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ROBERT SCHOMBURGK (1804-1865)
RICHARD SCHOMBURGK (1811-1891)


Born in Prussia, the son of a Lutheran pastor, as a young man Robert Schomburgk traveled to Richmond, Virginia, where he attempted to set himself up as a tobacco merchant.  Unsuccessful, he then moved to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas but failed once again in his business pursuits. After a brief stint in Puerto Rico, he ended up in the British Virgin Islands, where, as a surveyor, he mapped a treacherous atoll that had long endangered shipping. The Royal Geographical Society was sufficiently impressed with his work that in 1835 it commissioned him to explore the backcountry of Guyana, an amorphous region now divided into the countries of Guiana (formerly British Guiana), French Guyana, and Suriname.  In the nineteenth century it also included portions of Venezuela and Brazil. Schomburgk welcomed the commission as an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his countryman Alexander von Humboldt, who had explored neighboring Venezuela in 1800 as part of his larger Latin American expedition. During the course of three expeditions conducted between 1836 and 1839, Schomburgk traveled up Guyana’s major rivers, observing the features of the surrounding landscape and collecting plant and animal specimens. Although he brought back some birds, his greatest discovery was without a doubt the magnificent Victoria regia water lily, whose leaves can grow to more than six feet in diameter. While traveling along the Rio Branco in what is now Brazil, Schomburgk encountered a party of Brazilian slave traders who had raided an Indian village and captured forty men, women, and children. This convinced him of the political and moral necessity of establishing a fixed boundary between British Guiana, where slavery had been outlawed, and Brazil, where it was still legal.  With  the support of the colony’s governor, he pressured the British government to act decisively and without delay. His pleas did not fall on deaf ears; in 1841 he was commissioned to survey Guyana’s interior and set the boundaries of British Guiana once and for all. Schomburgk was accompanied on his four surveying expeditions by his brother Richard, a botanist and gardener who, over the course of his three years in Guyana, collected thousands of natural history specimens, including at least sixty birds, for the University of Berlin. Robert Schomburgk finished his survey in 1844, and, although boundary disputes with Brazil continued into the twentieth century, his achievement was much admired. Queen Victoria knighted him in 1846. He ended his career as the British consul general at Bangkok and died in Berlin in 1865. Richard Schomburgk, who wrote a three-volume account of his travels with his brother in South America, emigrated in 1849 to Australia, where he later became curator of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. (Michael Taylor)