Sir Robert Schomburgk and his Guyana Explorationsg
History This Week
By Tota C. Mangar
December 1, 2005
By far the most intensive and painstaking explorations of Guyana, the former colony of British Guiana, were those conducted by the German born, Sir Robert Herman Schomburgk in the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century.
He had previously explo-red around the Virgin Islands and in particular, the dangerous Anegada, a low-lying island surrounded by coral reefs and notorious for several shipwrecks. After his thorough survey of Anegada, Robert Schomburgk submitted a map and description of the island to the Royal Geographical Society of London. His work created such an impression that following consultation between Mr. Alexander, Maconochie, Sec-retary to the Royal Geograph-ical Society and Mr. John Lindley, Professor of Botany at London University it was decided in late 1834 that Schomburgk be commissioned to explore the interior of the then colony, British Guiana.
The mission was a two-fold one "of investigating thoroughly the physical and astronomical geography of that almost endless tract of country, and of connecting the line of positions which might be ascertained with those of Baron Alexander Von Humboldt on the Upper Orinoco."
Not surprising the British government was patron to the enterprise since it was desirous of fully developing "the natural resources of the magnif."
Within weeks of arrival in the country Robert Schomburgk and his party departed Georgetown on September 21, 1835 coasting the low alluvial land to the entrance of the mighty Essequibo River.
His crew was made up of Lieutenant James Haining, Robert Brotherson and four Negro attendants. In addition the crew of the canoes consisted of five Negroes, five Caribs, two Accawais and three Macusis.
They proceeded up the Essequibo to the junction of the Mazaruni and Cuyuni rivers and then to Bartica. From there they made a deliberate ascent of the Essequibo on October 1, until they reached the mouth of the Rupununi.
By this time Robert Schomburgk had already collected about 1500 plant specimens.
Following the route used by Old Dutch traders Schomburgk continued to explore the Rupununi River and reached Annai.
From there he proceeded further and visited Lake Amucu, climbed the highest ridge of the Parima mountains, visited the Indian village of Pirara and explored the whole area including the Kanuku Moun-tains and the intermediate savannahs. It was at Pirara that Schomburgk gathered valuable information on the indigenous plant "Wourali" or "Urali" from which poison was extracted. He renamed it "Strychnos Toxifera."
On December 28, 1835 the party departed the Rupununi and proceeded up the Essequibo to a large cataract which Schomburgk named King William IV fall, in honour of the then British monarch and first patron of the Royal Geographical Society. Paths which connect the Essequibo and the Upper reaches of the Demerara River were closely examined. They returned to Bartica on March 18, 1836 and an unfortunate accident to one of the canoes in the vicinity of the Itaballi Falls resulted in the loss of a portion of the plant collection.
Schomburgk and his men subsequently returned to Georgetown on March 28, 1836 and was warmly welcomed by the then Governor, Sir James Carmichael Smyth.
Following a period of much needed rest Robert Schomburgk turned his attention to the Corentyne and Berbice rivers. He was interested in the vast resources and capabilities of the region of which he had little knowledge. The expedition comprising Mr. Leith, an ornithologist; Mr. Hernauth, a draftsman; volunteers Lieutenant Losack of the 69th Regiment, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Reiss and himself left Georgetown on September 2, 1869 for Plantation Skeldon on the western bank of the Corentyne River.
At Skeldon the party experienced initial difficulty in recruiting Caribs but eventually the expedition set off with the ascent of the Corentyne River.
Within two days Orealla, a settlement forty miles up river, was reached. It then proceeded to Siparuta, Asirikani or Long Island, entered the Cabalaba River and arrived at Avenavero Falls.
The continued ascent took Schomburgk and his men to Wonotobo and a series of dangerous rapids arrested their progress.
Smith and Barrow cat-aracts were identified. Robert Schomburgk was forced to prematurely abandon his advances and return downstream.
The explorer went to New Amsterdam and turned his attention to the Berbice River. On November 25, 1836 the crew with the exception of Lieutenant Losack, began its ascent of the Berbice River. This time around the boat crew comprised of Arawaks, Warraus and Caribs.
The expedition visited Dageraad, Fort Nassau and Wikki.
It then passed several cataracts and observed varied flora and fauna life. On Christmas Day they arrived at a falls which was named 'Christmas Falls.'
The party continued to advance and on January 1, 1837 Schomburgk discovered the now famous water lily which he named 'Victoria Regia'; in honour of the then Queen of England. He himself described the water-lily as "a gigantic leaf from five to six feet in diameter in the shape of a waiter's tray with an upper bright green and lower bright carmine-red margin rested upon the water, the luxuriant blossom completely corresponded with this wonderful leaf, they consisted of many hundreds petals which merged from the purest white into various shades of rose and fresh colour" and "a lovely scent adds still more to its beauty."
On January 29, 1837 the party reached the vicinity where the path from the Corentyne to the Essequibo crossed the Berbice River. A land crossing was then made to the Essequibo River by way of this Indian path.
It was recrossed the following day and a return journey of the Berbice River commenced due mainly to inadequate provisions and low water level. It was while descending the Christmas Cataract that one of the canoes overturned and Mr. Reiss unfortunately drowned. This incident was a tragic blow to Robert Schomburgk and for days the explorer was devastated.
The expedition rested briefly at Peerboom before travelling up the Wironi Creek and Yakabura before reaching Post Seba on the Demerara River.
A visit was then made to Ororo-Marali or Great Fall before returning to Wikki. A brief trip to the Upper Canje Creek followed and the expedition finally arrived at New Amsterdam on March 31, 1837.
Robert Schomburgk's next expedition was aimed at exploring the Essequibo River to its sources and to Esmerelda on the Upper Orinoco River and to connect his survey with that of the earlier one of Baron Alexander Von Humboldt. On this occasion the explorer was accompanied by Mr. Vieth an assistant naturalist; Mr. Morrison, a draftsman; Mr. Le Breton, in charge of supplies; Mr. Peterson, Coxswain; and several Warrau Indians as crew members.
The party left Georgetown on September 12, 1837 and journeyed up the Essequibo river to Tampa and then to the Taquiari or Kumuti Moun-tains where they discovered some native picture writings. They reached the Rupununi River and then proceeded through its tributary, the Rewa or Roiwa River and passed Mount Ataraipo or Devil's Rock. By November the expedition continued overland through forests, streams and savannahs and eventually reached Watuticaba, a Wapi-siana Indian settlement.
Robert Schomburgk continued crossing savannahs and visiting settlements of Taruma Indians before descending the Cuyuwini River to the mighty Essequibo and its sources. On December 15, the Caneruau River was reached and the following day Sierra Acarai was seen for the first time and a British ensign was hoisted and firmly secured to one of the trees.
The expedition returned to Annai and proceeded to Pirara from where the Kanuku Mountains were explored in May 1838. Several excursions were also made to neighbouring savannahs in the Rupununi which were over-flooded due to persistent heavy rains at the time.
On October 6, 1838 Schomburgk embarked on a difficult journey to Esmerelda on the Orinoco River. He arrived there on February 22, and then proceeded down the Orinoco to the Cassiquiare, to the Rio Negro and then up River Branco.
He reached Port San Jaoquim on April 22, 1839 and had achieved his primary objective of connecting his journeys with those of Humboldt's on the Upper Orinoco.
The expedition returned to Georgetown after traversing a stretch of over 3000 miles of water.
Robert Schomburgk re-turned to England for a period of well-deserved rest following his rather extensive and successful explorations of the main rivers of Guyana during the years 1835-1839.
Explorer Robert Schomburgk returned to England for a period of well-deserved rest following his rather extensive and successful explorations of the main rivers of Guyana during the years 1835-1839.
Interestingly, even before his departure from Georgetown, Schomburgk had written to the then Governor Henry Light stressing the urgency of fixing the boundary between Brazil and the colony of British Guiana. Such a plea was made against the background of his experience in finding Brazilian soldiers in the Pirara district and of frequent incursions by Brazilians in the colony.
In 1840, Robert Schomburgk followed up with the production of a map of the colony and indicating its boundaries. As a consequence, Governor Light and the British Government were convinced that the highly sensitive boundary issue had to be settled. To this end Schomburgk was commissioned to lead an expedition to survey and determine the exact boundaries of the colony of British Guiana. This time around he was "Her Britannic Majesty's Commissioner for Surveying and Marking Out the Boundaries of British Guiana."
Subsequently, Robert Schomburgk returned to the colony and made four different journeys into the interior of British Guiana between April, 1841 and October, 1843 during which time he virtually traversed the entire boundary of the colony as it now stands. On this occasion he was accompanied by his brother, Richard Schomburgk. They left their homeland, Germany, for the then British Guiana on October 29, 1840 and arrived in Georgetown in January 1841.
The expedition comprising the Schom-burgk brothers; Mr. King, Superintendent of Rivers and Creeks in charge of the Barima and Waini rivers; Mr. Eichlen, artist, Mr. Glascott, assistant surveyor, Mr Peterson, first coxswain and Mr. Cornelinsen, second coxswain, departed Georgetown on April 19, 1841 and proceeded to the Waini River and through the Mora Passage to Kumaka and then the Barima River. A navigational survey of the river was conducted and a boundary post was planted at its eastern point.
The party returned to Kumaka on May 20, after which the Amakura and Aruka rivers were carefully surveyed. While at the former they visited Assecura, a settlement comprising Warrau and Arawak Indians.
A boundary post was planted to indicate the western limit of the country. Schomburgk returned to Waini before proceeding up that river to its tributary, Barama and then overland to the Cuyuni River.
They descended the river and the expedition eventually reached the junction of the three rivers, Essequibo, Mazaruni and Cuyuni and Bartica Grove on July 27, 1841 before returning to Georgetown two days later.
The party had spent approximately three and a half months exploring the rivers, Waini, Barima, Amakura, Aruka, Barama and Cuyuni while travelling over 700 miles. During this time Robert Schomburgk had acquired more accurate knowledge of the course of these rivers. Of added significance, he was able "to ascertain the limits of Dutch possessions and the zone from which all trace of Spanish influence was absent."
Following a period of rest the members of the boundary expedition now comprising the Schomburgk brothers; Mr. Fryer, Schomburgk's Secretary; Mr. E.A. Goodal, artist; Mr. Soreneng, interpreter; and a number of Indians as carriers and guides left Georgetown on the morning of December 23, 1841 for the specific purpose of defining and exploring the Brazilian frontier. They firstly travelled up the Essequibo to Tampa and then to Bartica where they were joined by Rev. Thomas Gould.
The party proceeded up the Essequibo and the Rupununi rivers to Pirara. While there British troops arrived to assert British rights to the territory and to prevent further incursions of the area by Brazilians.
Utilising Pirara as his base, Robert Schomburgk proceeded to explore the Takutu River to as far as the junction of the Pirara and Ireng rivers.
Boundary markers were erected at the confluence of the Takutu and Ireng rivers and the right bank of the former was formally claimed as the south-western boundary of the colony. Markers were erected at various points along the whole course of the river in an attempt to help protect the Indians by identifying them as "Her Majesty's subjects."
The expedition returned to Pirara and the explorer then traced the Cotinga or Kurumu River to its source at Mount Roraima. He became the first European to accomplish this feat. Thereafter he discovered the sources of the Cuyuni and travelled downwards to the mouth of the Acarabisi.
The low level of water of the Takutu forced the party to cross savannah and the Kamuku Mountains on their way to Pirara village which was reached on May 22, 1842.
Robert Schomburgk sent the larger part of his expedition to Pirara while the rest travelled between the watershed of the Orinoco on one side and the Mazaruni and Cuyuni rivers on the other until the Wenamu River, 220 miles up the Cuyuni, was reached. The party travelled downwards to the marker Schomburgk had previously erected when he surveyed that part of the colony from Barima Point.
He had thus surveyed "the whole line from the sources of the Takutu to Point Barima on the Atlantic Ocean." The expedition subsequently returned to Georgetown in January 1843.
After a month's rest Robert Schomburgk decided to complete his commission with a survey of the boundary with neighbouring Dutch Guiana (now independent Suriname). It was his view that "In order to bring the survey which has been entrusted to me to final and satisfactory close, it remains now to trace the country, between the sources of the River Takutu and those of the River Corentyne; and to descend the latter to its embouchure into the Atlantic."
The expedition initially visited Pirara and from there ventured southwards with a view of conducting a more thorough exploration of the Upper Essequibo and the watershed between the Essequibo and the Amazon Rivers. Leaving the village of Taruna Indians on the Upper Essequibo the party proceeded to trace the Onoro or Onororo River, a tributary of the Essequibo, 265 miles from the mouth of the Rupununi before eventually returning to Pirara.
Robert Schomburgk decided to leave the Rupununi and to traverse the Carawaini Mountains in its quest to the Upper Corentyne. He found the Cutari River with its branch the Curuwuini that flowed into the Corentyne. He identified Cutari as the source of the Corentyne and proceeded to map the river as constituting the eastern boundary of the colony of British Guiana. He then descended the Corentyne beyond his 1836 venture and arrived at Tomatai settlement.
Robert Schomburgk eventually arrived in Georgetown on October 12, 1843 with the objectives of his expedition fully realized. His brother, (Richard) subsequently explored the Pomeroon, Moruca and Demerara rivers. The explorer spent some time in Georgetown completing his maps and his accounts of his travels. He departed British Guiana on May 19, 1844 and arrived in England on June 25 of the same year.
Indeed Robert Schomburgk had made a sterling contributing to the colony's History, Geography and Botany. He traced many of Guyana's rivers to their sources, he demarcated the boundaries and demonstrated his genuine concern for the indigenous people. As to the importance of the colony, Robert Schomburgk was very optimistic when he said "Guiana bids fair ere long to become a focus of colonization and with her fertility, her facilities of water communication, she may yet vie with the favoured provinces of the eastern empire, and become as Sir Walter Raleigh predicted the El Dorado of Great Britain's possessions in the West."
As a result of the invaluable contribution of this very remarkable, energetic, visionary and courageous explorer he was very deservedly knighted in 1845 and appointed General Consul and Representative of Business in the Dominician Republic, a position he held for nine years.
In 1857 he was made British Consul General for Bangkok. Due to ill health he returned to Germany in 1864 and died a year later.
The name Robert Schomburgk will live on for generations to come in Guyana's history.