The year 1772 should be celebrated as the founding year of South African botany. For this was the year in which Anders Sparrman, Carl Thunberg and Francis Masson arrived in the Cape – independently, but no less fortuitously. Their collections added over 1 500 species to the list of plants known from the Cape.
On 13 April 1772, the Swede Anders Sparrman, a student of the great Linnaeus (see page 85), arrived in Cape Town. Just three days later, on 16 April, another Swede, Carl Peter Thunberg, arrived. On 30 October, the Scotsman Francis Masson arrived. It is improbable that any one land in the new worlds being explored during the 18th century had such a surge of botanical collecting as occurred in the Cape through the last quarter of the 1700s.
Holiday in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Photo Gallery
Anders Sparrman (1740-1820), like most of the natural scientists of the period, studied medicine and travelled to distant lands as a ship’s surgeon (botany was seldom the main thrust of these pioneers’ duties, but was taken up as an extra activity). He spent six months at the Cape before joining James Cook on the Resolution and passing the next 28 months at sea, circumnavigating the globe, and returning to the Cape for a further 14 months before heading home to Sweden. His detailed observations on the social life, agriculture, natural history and landscapes of South Africa remain one of the classics of the time.
As much as one admires the fortitude of Sparrman, that of Thunberg is even more impressive. Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) had also studied under Linnaeus and, as a young graduate in medicine, took the opportunity to travel to Japan. However, he first had to learn Dutch because, at the time, Holland enjoyed almost exclusive access to Japan, with other European nations being barred entry. So Thunberg travelled to the Cape in April 1772 to study the Dutch language and customs, continuing to Japan in March 1775, where he remained until his return to Sweden, via Java and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), in 1779.
Thunberg introduced a custom that has become a habit among Cape botanists – mountain climbing. He climbed Table Mountain 15 times during his visit, no small accomplishment given the absence of roads or even paths up the rough slopes. His collections from the Cape included 3 100 species, of which over 1 000 were new to science. He is credited with naming more than 2 300 new species from his collections in the Cape, Japan, Java and Ceylon, leading to the comment -‘God created, Linnaeus ordered, Thunberg described’.
He is commemorated by the genus Thunbergia of which the beautiful pale blue, cream-throated T. natalensis flowers abundantly in Kirstenbosch. As author of the first comprehensive Flora Capensis (1807-1820), he is recognised as the ‘Father of South African Botany’ – and his Flora Japonica should similarly place him as ‘Father of Japanese Botany’. He succeeded Linnaeus to the Chair of Botany at Uppsala in 1784, which he held until his death in 1828.
Perhaps no greater tribute could be offered to Thunberg than the words of Peter MacOwan, writing in 1886: as long as in our paradise offlowers there wanders a single botanist, so long will the name of Thunberg be held in honoured remembrance. ’