpses rising from the graveyard to preach a terrible warning about God’s wrath.  Rumours of this spread, pamphlets were printed across Europe and news of it eventually reached Edward Allde in London, where he printed this account.

Cover of Miraculous Newes featuring three skeletonsMiraculous newes, from the cittie of Holdt, in the Lord-ship of Munster (in Germany) the twentieth of September last past, 1616. Where there were plainly beheld three dead bodyes rise out of their graves, admonishing the people of judgements to come. London: Printed [by E. Allde] for John Barnyes, 1616. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As you can see, 'Miraculous Newes' is splashed across the half-title page, just as any sensational headline would be today, and a fantastic woodcut of the three skeletons is emblazoned below.  This incident may seem surreal to us today but then it would have been only too believable.  People in the early modern period were accustomed to interpreting strange sightings and weird phenomena as signs of divine judgement or wrath.  This was the only way they could interpret them.

So did people always believe these strange news reports?  Well, in 1620, Nathaniel Butter published a news report translated out of Italian about a vision seen over the Prophet Mohammad’s tomb in ‘Arabia’ and an account of the skies raining blood in Rome.

Cover of Good Newes to Christendome showing skies raining bloodCortano, Ludovico. Good newes to Christendome. Sent to a Venetian in Ligorne, from a merchant in Alexandria, Discovering a wonderfull and strange apparition, visibly seene for many dayes…with many other notable accidents. London: Printed for Nathaniel Butter, 1620. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In the preface, the translator writes that he found it hard to believe this account.  After all, other recent strange reports, such as the 'Sussex Serpent, the German Ghosts' (a reference to the pamphlet described above?) and a great army marching in the sky, all 'came out of the shop of invention'.  But he apparently realised his mistake and is now convinced that this vision isn’t fake news. This one is definitely true, and if it’s true, then it has to be a sign from God.

It wasn’t just ghosts and visions that were divine interventions either.  Extreme weather was also a likely sign from God.  This pamphlet is a 'true relation' of a storm and severe flooding in Barcelona and the surrounding area in November 1617.  The woodcut depicts people drowning in the floods.  It was only with much prayer and dipping of the Holy Cross into the water that the storm eventually abated.  The pamphlet ends with a reminder of God’s 'chastisements and warnings' and a warning to serve him with 'more truth and sinceritie'.

Cover of Newes from Spain showing people drowning in the floods

Rejaule, V. A true relation of the lamentable accidents, caused by the inundation and rising of Ebro, Lobregat, Cinca, and Segre, rivers of Spaine. Together with a narration of a fearefull storme, which happened the third of November, in the yeare 1617. In the haven and port of Barcelona. London: printed for William Blackwall, 1618.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These strange news reports that today we would brush off as fake news were in fact serious matters in the early modern period.  Whilst people may not have believed every incredible story, they were wary enough of divine judgement to certainly believe some.  Strange news reports like these became more prevalent in times of upheaval, anxiety and uncertainty, such as in the build-up to the English Civil War, as people didn’t know what to believe.  Surreal times generated surreal headlines, and we can certainly empathise with that.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Sir Hans Sloane as a collector of “strange news”

23 April 2020

The rocky beginnings of Eddystone Lighthouse

Perched on the treacherous Eddystone Rocks 20 kilometres off Plymouth stands a lighthouse, the fourth to be built there. This extraordinary print measuring one metre is an etching of the first lighthouse by its designer, engineer Henry Winstanley.

Eddystone Lighthouse Edystone Light-house; etching, engraving and stipple by Henry Winstanley, 1699-1702. Shelfmark K.Top.11.114.a.2 TAB. Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Winstanley (c.1644-1703), of Littlebury near Saffron Walden, had shares in a ship which, like many others, was wrecked on these rocks. He submitted to London’s Trinity House a design for the first offshore lighthouse in the world. It was accepted and supported by the Admiralty – hence the dedication to the Lord High Admiral of England in the allegorical cartouche at top left.

Next to it is the fascinating history of building the lighthouse between 1696 and 1699. Work could only progress during summer, and even then was often halted for weeks because of storm-force winds and waves up to 200 feet high. The builders were often stranded and nearly ran out of provisions on several occasions. At this time the Nine Years’ War was being waged, and the description omits an incident from 1697 when the crew of a French privateer vessel destroyed what had been built of the lighthouse, captured Winstanley and his companions, and transported them to France. They were later released by the orders of King Louis XIV, who announced: ‘We are at war with England, not with humanity’.

Text in an open book at top right provides navigational information for ships. The key underneath describes various parts of the building. Galleries were used to retrieve goods from boats below by using cranes, and for signalling to ships. A bedroom/dining room above the kitchen in the cupola contained lockers for storing candles. Inside the lantern a large hanging lamp and sixty additional burning candles provided the light. On the outside, there were wooden ornamental candlesticks on iron supports, and Winstanley recommended propping ladders against them when cleaning the windows! He even thought of including a chute for rolling stones at intruders to defend the landing place.

According to the inscription at the bottom of the sheet, Winstanley sold the print and showed a model of his lighthouse to visitors at his ‘Waterworks’ – a Water Theatre at Piccadilly he invented for the entertainment of a paying public, with water displays and fireworks.

Eddystone lighthouse blog  Image 2Edystone Light-house; etching, engraving and stipple by Henry Winstanley, 1699-1702, later state; detail showing text added to the original print after Winstanley‘s death in 1703. Nouveau Theatre de la Grande Bretagne,  Supplement volume, Plate LIV, London, 1728. Shelfmark 191.g.10-14. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


A later version of the print was published in the Supplement volume of Nouveau Theatre de la Grande Bretagne (1728). Here the previously blank leaf of the book at top right carries an inscription, telling us that the lighthouse was destroyed in a storm on 27 November 1703. Winstanley, who was supervising repairs on the structure, was swept away by the sea and never found.

Volume IV of Nouveau Theatre contains a print of the second Eddystone lighthouse, designed by John Rudyerd and completed in 1709. This lighthouse also came to a sad end: it was destroyed by fire on 2 December 1755. One of the three lighthouse keepers, Henry Hall aged 94, died from ingesting molten lead from the burning roof of the lantern.

John Smeaton’s third lighthouse from 1759 had to be dismantled after 120 years because the rocks below cracked. The present one by James Douglass was completed on an adjacent rock in 1882. All four lighthouses have fulfilled their function of keeping ships safe and preserving precious lives.

Marianne Yule
Curator of Prints and Drawings, British Library Western Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Biographical entry for Henry Winstanley in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Eddystone Lighthouse 
Winstanley’s Light

 

11 March 2020

Within a hair’s breadth of failure: John Houghton and the climate change report

This post is part of a series highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2020.

Among the papers of the climate scientist Sir John Houghton, (Add MS 89409) is a record of one of the most significant moments in either Houghton’s career or the history of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body set up by the United Nations in order to observe and respond to changes in the world’s climate.  It is a transcript of a meeting in Madrid, in late 1995, of Working Group I, the IPCC’s division for assessing the ‘physical science of climate change’.

At the time, the IPCC was preparing its second major report.  The contribution of Working Group I already existed in draft form, but its summary still needed finalising.  Did its phrasing – especially in its central assertion, that human activity is affecting the climate – reflect the scientific evidence?  As co-Chairman, Houghton was to oversee this fine-tuning, and, if possible, to guide the meeting towards a consensus.  This could never come at the cost of scientific integrity, but it seemed within reach, and worth striving for.

Transcript of the IPCC discussion, Madrid 1995Transcript of the IPCC discussion, Madrid 1995. (Add MS 89409/4/23), Copyright 2020 The British Library.

Houghton was prepared for robust debate, but admits that he had not anticipated the direction actually taken by the discussion, which the transcript records in a 238-page slab of twelve-point text (Add MS 89409/4/23).  On the first day, Houghton noticed a representative of the Global Climate Coalition, one of the invited non-governmental organisations, engaging certain delegates in conversation.  That this organisation was generally critical of the IPCC’s conclusions was not in itself a problem, but its being backed by ‘powerful parts of the US and international energy industry’ suggested certain non-scientific interests.  The next day, Houghton found that some of these delegates ‘wanted to weaken the statements about the extent of climate change’ and emphasise the ‘uncertainties about [its] causes’.

Houghton was frustrated because it was clear to him that their motives were political, not scientific.  Indeed, one main representative was not a scientist but a lawyer.  Time was ticking on, objections were now being raised over individual words, and he was being cast in the role of a political negotiator.  Could some concessions be made in exchange for others? ‘I’m keeping no score sheet,’ he insisted.  The science could not be bartered.

John Houghton speaking at a conference 2005John Houghton speaking at a conference in High Wycombe, UK, 2005. Photo credit: Kaihsu Tai. Reproduced under the terms of Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0, (cropped and lightened).

The third afternoon wore on.  Time was running out.  The planned evening meal was abandoned; at 9 pm the translators left.  The meeting agreed to continue without them, and Houghton pressed on.  Only at twenty past midnight, minutes before the building closed, did they finish.  But a consensus, albeit sobering, had been reached: ‘The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate’.

Houghton has written that if it had not been for the last-minute success of this meeting, the major Kyoto Protocol climate treaty would not have been adopted two years afterwards.  He has also observed that all the opposition actually resulted in a better, stronger document.  ‘It was a stimulating and exciting time’, he reflected later, ‘but we had come within a hair’s breadth of failure’.

Dominic Newman
Manuscripts Cataloguer

The Papers of John Houghton were gifted to the British Library in 2015.  At present a single series ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’ consisting of correspondence, notes, offprints and published material, is available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89409/4.

The British Library would like to thank the American Institute of Physics (AIP) for their generous support in enabling the cataloguing of this material.

Further reading:
John Houghton, ‘Madrid 1995: Diagnosing climate change’, Nature, 455 (2008), 737-738
John Houghton et al. (eds.), 'Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
John Houghton, with Gill Tavner, In the Eye of the Storm: the autobiography of Sir John Houghton. (Oxford, Lion, 2013)

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30 January 2020

Heartbroken on St Helena: the naturalist William John Burchell - Part Two

We left William Burchell, probably the best naturalist you've never heard of, in early 1808 on the island of St Helena, teaching school, tending a nascent botanic garden, and carrying out botanical and geological surveys of the island.

St Helena - Terrace KnollTerrace Knoll : A view in St. Helena. 'In looking inland you have this view and turning towards the sea you have the view of the Friar. This was drawn and coloured on the spot and is very correct. In the winter the hills are much greener. The bamboo is not finished but correctly shows its growth. The yams grow along a stream of water.' William Burchell's Saint Helena Journal 1806-1810 – Dated 16 February 1807 © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

All was looking well.  A minute of the East India Company Court of Directors dated 4 November 1807 recorded the decision 'That Miss Lucia Green be permitted to proceed to her Uncle at St Helena'.  In December Lucia set sail to join Burchell in the East India Company ship Walmer Castle.

Bond for Lucia Green providing surety for her travel to St Helena.Bond for Lucia Green providing surety for her travel to St Helena. IOR/O/1/234 no.2088, signed by Matthew Burchell and Robert Holt Butcher, vicar of Wandsworth. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

By the time the ship arrived in St Helena in April 1808, Lucia had struck up a relationship with Captain Luke Dodds.  She announced to Burchell that she no longer wanted to marry him.  His St Helena journal and correspondence from that time record his devastation at the betrayal.  Burchell had to watch as Lucia sailed away to a life with Captain Dodds.

Burchell's business partnership also failed and was dissolved.  Moreover the East India Company was pressing Burchell for research of economic rather than scientific benefit ‘in the hope that something valuable for the purposes of commerce or manufacture might be brought to light’, and so reduce the expenses of the Island.  Burchell felt frustrated.  He wrote: “not having been employed in a manner useful to the Honourable Company, I feel that I could not conscientiously receive the salary”.  By April 1810 he had resigned as Company naturalist, having previously given up his position as schoolmaster.  His last few months on St Helena were mired in arguments with the churchwardens over payment of rent.  One cannot help but view Burchell's later experiences on St Helena as having been tainted by his personal anguish. 

He left the island on 16 October 1810, and travelled to Cape Town, where he undertook a remarkable four-year expedition into the interior of Southern Africa, through Cape Colony and Bechuanaland. His Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa was published in two volumes in 1822 and 1824; an expected third volume was never completed. 

The Rock Fountain in the country of the BushmanTravels in the Interior of Southern Africa Vol 1 p. 294: 'The Rock Fountain in the country of the Bushman' Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

10. IMG_20191219_093018 Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa Vol 1 p.325: 'A Hottentot Krall on the banks of the Gariep' Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

11. IMG_20191219_093737Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa Vol 2 p.360: 'View on entering the town of Litakun' Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Burchell was travelling again by 1825, this time to Brazil.  He collected widely over a period of five years, including in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, São Paulo, Goiás, Tocantins, and Pará, ending up in the town of Belém.  He returned to England in March 1830 laden with the fruits of his collecting labours.

William John Burchell by Thomas Herbert MaguireWilliam John Burchell by Thomas Herbert Maguire-  lithograph, 1854 NPG D32394 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Burchell did not produce a narrative of his expedition to Brazil.  Indeed, the rest of his life was spent cataloguing his enormous collection of specimens, which he guarded rather jealously.  The task was not finished until 1860.  Burchell slowly withdrew from his friends and fellow scientists, including William Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. He published few of his findings and drew little public acclaim.  William Burchell committed suicide at the family home in Fulham on 23 March 1863.

Today William Burchell is seen as a pioneer for his meticulous field work in recording the date and precise location where he collected his specimens, and for his myriad talents in botany, geology, art and illustration, geography, and what we would now call environmentalism.  His name deserves to be more widely known.

And how did life turn out for Burchell's fiancée Lucia Green and her Captain Luke Dodds? That’s another story

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Heartbroken on St Helena: the naturalist William John Burchell - Part One

A Ship-Board Romance: Lucia Green and Captain Luke Dodds

 

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