Meet the diplomatic gardener

A couple of years ago Georgetown’s airport on an internal flight from the interior of Guyana. As I was waiting for the rest of the party to disembark I observed our driver waving frantically from the other side of the chain link fence. Although the thought of a shower and a Demerara rum was attractive enough, I was at first inclined to put his actions down to mere impatience and to ignore him. I could hardly see that there was any urgency in getting back to our guest house. Nevertheless his insistence eventually required me to wander over. “You and Mr Schomburgk must come immediately – the President is expecting to meet with you,” he said. Well, this was news – but I dutifully gathered Ian Schomburgk, foreshortened the usual process for extracting myself from an airport, and headed to the President Bharrat Jagdeo’s office. The purpose of the meeting with the President became clear – Ian Schomburgk, the great grandson of Richard Schomburgk, provided a tangible link with a significant part of Guyana’s history.

Richard, of course, also has a significant place in South Austalia’s history as the second director of Adelaide’s botanic gardens and as a leading adviser on the literal planting of the South Australian colony in the 19th century. Our meeting with the president in the 21st century underscored the importance of Richard Schomburgk’s work in British Guiana in the 1840s. Richard and his brother Sir Robert Schomburgk are regarded in Guyana in much the same light as Australians might regard Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks or as Americans might regard Meriwether Lewis and William Clark Their achievements in chronicling British Guyana’s natural history, ethnography and geography, and in surveying the boundaries of the colony, provided a significant foundation for both British Guiana and the later nation of Guyana.

Richard Schomburgk took on the directorship of Adelaide Botanic Gardens in 1865 at the age of 54 and continued as director until his death in 1891 – a period in office of 26 years. (Remarkably this is only five years longer than the average period of incumbency for a director at these Gardens.) This was clearly an age where constancy of purpose was respected: Sir Henry Ayers served on the Board of the Botanic Gardens from 1862 to 1896 (a period that included all of Schomburgk’s term of office) and was seven times Premier of South Australia during this period.

Dr Pauline Payne’s biography of her greatgrandfather Richard Schomburgk, The diplomatic gardener – Richard Schomburgk: explorer and botanic garden director was launched at the Gardens on 20 February. The work is obviously a labour of love as well as one of scholarship – Dr Payee’s doctoral thesis at the University of Adelaide was completed on the same topic in 1993!

Richard’s association with Adelaide Botanic Gardens is well known. Indeed, the affection of South Australians for him in this role led to him describing himself, in confidence and rather self deprecatingly, as`the peoples pet’. These days his direct influence is still visible in the Main Walk – including Murdoch Avenue with its astonishing 140-year-old Moreton Bay figs – and the Araucaria Avenue, as well as the remarkable collection of surviving built elements including the Victoria amazonica pond in its new pavilion, the Palm House and the Museum of Economic Botany.

The museum still provides eloquent testimony of the central role which governments entrusted to the gardens in developing the colony. It is particularly important to understanding the literal planting of South Australia as a colony by its new settlers.

Dr Payne’s biography places Schomburgk’s achievements in the botanic gardens into perspective, and makes this story one that has significance well beyond Schomburgk’s adopted home of Adelaide. The diplomatic gardener explores Richard Schomburgk’s work before his appointment to the gardens, and his contribution to South Australia’s agriculture, horticulture and forestry ranging from viticulture and sericulture (silk culture!), to agronomy and cereal selection.

Let’s start with Schomburgk’s achievements before his arrival at the Gardens. Of course Schomburgk’s links to the discovery of Victoria amazonica is a tale well told in Adelaide Botanic Gardens since Schomburgk’s lily pond first hosted the spectacular lily in 1868. Schomburgk’s work in Guyana weaves Schomburgk firmly within the fabric of the German and international scientific community – links that continued to develop after his arrival in South Australia on the Princess Louise in 1849.

Subsequently, with his appointment to the Gardens, Schomburgk was well positioned to utilise his knowledge and experience to have a profound impact on the literal planting of South Australia as a colony. In the early years of Schomburgk’s directorship, botanic gardens, agricultural societies and government farms provided the basis for industry development. (At that stage, there were no primary industries departments.) Schomburgk’s ability to make links across South Australia, Australia and internationally made the Gardens a hub for research and development. Indeed, Schomburgk is sometimes considered to be the father of the South Australian grain industry – an industry that was pivotal in the development and wealth of the fledgling colony.

Dr Payne’s work chronicles Schomburgk’s important contribution to the planting of South Australia and reinforces his position within the firmament of German plant explorers, geographers and scientists. It allows us to delight in the cachet that Schomburgk’s name and achievements bring to South Australia and Adelaide, and to Guyana and Georgetown.

The diplomatic gardener – Richard Schomburgk Explorer and Botanic Garden Director
Dr Pauline Payne, Jeffcott Press, Adelaide (2007). $65 softbound or $95 hardbound. Available from the Botanic Shop at Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 April 2008.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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