About Robert H. Schomburgk…

More than three decades ago, in the torrentially rainy final months of the 1970s, I got a job with the Grounds Department at Caneel Bay, never imagining the long and intimate relationship with plant life that this would lead to.

Cow-Horn Orchid
The Cow-Horn Orchid (Schomburgkia-humboldtii)
(Image courtesy of Eleanor Gibney)

In several of the old flamboyant and white cedar trees around Caneel, there were masses of orchids I couldn’t identify—big robust plants, with pseudo bulbs like cow horns, much larger than our biggest native members of the orchid family. When spring came, these plants sent out 4-foot spikes, by Easter these were tipped with clusters of lilac and yellow 2-inch blossoms of classic orchid form, like miniature cattleyas. I found them enchanting, but still nobody knew what they were. I’d begun to take an enormous interest in finding out the identities and origins of Caneel’s plants, and I was buying books with whatever my meager salary allowed. Eventually I found our mystery orchid—a native of Venezuela, not very widely cultivated:Schomburgkia humboldtii, sometimes called the cow-horn orchid. The book helpfully gave background on that scientific name with all the extra consonants– the plant was named after two explorers: Sir Robert Schomburgk and Alexander von Humboldt. I had heard of Humboldt– one of the Great Explorers– and over the succeeding years I wrote the orchid’s name often enough to indelibly fix the improbable “gk” of Schomburgkia in long-term memory.Then, around 2001 or so, someone sent me a copy of a remarkable article from the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in London. Entitled “Notes from the Island of Anegada”, and published in the year 1832, this was one of the most informative accounts I’d ever read of the historic natural history of any place in our Virgin Islands group. It had been written by a Robert Schomburgk. I thought there was possibly a connection; Schomburgk—how many could there be?By 2003, somewhat housebound with my young children, I began spending too much time on the internet, discovering the alluring availability of old images of the Virgin Islands, scattered around the world in climates where they had been well preserved– as they never could have been here. One afternoon I found on eBay a picture for sale– in England –that excited me greatly; a watercolor painting of Coral Bay in 1833, by Robert Schomburgk. It was stunning. It was very expensive. It was in the “buy it now’ category rather than an auction item. After trying not to think about it for a few days, I e-mailed the seller, certainly not ready to commit that much cash, but just…curious. It was gone, he said, mailed out the day before “on approval”. If the potential buyers rejected it, they would send it on to me “on approval”. A few weeks later, a new e-mail…they didn’t want it…what was my address? By then, I was hooked. So days of anticipation went by, but no painting arrived… finally another message—it was sold after all.But, in the small world of St. John historical images, this has a very happy ending. Along the way, a high-quality digital scan of Schomburgk’s painting came into the hands of St. Thomas friends of the SJHS, who have now allowed us to reproduce it as the cover image of our new book.So, who was Robert Schomburgk, and how did one person manage an exquisite painting of St. John, the first accurate surveys of Anegada, and the exploration of vast lands and fabulous flora and fauna in South America? Add to this his published papers in almost every branch of natural science, on tides and currents and the formation of hurricanes, his massive History of Barbados, his knighthood conveyed by Queen Victoria in 1844, his diplomatic career… overachieving doesn’t begin to cover it.St. John market basket
Robert Schomburgk, c1840
(from the Guiana Travels of Robert Schomburgk 1835-1844)Robert Hermann Schomburgk was born in 1804 in the Prussian city of Freyburg, the eldest of five children of an assistant pastor there. Although he later professed an interest in botany from the days of his childhood, he headed into business at an early age, becoming an apprentice to a merchant at fourteen. By nineteen, he was employed by his uncle in Leipzig, where he finally had an opportunity for some serious study of botany.In 1828, the 24-year-old Schomburgk, who had been long been anxious to travel, seized a chance to accompany a flock of sheep that were shipped to Virginia “on speculation”. Briefly employed by a counting house in Richmond, he went on to St. Thomas within a year, where he continued business and accounting work. These activities were not profitable for him, and in 1830, after one of the numerous fires that devastated St. Thomas in the early 1800s destroyed all his business accounts and personal possessions, he decided to do what he really wanted to do: collect natural history specimens and explore.By August of 1830, Schomburgk was on St. John. He collected 100 plant specimens here, these he sent to the Linnean Society in England, along with a letter offering to collect more plants and other natural history specimens in the region. He wrote again from Tortola in October, adding more details to his plea for employment, including his skill at drawing and painting specimens that were not easily preserved. He made it clear that he wasn’t in it for the money; he would be happy to go anywhere they wanted him to go with only the expenses of the expeditions provided.Apparently he never did hear back from the Linnean Society, but he didn’t just sit around waiting for the mail boat. In the spring of 1831, he was on Anegada, where he witnessed three shipwrecks on the surrounding reefs in a few weeks: an American brig, a British brig, and a Spanish schooner, the Restaudora, which sank with a load of 185 slaves helplessly chained to the boat. This affected him greatly, and was his inspiration to survey and chart the poorly mapped reefs surrounding Anegada.

Robert Schomburgk’s chart of Anegada with its Reefs
produced for the Royal Geographic Society.
(Notes on the Island of Anegada, Royal Geographic Society)

After brushing up his surveying knowledge with the help of a couple of Danes on St. Thomas—he apparently already was somewhat experienced—Schomburgk spent three months completing the Anegada survey, much to the disgust of the residents of that island, whose main profession was salvaging the constant wrecks. A particularly passionate defender of the Anegada way of life assaulted him physically, but Schomburgk was never easily discouraged. “…One of them went so far as to attempt my life, and no doubt would have been successful had it not been for the interference of the bystanders,” he wrote later. In addition to the charting of the island and reefs, he determined the existence of a strong current that would set vessels much farther to the northwest than they expected, funneling them toward the Anegada reefs.The completed charts were soon dispatched to the British Admiralty, and he also sent two articles to the newly formed Royal Geographic Society. They published his Notes on the Island of Anegada the following year, and thus began Schomburgk’s long association with that Society, although it was to be a very slowly developing association.As he had been so disappointed in his dealings with the Linnean Society previously, Schomburgk’s approach to employment with the Royal Society was extremely accommodating. He wrote from Tortola that he was willing to go anywhere the Society wanted, and collect any type of specimens needed. He mentioned that he was interested in western North America, but he was available for anything, and was not asking for anything but the expenses.Eventually he heard back from the Society’s first secretary, Captain Alexander Maconochie of the Royal Navy, with, among other points, a request that Schomburgk send botanical specimens from the islands– as a sample of his work—to John Lindley, a prominent University of London botanist and one of the first great orchidologists. These were duly dispatched, in May of 1833, but not received in London until the following February. They hadn’t been taken off the boat the first time it arrived in England, but had come back to the West Indies, crossing the Atlantic three times before finally reaching Professor Lindley.It took another two years for Schomburgk to leave the Virgin Islands, bound for British Guiana in the service of the Royal Geographical Society. (He was not idle during those years, but continued to survey and chart currents around the islands.) His mission was to investigate and record all of the physical properties of Guiana; the natural history, the people, the rivers, the potential development of the colony. When that was completed, he was to survey the boundaries until he connected with a line previously surveyed by Alexander von Humboldt on the Orinoco.The four expeditions Schomburgk led in British Guiana between 1835 and 1844 yielded thousands of collections of plants and animals new to science, as well as fossils and geology specimens, extensive anthropological notes, and essentially anything he could collect. He was always a prolific painter and writer, and the fascinating two volume account he produced on his Guiana travels was republished by London’s Hakluyt Society in 2006. Besides the orchid genusSchomburgkia, he is honored by the species name schomburgkii, given to dozens of plants, fish, and birds —although, confusingly enough, some of these commemorate his younger brother, Richard, also a botanist.While in Guiana, Schomburgk recalled St. John at least twice: Canoeing down the Pataro River, a dyke of black rocks was seen, “In a geological collection which I sent to Berlin, a rock similar in its composition will be noted, which I detached from boulders that lay on Bordeaux Hill in the island of St. John’s”… And later, at the site of petroglyphs on the Essequibo River, he noted: “It is celebrated…for the quantity of figures cut on the rock, which have great resemblance to those I have seen on the island of St. John, one of the Virgin islands…I made utmost efforts to detach portions of the rock that contained the inscription, and which I desired to take with me; but the stone was too hard, and fever had taken away my strength…”Robert Schomburgk was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1844. After three years in England, he was appointed as the first British consul to the new country of the Dominican Republic, and ten years later he became the British consul to Bankok. He returned to England in ill health in the summer of 1864, then on to Berlin, where he died in early 1865.Peter Riviere, editor of the Hakluyt Society edition of Schomburgk’s South American Travels, concludes in his preface: “I have for some years tried to interest publishers in a full biography of Schomburgk, but without success, the common response being ‘No-one knows who he is’. Publishers seem willing to produce biographies of people of whom there are already numerous such works, but shy away from forgotten but equally worthy subjects. That Schomburgk is such a worthy subject, and deserves resurrecting, I have no doubts about…”After the small amount of research I’ve done in the past few months, I have no doubts about it either; and probably, among the vast repositories of Schomburgk’s papers, there is more from the St. John of the 1830s, awaiting discovery.

Selected References

  • Riviere, Peter (editor). The Guiana Travels of Robert Schomburgk 1835-1844 Two Volumes, The Hakluyt Society, London, 2006
  • Schomburgk, Robert H. Notes on the Island of Anegada Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, London, Volume 2 1832
  • Schomburgk, Robert H. The Letters of Mr. Schomburgk, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1896
  • Von Humboldt, Alexander. Aspects of Nature in Different Lands and Different Climates with Scientific Elucidations, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London, 1849



Eleanor Gibney

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