Everard Im Thurn and the 'lost world'

By: Katherine Harrington - 11/12/2012


We take a look at the varied career of Everard Im Thurn through his correspondence with the Directors of Kew, and find out about his exploration of the 'lost world' of Mount Roraima in British Guiana.

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Before we started contributing to this blog, our team published some interesting finds from the Directors' Correspondence in Kew's staff magazine, VISTA. We came across these stories recently and thought they were deserving of a wider audience.

"Will no one explore Roraima and bring us back the tidings which it has been waiting these thousands of years to give us?" The Spectator, April 1877 

Early explorers in Latin America spoke of mysterious mountains towering above the jungles and reaching into the clouds. These dramatic sandstone mesas are called tepuis and are some of the world’s oldest rock formations. Mount Roraima is the tallest such tepui, lying where the borders of Guyana (formerly British Guiana), Brazil, and Venezuela meet. Its flat summit reaches over 9,000 feet with high cliffs dramatically maintaining its isolation.

Tantalizing tales of the attempted exploration of this mountain and the failure of anyone to reach its summit fuelled Victorian speculation as to what might lie at the top of the ancient plateau, and inspired Kew's then Director, Sir Joseph Hooker, to use his influence to support an expedition. In 1884 Everard Im Thurn, an author, explorer, botanist and anthropologist of Swiss extraction and the Magistrate in Pomeroon at the time, led a team that became the first to reach Roraima's summit and their success paved the way for further scientific explorations.

A black and white sketch of the route of Im Thurn's ascent to the summit of Mount Roraima

View of the south-east face of Roriama showing a waterfall and Im Thurn's ledge of ascent (from The Botany of the Roraima Expedition, 1884)

The Directors' Correspondence collection contains letters regarding the details of Im Thurn’s expedition and also letters from his friends and colleagues, W.H. Campbell and G.S. Jenman. From plant specimens sent back to England, staff at Kew identified over 50 species new to science such as Bonnetia roraimae.

A photograph of a herbarium sheet containing various examples of Bonnetia roraimae collected by im Thurn, Quelch and McConnell

Specimens of Bonnetia roraimae collected by Im Thurn in 1884, (top) and by Quelch and McConnell who followed in Im Thurn's footsteps in 1894 and 1898 (bottom) (RBG Kew, K000221146)

Reports from Early Victorian expeditions to Roraima are thought to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imperial adventure yarn The Lost World (1912) based around an expedition to a plateau in Venezuela where prehistoric animals had survived. On his return from the summit of Roraima, Im Thurn authored several works related to his travels. Everard pursued a career as a colonial administrator, culminating in a position as Governor of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He maintained a high profile in British scientific circles throughout his life, was a prolific contributor to popular and scientific journals, and was President of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Im Thurn’s correspondence with the Directors of Kew spans his long career and offers an insight into the kind of botanical material he exchanged, the gifts he sent to the museum at Kew, his botanical interests, and his thoughts on matters as varied as publishing and the division of country boundaries. His letters demonstrate a great love for Guyana and even in 1887 he discusses the rapid rate at which the unexplored interior of British Guiana is disappearing and his fears that the native peoples could soon vanish. Whilst in London in 1900 he wrote to then director Thiselton-Dyer:

LAA_im_thurn_letter

"I walked home tonight through Piccadilly and had my attention called by my companion to the shops – but I was quite homesick for my bush paths and longed for the chance of meeting either a crapaud [frog] or a jaguar or something interesting." Directors' Correspondence 204/366 (RBG Kew)

Im Thurn was also a keen amateur photographer and sent several photographs to Kew, including this photograph of Catasetums, a type of Orchid, growing in his Guyana garden.

A close up black and white photograph of several flowering Catasetums

Catasetums from Im Thurn's garden. Directors' Correspondence 204/332 (1887, RBG Kew)

Im Thurn’s varied and exciting career is an important part of the Cross-cultural Histories of Tropical Botany in Latin America project being under taken at Kew by Sara Albuquerque. You can search Kew's digitised Im Thurn correspondence via the JSTOR Plant Science website.
 

-Katherine-


 

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