William John Burchell (1781-1863) Collection

Scope and Content

Correspondence, notebooks, artworks and journals built up over the course of Burchell's life. Includes material produced during his travels to St Helena (1805-1810), South Africa (1810-1815) and South America (1825-1830). Also includes Burchell's published works on his travels to Africa, research notes made by other authors on his life and work and photographs relating to this later research into Burchell.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Burchell was an important Natural Scientist in the 19th century, whose explorations and expeditions around the Southern areas of Africa and South America contributed greatly to our understanding of the flora and fauna of these areas.
Appointed as a Fellow of the Linnaean Society in 1803, Burchell first travelled to St Helena in 1805, where he stayed until 1810, firstly as a schoolmaster on the island, and latterly as the official Naturalist of the island. In 1810, he moved to Cape Town, around which area he travelled and explored for around 7 months. His further explorations began in 1811, when he took his equipment and livelihood with him in his wagon, pictured in his famous painting of the inside of his travelling home, and began an expedition to Cape Colony and the Bechuana Land until 1815. Having collected various specimens and seeds from these areas, he returned to England to classify them and cultivate the gathered seeds and plants. Because of his detailed work on the natural world of the South of Africa, as well as his lengthy stay and varied explorations of the area, the British government asked him to publish a guide for the public on the topic of Emigration to South Africa. The volume was published in 1819 under the title of 'Hints on Emigration to the Cape of Good Hope'. He also published two volumes of his memoir "Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa" between 1822 and 1824, covering his travels up to August 1812, but the expected third volume was never completed.
In 1825, he arrived in Rio de Janeiro and spent 13 months collecting specimens in the local area, after which point he commenced his travels around South America, until his eventual return to England in 1830. The latter years of his life were spent cataloguing and sorting his vast array of collections, as well as compiling sketches, notes and other written material to accompany them. 33 years later, in 1863, Burchell sadly committed suicide. At this point, his collections and publications were divided up, with the majority of the Botanical and Manuscript collections sent to Kew gardens, and the Entomological collections given to the Hope Library at the Oxford Natural History Museum, although some of his work still resides in Johannesburg.
Burchell was a highly credited naturalist and explorer during his own lifetime as well as in the history of science, receiving such honours as being elected to the Council of the British Association for the advancement of Science in 1832, and being awarded a Doctor of Civil Law (DCL), by the University of Oxford in 1834. His work was detailed and thorough, with his collections comprising 63,000 specimens, including plants, seeds, skins, skeletons, insects and fish, and his accompanying written work also contained over 500 sketches made during his lifetime over the course of his extensive travels. To this day, he is still credited with creating the largest personal collections ever to leave Africa, and he now has a number of plants and animals named after him, including the white rhinoceros and Burchell's zebra.


Series Structure

A - Personal papers
A/1 – Journals and Diaries
A/2 – Legal Documents
A/3 – Poems & Juvenalia
A/4 – Miscellaneous

B - Travels and field work
B/1 – United Kingdom
B/2 – St Helena
B/3 – South Africa
B/4 – Brazil

C – Correspondence
C/1 – Correspondence to Burchell
C/2 – Correspondence from Burchell (inc. drafts)
C/3 – Correspondence neither to or from Burchell
C/4 – Lists of Letters

D - Paintings, maps and sketches
D/1 - Paintings
D/2 - Sketches
D/3 - Maps

E – Books
E/1 – Travels in the Interior of South Africa by W.J. Burchell, 1822.
E/2 – Travels in the Interior of South Africa (Burchell, 1822) Publication Notices
E/3 – Travels in the Interior of South Africa by Sir J. Barrow, 1804.

F – Photographs

G – Research into Burchell
G/1 – J. O. Westwood
G/2 – E. B. Poulton & H. M. McKay
G/3 – Miscellaneous

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Available for consultation. OUMNH Library and Archive is open Monday to Friday 10am-5pm by appointment. Email: library@oum.ox.ac.uk

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