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Coming home - Plant collecting in South Africa in the 1800s

Michele Losse
30 June 2010
In the first installment of a two-part blog, find out more about Kew's history of plant collecting in South Africa.

The FIFA World Cup 2010 being hosted in South Africa means that this region is very much in the limelight at present. However, Kew’s Archives show how this fascination with South Africa started much earlier in the botanical world.

We hold a huge amount of material relating to South Africa at Kew. In this post, I'm going to highlight an example from the early 19th century when Joseph Banks was sending plant collectors to far flung shores using royal money. In my second post later on this month, I shall focus on the Zambesi Expedition led by David Livingstone, at the height of the Victorian era.

Cape of Good Hope: James Bowie’s Expedition 1814-1823


Entries for April 1822 in Bowie's journal (KCL/4/2)

The early plant collectors had as much of a thirst for discovery as a desire to find new plants. Their journals record not only flora, but also their journeys, the landscapes and indigenous people encountered. James Bowie (ca 1789-1869), was a gardener at Kew and was instructed by Joseph Banks in 1814 to sail to the Cape of Good Hope to collect plants for Kew's collections. Bowie writes:

The arrival of the peace treaty with France and the certainty that … ships will sail as they were used to do without being subjected to any uncertain delays makes me anxious to see the establishment of foreign collectors resumed … no places are so productive as the Cape of Good Hope … the plants of this country are beautiful in the extreme and suit the conservatory.”

We have 2 diaries for Bowie’s expedition to South Africa: the first one covers the period 1814-1821 and the second, entitled ‘A Journal kept at the Cape of Good Hope by James Bowie H.M.B.C.’ covers the years 1821-1823. Both are primarily collecting journals, concerned with the flora encountered but also include occasional comments about people and places.


Haemanthus albiflos by Sydenham Edwards, 1810. Painted for Curtis' Botanical Magazine. Bowie collected specimens of this plant.

Bowie's journals always start with a brief description of the day’s weather, sometimes the temperature and wind direction, followed by a detailed description of plant collecting activities and any other events. Plant collecting in the Cape region was hard physical work and not always very fruitful (a bit like the football!). Bowie describes his plant collecting:

In hopes of procuring novelties, I this morning ascended one of the highest parts of the mountain to the North East, but after a most toilsome walk, and encountering many difficult precipices, I only procured two orchidea [orchids] and a species of Hamenthus [Haementhus or Paint Brush] … during the time I was employed on the mountain the wind was very boisterous and I was in some danger of being blown from the more exposed parts by its violence”.

Coming soon: I’ll be blogging again shortly to tell you about the Zambesi Expedition.

- Michele-

Further information

Want a break from the football? Interested in South Africa? If you would like to see our documents relating to botanical collection in South Africa, or to find out more about the Archives, please get in touch with

We don’t yet have an online catalogue, but details of many of our catalogued collections are available through the National Archives Catalogue.


14 July 2010
Thanks for your comments Deidre. I'm pleased to hear that you enjoyed reading about Bowie. Watch out for part two of the blog, coming soon!
10 July 2010
Thanks, I enjoyed reading your blog. And reading up about Bowie; how sad that his life's work was summed up by his 'habits' !

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