History of the Republic of Guyana

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Robert Schomburgk: An early scientist in Guyana

Reprinted from Stabroek News - June. 2004

On Saturday (June 5th. 2004) simultaneous exhibitions opened in Germany and Guyana to commemorate the two hundredth birth anniversary of Robert Schomburgk, the German explorer and naturalist. Many people in this country will perhaps never have heard of him, but he played a major role in the story of our boundaries, and along with his brother Richard, was also a pioneer in the scientific collection and classification of botanical specimens from our interior. As a surveyor, he produced cartographical work, while the accounts of his various travels both in the books he published, such as A Description of British Guiana, and Travels in the Interior of British Guiana 1835-1839, as well as various articles in the Journal of the Geographical Society have given us a unique insight into the Amerindians of the period, on whose behalf he lobbied the authorities.

As if that were not enough, he also produced a two-volume work on the fishes of Guiana, and an article containing his geological observations. In addition, he is credited with establishing the observatory which once stood on what is now Independence Park. He was, in short, one of Guyana's true early scientists.

Early life

Robert Hermann Schomburgk was born on June 5, 1804 in the tiny town of Freyburg on the River Unstrut. The town itself is about 800 years old, and is set in the middle of wine-growing country. Today it is located in the region of Saxony-Anhalt, but when Schomburgk was eleven years old, it had been brought under the authority of Prussia, which over the course of the nineteenth century was to unify the patchwork of German states under its dominion.

Schomburgk's grandfather had been the mayor of Freyburg, while his father was the Lutheran pastor there for nearly twenty years. According to J A C van Dam author of Flora of the Guianas, Schomburgk was the eldest of five siblings, and was educated by his family with the view that he should go into business. As such, he was taught Latin, French, arithemetic and sciences - not a bad preliminary grounding for his later concerns. Van Dam also says that he showed an early interest in nature, and it was while he was living with his uncle in the 1820s, that he was given the opportunity to learn botany from a professor.

In 1828, he went to Richmond, Virginia, where he had an unsuccessful stint as a tobacco farmer, while the following year found him in the island of St Thomas. After a fire in which all he owned was destroyed, van Dam says that he gave up all attempts at being a businessman, and took himself off to Puerto Rico. He does not appear to have lingered in that island either, and in due course he went on to the Virgin Islands.

It was here that he was afforded the opportunity of bringing himself to the notice of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in England. At his own expense he mapped a portion of the coast of Anegada, which up to that point had not been accurately surveyed, and which was an area notorious for its shipwrecks. His surveying work as well as his description of the island impressed the society, and as a consequence it was proposed that he should go to South America under its commission.

Travels in Guyana's interior 1835-39

The great name in nineteenth-century exploration in South America was Alexander von Humboldt, who had travelled on the continent at the very beginning of the century, and had written a major work on his peregrinations. He was still alive when Schomburgk was active in Guyana, and was later to write the introduction to the younger man's account of his travels here.

Citing the local historian James Rodway as a source, Van Dam says that Schomburgk recognized that Von Humboldt, whom he regarded as an inspiration, had not explored the basins of the Essequibo and Corentyne Rivers, or the Rio Branco; his travels had taken him no closer to our Guyana than Esmeralda on the upper Orinoco. The proposal was, therefore, that in addition to "thoroughly [investigating] the physical and astronomical geography of British Guiana," Schomburgk should also link his findings with those of Von Humboldt. His expeditions in consequence took him outside Guyana's modern boundaries into territory that is now Brazilian and Venezuelan, and of necessity he also visited Esmeralda.

Schomburgk was to make three journeys on behalf of the RGS, his first one taking him to the Rupununi, where he visited the Macusi village of Pirara, among other places, also travelling to the Kanukus in search of the plant used in the Macusi poison we now call 'curare.' He duly found out about its preparation, and brought back a specimen to Georgetown (among many other specimens of various plants, as well as some birds and insects).

His second expedition took him up the Corentyne and Berbice Rivers, and it was in the latter on January 1, 1837, that he came across the Victoria regia water lily, now Guyana's national flower.

Schomburgk's last trip for the RGS took him to the source of the Essequibo River, the upper Orinoco, the Rio Branco basin and Mount Roraima. The explorer went to Pirara again, and while there the missionary Thomas Youd arrived with the intention of setting up a mission station.

However, it was when he was in the Rio Branco (now in Brazil), that Schomburgk was a witness to an event which in its consequences had repercussions reaching all the way to Georgetown and by extension London, on the one hand, and Rio de Janeiro on the other.

As described by Peter Riviere in his book Absent-minded Imperialism, Schomburgk witnessed a party of Brazilians who were officially said to be recruiting Indians for labour in the navy, but who he believed were actually slavers. He became immediately alarmed that they would make Youd's new mission of Pirara a target, and persuaded a Brazilian official to stop them from attacking it. When Schomburgk met the gang again, they were accompanied by 40 Indian "labourers," but the explorer noted that there were only nine men among them, of whom three were over the age of 60. Eighteen of them were children under 12, six of them being infants. The Indians described how their village had been raided in the night, their houses set on fire, and they themselves had been marched out with their hands tied behind their backs.

Riviere goes on to say that it was this incident "which brought home to Schomburgk the need to define the boundary if such raids were to be prevented in future." Youd, it must be said, was of a similar view, and wrote to Governor Light impressing on him the necessity of fixing the boundary in order to protect the Amerindians.

Schomburgk too, says Riviere, wrote to the Governor in a similar vein, offering any information he had collected which might be of use in defining the frontier. Without waiting for a reponse, however, he then forwarded his proposals about where the border should fall. He also, it must be added, sent a letter to the Aborigines' Protection Society in London about the Brazilian slavers.

M N Menezes in her work, British Policy towards the Amerindians in British Guiana 1803-1873, has recounted some of the details of the consequences of Schomburgk's encounter with the slaving party. In brief, the Brazilians subsequently seized Indians from Pirara, and effectively evicted Youd from his station, following which Schomburgk took up the issue of the boundary again with the Governor in order to protect the indigenous inhabitants. Menezes has written that no official, apart from Superintendant McClintock, was ever again to plead the cause of protecting the Indians so "continuously and earnestly" as Schomburgk and Governor Light.

After some exchange of correspondence between officialdom in Georgetown and that in London, and further pressure on the British government from Schomburgk and other sources about the need to establish the border for the protection of the Indians - not just in the south-west, but also in the west - the explorer was given a commission by the British government in April 1841, to survey and mark the boundaries of British Guiana.

The story of Pirara was not over, however, and had a military denouement on Schomburgk's next visit.


A recent work by D Graham Burnett, Masters of All They Surveyed, takes a less than sanguine view of Schomburgk and his explorations, but also explains the limitations of the traverse survey, which method the explorer employed in his mapping work. Some traverse surveys, says Burnett, were better than others, but the technique to which the explorer was forced to have recourse was inherently flawed. There was a more accurate method available at the time - the trigonometric survey - but the cost was prohibitive for someone like Schomburgk in terrain like that of British Guiana.

Burnett describes Schomburgk's self-discipline in an effort to be as accurate as he could given the technical constraints under which he operated, quoting him as writing: "My devotion to my geographical observations have [sic] made me a perfect slave!" Schomburgk also, apparently, imposed military-style discipline on those who accompanied him, including his Amerindian porters and paddlers, partly perhaps out of the need to protect his fragile surveying instruments, but also, no doubt because of his temperament. Both Burnett and Menezes relate how Goodall, the artist who accompanied the explorer on his boundary expeditions, resisted the regimentation which he imposed. Menezes says that Goodall described Schomburgk as a "bad-tempered" little man in the field. (Some of Goodall's work with an introduction by M N Menezes has been published by the British Museum under the title Sketches of Amerindian Tribes 1841-43.)

One of the consequences of the inaccuracy of the traverse survey became apparent to Guyanese in the 1950s, when they thought they had lost a toe of land to Brazil. In reality, they had lost nothing; it is just that the 'toe' they were familiar with was represented on the 1913 Colony Map, the south-western portion of which was based on what in this instance was Schomburgk's imperfect survey work. It was in 1933, that Cunningham, then leader of the British Commission surveying the boundary with Brazil, discovered that the head of the Kassikaityu River was in reality 25 miles east of the boundary as shown on the 1913 map, and that when this mistake was corrected, "...the area of the Colony as usually stated will be reduced by about 1,000 square miles." The 1913 map was still in circulation long after 1933.

Boundary expeditions 1841-44

Robert Schomburgk made four journeys into Guyana's interior under his boundary commission from the British government, this time in the company of his brother Richard, who was a botanist. Richard was to make three more excursions on his own account. Their first expedition was delayed on account of the fact that the younger Schomburgk contracted yellow fever, but eventually in April 1841 they set out. They began in the west, traversing the Barima, Barama, Waini, Amakura and Cuyuni Rivers.

Their second expedition took them again to the Brazilian frontier, collecting the missionary, Youd, en route, because the British authorities had decided he should be reinstated in Pirara. In fact, they dispatched a military detachment from Georgetown to effect this. As it transpired, the Brazilians had already evacuated the station by the time they arrived, and as Richard Schomburgk was later to relate, nationalist tensions dissolved over a convivial dinner between the representatives of both sides. The atmosphere was greatly relieved, he tells us, by the consumption of ample quantities of champagne and wine provided by the thoughtful British military (see box). This was not quite the end of the Pirara saga, but it was the end of the high drama in connection with it.

That issue aside, both the Brazilians and the Venezuelans complained officially to the British government about Schomburgk's placement of boundary markers, which subsequently had to be removed. As many older Guyanese will know, the Schomburgk line, as it was called, came to form the basis of the British claim at the arbitral tribunal in Paris in 1899 which settled the boundary with Venezuela. Guyana was awarded a large part, but not the whole of that claim. The Brazil boundary was settled after arbitration by the King of Italy in 1904 where the Schomburgk line also played a role.

After Pirara, Robert and Richard surveyed the Takutu and Ireng Rivers, and also returned to the Kanuku Mountains.

The region around Roraima was next on the list, which proved a difficult journey on account of the mountainous nature of the terrain.

Schomburgk's last journey was to the upper Corentyne and the Kutari River. Very many years later, the Dutch were to make a spurious claim to the New River Triangle on the basis that Schomburgk did not identify the correct source of the Corentyne. While the British disputed the geographical finding, they did not regard it as the critical issue, pointing out that the boundary had been recognized by both sides without challenge for many decades.

It should be added too, that the Dutch willingly co-operated in fixing the tri-junction point of the Suriname, Brazil and Guyana boundaries in 1936, and in this Schomburgk played a posthumous role. After it had been agreed that the trijunction should be established at the source of the Kutari River, the Dutch and British Boundary Commissions found four branches of that waterway which were more than 30 kilometres long.

Following a survey, the British considered that the East Kutari was the longest branch, therefore qualifying as the source, while the Netherlands favoured the West Kutari, although they eventually conceded with some reluctance to the British view. Having done this, however, the Dutch Chief Commissioner, Vice-Admiral Kayser, still wanted a reservation clause inserted into the final report that if it should be discovered in the future that the river called the Kutari by the commissioners turned out not to be Schomburgk's Kutari, then Schomburgk's river should form the boundary instead.

On the advice of the Colonial Office, the British Chief Commissioner, Major Phipps, met Kayser to resolve the issue. The latter was equipped only with a copy of Richard Schomburgk's second-hand, somewhat abbreviated account of his brother's findings, while Phipps was armed with a copy of Robert Schomburgk's own work. The Major was therefore able to demonstrate that the East Kutari was indeed Schomburgk's river, a fact that was reflected in the minutes of the conference which the Vice-Admiral also signed.

The Schomburgk collection

Van Dam has given a detailed account of Schomburgk's collection. The author says that aside from geographical information given to the RGS, there were maps which are still to be found at the society as well as in the State Library in Berlin; 60 bird specimens which were given to the Natural History Museum; fishes which were caught in the rivers and preserved in spirit, as well as drawings of them; preserved animals and skulls which were presented to the Linnaean and Zoological Societies; an ethnological collection now in the Museum of Mankind; 106 wood specimens given to the Admiralty; seeds and living orchids which went to Kew, and botanical illustrations to the Natural History Museum. There were in addition, literally thousands of dried plant specimens, as well as some dried fruits and other "botanical objects." Van Dam says that a complete set of Schomburgk's plants can still be seen in Kew.

After BG

In 1844, Schomburgk was knighted by Queen Victoria, and in 1846 was sent to Barbados as a diplomat. He continued on the diplomatic path, being sent to Santo Domingo as British Consul where he served until 1857, and then to Bangkok. He retired to Germany in 1864, dying in Berlin the following year on March 11.