By Tota C Mangar
By far the most intensive and painstaking explorations of Guyana, the former colony of British Guiana, were those conducted in the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century by the German, Sir Robert Herman Schomburgk. He was born in Freyburg in the then Prussia. In his early years he studied in the areas of business and botany. He subsequently went to North America where he made a futile attempt at being a tobacco planter, Robert Schomburgk then left for Puerto Rico and eventually the Virgin Islands. He explored around the latter, 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, Secretary to the Royal Geographical 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 of 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”. The British government was patron to this enterprise since it was desirous of fully developing “the natural resources of the magnificent colony of British Guiana”.
Within weeks of his arrival in the country Robert Schomburgk and his party departed Georgetown on the 21st September, 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 the 1st October until they reached the mouth of the Rupununi. By this time Robert Schomburgk had already collected some 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 Mountains 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 28th, 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. The expedition returned to Bartica on the 18th March 1836 and an unfortunate accident to one of the canoes in the vicinity of Itaballi Falls resulted in the loss of a large portion of the plant collection.
Schomburgk and his men subsequently returned to Georgetown on March 28, 1836 and they were 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 2nd September, 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 upriver, 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 cataracts were identified and 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 the 25th November, 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 1st January, 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 29th 1837 the party reached the vicinity where the path from the Corentyne to the Essequibo crossed the Berbice River. A land crossing was then effected to the Essequibo River by way of this Indian path. It was re-crossed the following day and a return journey of the Berbice River commenced due mainly to inadequate provisions and low water level. While descending the Christmas Cataract one of the canoes overturned and Mr. Reiss was unfortunately drowned. This incident was a tragic blow to Robert Schomburgk and for days the explorer was devastated.
His expedition rested briefly at Peerboom before traveling 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 the party to Wikki. After a brief trip to the Upper Canje Creek the expedition finally arrived at New Amsterdam on the 31st March, 1837.
Robert Schomburgk’s next expedition was aimed at exploring the Essequibo river to its sources and to Emerelda 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 12th September, 1837 and journeyed up the Essequibo river to Tampa and then to the Taquiari or Kumuti Mountains 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 Wapisiana 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 15th the Canewau 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 6th, 1838 Schomburgk embarked on a most difficult journey to Esmeralda on the Orinoco River. He arrived there on February 22nd and then proceeded down the Orinoco to the Cassiquiare, to the Rio Negro and then up River Branco. He reached Port San Jaoquim on 22nd April, 1839 and had finally 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, a remarkable feat and made under extremely difficult conditions.
Robert Schomburgk returned to England for a period of well-deserved rest following his rather extensive, challenging and successful explorations of the main rivers of Guyana during the years 1835-1839.