Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk
Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk
German-British Naturalist and Explorer
German-born naturalist Robert Hermann Schomburgk explored the interior of Guyana for Britain's Royal Geographical Society between 1835 and 1939, mapping rivers and other geographical features and collecting hundreds of botanical, zoological, and geological specimens for study. In 1841, Schomburgk was commissioned by the British government to return to South America to explore, survey, and establish boundaries along the Guyana-Venezuela frontier. The resulting "Schomburgk Line" was significant in the final boundary settlements of the 1890s.
On June 5, 1804, Schomburgk was born the son of a minister in the Prussian Saxony town of Freiburg. In the late 1820s, after receiving a Prussian education which included lessons in geology and the natural sciences, Schomburgk moved to the United States, where he settle in Richmond, Virginia, as a tobacco merchant. When a fire destroyed his tobacco business in 1830, his early love for botany and natural history and a desire to travel led Schomburgk to the West Indies, where he surveyed the coasts of Anegada in the British Virgin Islands. His surveys were published in the journal of Britain's Royal Geographical Society, which had been founded in 1830.
In 1834, Schomburgk was commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society to lead one of its first funded explorations—into the interior of British Guyana in northeastern South America. The expedition set out in October 1835, and traveled to the upper Essequibo River, the longest river in Guyana. The month of November saw the expedition delayed when all members fell ill with dysentery, and they were forced to turn back in December when the onset of the rainy season made river travel too hazardous. In February 1836, the expedition resumed their charting of the Essequibo River, and Schomburgk became the first European to visit many of its waterfalls and steep rapids, the largest of which he named King William's Cataract for Britain's king. Along the journey, Schomburgk and his team collected numerous geological, zoological, and botanical specimens, including a giant water lily he named the Victoria regia in honor of Britain's monarch.
In September 1836, Schomburgk's team ventured up the Courantyne River in eastern Guyana (now the boundary with Suriname) but was again impeded by waterfalls too difficult to bypass. In November, he began exploring the Berbice River, where he was deserted by his native guides, ran out of food, and was attacked by swarms of ants as well as a herd of stampeding wild hogs. In January 1837, Schomburgk forged an overland path back to the Courantyne to finish his commission to explore and survey all of Guyana's great rivers. Wanderlust struck again and, before his return to Europe, he traveled into the Brazilian territory of Roraima, becoming the first European to see Mount Roraima, and meeting many native tribes who had never encountered a European.
Schomburgk returned to England, where he published his minor classic of nineteenth-century exploration, Description of British Guiana [sic] (1840). Also that year, he was awarded a gold medal by Britain's Royal Geographical Society for his work in Guyana. While in England, he met with government representatives to recommend further development of Guyana, emphasizing the need to map its boundaries. As a result, he was soon named Guyana's boundary commissioner, returning in 1841 to explore, survey, and establish boundaries between Guyana and Venezuela.
From 1841 to 1843, Schomburgk marked the frontier region and established the boundary that was eventually named the "Schomburgk Line." He continued his travels in Guyana until his return to England in 1844, where he became a naturalized citizen and was knighted by Queen Victoria for his contributions in opening up British Guyana and providing vital statistical surveys and data for Britain's boundary conflicts with Venezuela as well as Brazil.
In 1848, Schomburgk joined the diplomatic service as British consul to Santo Domingo. In 1857, he was appointed consul in Bangkok, Siam (now Thailand), where he supplemented his diplomatic duties with a survey of the Isthmus of Kra during explorations into Southeast Asia. Schomburgk finally retired in 1864 due to declining health and returned to his native Germany, where he died the following year in Berlin.
ANN T. MARSDEN