Robert H. Schomburgk Explores the Interior of British Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela and Is the First European to Visit Mount Roraima

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Robert H. Schomburgk Explores the Interior of British Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela and Is the First European to Visit Mount Roraima


Because dense jungles and dangerous rivers made exploration difficult, little was known about the interior of South America in the early and mid nineteenth century. Despite the many dangers and difficulties in this region, Robert Hermann Schomburgk (1804-1865), a German-born explorer and naturalist, hired by the British government, traveled the rivers of present-day Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela. He mapped geographical features and collected geological and botanical specimens. After discovering how major rivers connected, Schomburgk marked the boundaries of what became the modern nations. His exploration and mapping also opened the rivers for transport and commerce. Schomburgk's efforts also had the unintentional impact of paving the way for the twentieth-century development of the tropical rainforests and the continued extermination of South American native peoples in Venezuela and Brazil.


When the European powers—Great Britain, France, Spain, and Holland—began to colonize northeastern South America in the sixteenth century, little was known about the interiors of what became the modern nations of Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana. Because rivers, mountains, and other geographic features needed to be explored and charted before economic development could begin, explorers were often hired by European governments to investigate unknown lands.

The era between 1830 and 1860 was a time during which scientists, especially naturalists, were trying to understand the world of nature as well as understand the tribal peoples they encountered, whom they considered "primitive." It was during this time that naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who later postulated the theory of evolution through the process of natural selection, sailed on the HMS Beagle off the west coast of South America. In the Arctic, explorers searched for a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. European explorers pushed into the African interior, into what was called the "dark heart" of Africa.

What is today the modern South American nation of Guyana was colonized by the French, British, and the Dutch in 1815. In 1831, the British gained control of three coastal settlements that became British Guyana. In 1835, and again in 1841, the British government sent expeditions to explore the interior Guyana. Each expedition was led by Robert Hermann Schomburgk, a German-born explorer and naturalist.

When Schomburgk explored the tropical rainforest wilderness of Guyana, Venezuela, and Brazil, he fought against great natural obstacles, yet traveled extensively and mapped never-before-seen land features and charted many rivers. In his travels, he also made first-time contact with many isolated tribal groups of South American native peoples, whom he attempted to count.


In October 1835, on his first expedition, Schomburgk led 22 men in canoes up what he later determined was British Guyana's longest river, the Essequibo. Not only was he interested in charting the rivers, he also wanted to retrieve animal and plant specimens for the British government and for his own scientific interests as well.

Dangerous rapids and frequent waterfalls slowed his travel. Not far into the journey, Schomburgk's party began suffering from dysentery and had to rest and regain their health during the month of November. The rainy season started in December, making further progress difficult when they finally continued pushing on up the Essequibo.

By February 1836, Schomburgk's party reached the point where the Essequibo met the Rupunumi River, but could go no farther. Here they encountered an impassable waterfall. Since it had no native name, he named the 24-foot (7 m) falls "King William's Cataract," in honor of Great Britain's King and his employer. Unable to go down the falls and unwilling to spend months cutting a land path around it, he had to turn back. As they headed back to Georgetown, biological and geological specimens were lost when a canoe overturned in the rain-swollen, white water.

In September 1836, Schomburgk made a second river trip, this time traveling up the Courantyne River, the easternmost river in Guyana which now marks a boundary between Guyana and neighboring Surinam. Again he ran into an impassable waterfall. Schomburgk had heard from natives that there was a footpath in the wilderness around the falls, but was unable to locate it. Disappointed, Schomburgk turned back, but with the knowledge that this was a major river.

Not discouraged, Schomburgk tried to navigate another river in Guyana—the Berbice. Unlucky again, Schomburgk's foray up the Berbice was a near disaster. First, native guides deserted them. Then the expedition was set upon by thousands of ants, followed by packs of dangerous wild hogs, which sent his party scurrying up trees to escape. Dense jungle made the progress slow, and they nearly ran out of food before completing the trip. Despite his difficulties, over five years Schomburgk mapped the three great rivers of Guyana.

By the early 1840s, coastal South America was already developed agriculturally, with sugar cane the main crop. Sugar plantations flourished by using slave labor. When Schomburgk traveled into what is now Brazil along the Guyana-Brazil border, he happened upon Brazilian slave traders who had kidnapped native children for slave labor. In his account, Schomburgk reported that children as young as five or six years old were taken prisoner and sold into slavery. During this same time, as native peoples were being wiped out in coastal areas, Schomburgk observed that most native Guyana Indians had been exterminated. As the native source of slaves disappeared, plantation owners began importing African slaves, natives from the Caribbean islands, and indentured servants from Asia to work in the sugar cane fields.

Continuing his expeditions, Schomburgk traveled the Serum River, stopping at a mountain called Mount Roraima. He was the first Westerner to visit the mountain, which now divides Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela. Schomburgk's brother, Richard, also active in South American exploration, tried to climb the mountain soon after Robert first arrived at Mount Roraima. Richard, Robert reported, was unable to scale the sheer walls that rise from half-way up to the flat top.

During this trip, as during all of his expeditions, Schomburgk met native peoples who had never before been seen by Europeans. He recorded their locations and, when he could, their numbers. Eventually, he reached the great Orincoco River that runs through now what is Venezuela. This river took him back to the Essequibo and to Georgetown, the main British settlement in Guyana.

Schomburgk's extensive travels served to establish a boundary between Guyana and Venezuela. He mapped what became known as the "Schomburgk Line," a mark between the two countries. In 1840, when he received an award from the Royal Geographic Society, Schomburgk recommended that a settlement be started on the Guyana boundary. The British government accepted the recommendation and awarded him the post of Guyana's "border commissioner."

Not content with an administrator's duties, in 1841 Schomburgk once again set out on a river quest, this time following the Essequibo to its source on the Brazilian border. All along the way he encountered tribal peoples who had never been seen by Europeans. As Schomburgk identified and counted many groups of native South Americans in Brazil and Venezuela, he also reported that most of the Guyana natives had been severely reduced by disease and warfare. His was one of the earliest voices to draw attention to the human tragedy. "Their present history is the finale of a tragical drama; a whole race of men is wasting away," he wrote of the disappearing Indians. "The system of Brazilians of hunting Indians for slaves exists to this day in all its atrocities." Schomburgk concluded that in 1838 "the aggregate number of Indians in British Guyana" was only 7,000.

When he returned to England in 1844, Schomburgk was knighted and given the title "Sir." He became a naturalized British citizen.

Schomburgk's work at charting unexplored rivers and collecting botanical and geological specimens clearly aided in the economic development of the region, and the impact of his expeditions helped to increase trade and the wealth of exploitive colonial governments that extracted minerals, sugar, and other commodities called "cash crops." Much of this development was, however, at the further expense of remaining native peoples when, for their own gain, colonial governments and growing international corporations removed, annihilated, or enslaved native populations for the rest of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth century.

Schomburgk's efforts were hailed as a great triumph for exploration and trade. However, since his exploration, extensive twentieth-century plantation farming, mining operations, and other development in parts of these areas have threatened to continue to destroy the region's tropical rainforests and the existence of the area's remaining native peoples. Developers seeking oil are the most recent group threatening dwindling numbers of South American native peoples. Schomburgk's "firsts" in meeting with South American native peoples have had an unintentional but lasting impact of making native peoples more vulnerable to more than a century of development.

Because South American rivers flowed through dense, almost impassable, jungle, many native groups were not contacted until a century later following Schomburgk's explorations. Unlike the development process in North America that both assimilated and exterminated Native American groups in the northeastern parts of North America, and then slowly pushed large groups of native peoples westward where they faced further extermination and reservation life, European developers in South America often destroyed isolated, relatively small groups of native populations as they found them.

Today, remaining native peoples in this part of South America continue to fight developers for their lives and try to slow the development in the tropical rainforests, in order to save the resources on which they depend.


Further Reading

Bodley, John. Victims of Progress. Palo Alto: Mayfield Publishing, 1982.

Bohlander, Richard E. World Explorers and Discoverers. New York: Da Capo Press 1992.

Goodman, Edward J. The Explorers of South America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Pear, Nancy and Daniel B. Baker. Explorers and Discoverers, From Alexander to Sally Ride. Detroit: UXL, 1998.

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Robert H. Schomburgk Explores the Interior of British Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela and Is the First European to Visit Mount Roraima

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