S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Barrow, Sir John (geography, cartography, geology)

Born: 19 June 1764, Ulverston, Lancashire, England.
Died: 23 November 1848, London, England.
Sir John Barrow

John Barrow, promotor of exploration and author, was born of relatively poor parents and left school at the age of thirteen. However, he had an aptitude for mathematics and learned some navigation from a midshipman. From the age of fourteen he worked as a clerk for two years in a Liverpool foundry. At the age of sixteen he went to Greenland and Spitzbergen in a whaler, improving his knowledge of navigation and developing a lifelong interest in polar exploration. He then taught mathematics to naval recruits in Greenwich and produced a short publication on the use of the theodolite. His contact with influential families through his pupils led to a recognition of his potential and a post as comptroller of the household in Lord Macartney's embassy to the Emporer of China in 1792-1794. In that country he travelled by barge and on foot from Beijing to Canton, making observations of a scientific nature. His book A voyage to Cochinchina in the years 1792 and 1793... was published in London in 1806. This book also contained an account of the expedition of P.J. Truter* and W. Somerville* to the Kuruman area in 1801-1802.

So well did Barrow acquit himself during the mission to China that when Lord Macartney became Governor of the Cape of Good Hope in 1797 he chose Barrow as one of his private secretaries. Before his departure Barrow studied Cape plants at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, near London, for some time. Arriving at the Cape in May 1797 he was sent on three journeys, a major purpose of which was to map and gather information about the colony for the new British administration. His first journey, from July 1797 to January 1798, took him to Graaff-Reinet, Algoa Bay, eastwards beyond the Keismamma River, and northwards to the junction of the Orange and Seekoei Rivers. The second, in April and May 1798, took him to Saldanha Bay and as far north as the Kamiesberge. The third was a military expedition during March to June 1799 to Algoa Bay and the vicinity of present day Somerset East. In September 1798 he was promoted to auditor-general of the Cape Colony and in August the next year married Anna M. Truter, daughter of P.J. Truter.

Barrow's account of his travels and observations in South Africa were published as An account of travels into the interior of southern Africa, in the years 1797 and 1798; including cursory observations on the geology and geography... (2 vols, 1801-1804) and was translated into French, Dutch, German, Swedish, and Norwegian. It included a reprint of his map of the whole colony (first published in London in 1800) at a scale of approximately 1:1 650 000, largely based on his own observations. This General chart of the colony of the Cape of Good Hope was his most outstanding contribution to geography. It was the best map of the colony to date and served as the basis for several later maps by others. As earlier Dutch maps had been removed to Holland before the British occupation, it was the only useful map available to the British administration. Barrow was severely critical of the quality of earlier maps of the Cape Colony, but much of his criticism was unwarranted. His survey method was the compass traverse, with estimated distances and daily observations of latitude from the meridian altitude of the sun. Longitudes were not determined, resulting in some inaccuracies. His instruments included a sextant, plane table, pocket chronometer, pocket compass, and measuring chain.

Barrow's geological observations are somewhat cursory, and coloured by his preference for (though not strict adherence to) the Neptunist views over those of the Plutonists. He took the rock strata observed around Cape Town as representative of most of the country, thus not distinguishing the Witteberg sandstone from that of Table Mountain, and regarded the Karoo strata as contemporaneous with those of the Cape folded belt. He also did not recognise the igneous origin of the Karoo dolerites. Nonetheless he was probably the first to describe the Dwyka tillite, to the north of the Swartberg, though it would be many decades before it was recognised for what it was. He also noted that the Kamiesberge consisted of large masses of granite. Though he observed shells on raised beaches along the coast he did not accept this as evidence for changes in sea level, but concluded that they had been dropped by sea birds. He observed the effects of erosion and stated that this slow process cast doubt on the historical time-scale permitted by religious authority. His weather observations include the first account of the high temperatures associated with a berg wind on the banks of the Fish River, though he could of course not explain the phenomenon. He also described several hot springs, and the salt pans near Algoa Bay. Barrow can be regarded as the first modern geographer in South Africa. He had great physical and intellectual engergy, a good general scientific knowledge and a scientific attitude, attempting to show how the interaction of natural forces produced the landscapes he observed. His wide interests, general knowledge and enthusiasm (the latter severely curtailed while he was away from his future wife during their courtship) were vividly described by Lady Anne Barnard (1994, 1999) in her diaries and journals.

Barrow's book also contains careful observations of plants, particularly of trees and their uses. His other botanical activities followed from an instruction by Lord Macartney that he develop and take charge of a botanical garden in which exotic plants and trees useful to the colony were to be cultivated. To this end Barrow received cotton seed from Dr. James Anderson in India, and asked him to send also date palms, areca palms, and other useful plants. However, his travels and other duties did not leave him much time for this project, and it appears to have come to nothing, except that the relevant documents were quoted in the local press 50 years later when a botanic garden was again being contemplated.

In 1801 Barrow was appointed secretary to the very first scientific society in South Africa, namely the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts and Sciences, established by Governor George Yonge. The society lasted only a year or two, and when a committee was appointed to investigate possible maladministration by Yonge, Barrow served on that too. He left the Cape in 1803 on its retrocession to the Dutch. From 1804 to 1845 he served as second secretary of the Board of Admiralty. In this position he ran the Admiralty Office and corresponded with naval officers around the world and with administrators of other Boards. One of his regular correspondents, both in an official capacity and as a friend, was the astronomer Reverend F. Fallows*, who was sent to the Cape Colony in 1821 to establish the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope. Barrow was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society, and in 1805 a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. For several years from 1815 he served on the council of the Royal Society. As a close associate of Sir Joseph Banks* he helped the latter to plan expeditions to trace the course of the Niger River. He gave vigorous support to Arctic exploration and published A chronological history of voyages into the Arctic regions... (London, 1818) and Voyages of discovery and research within the Arctic regions, from the year 1818 to the present time... (London, 1846). By that time he was the greatest all-round geographer in Britain. In addition he was a prolific writer on a variety of other subjects. Most of his writings had a geographical focus, an underlying imperial theme, and reflected a belief in progress and the suporiority of British civilisation. In 1830 he was one of the founders of the Royal Geographical Society and served as its president in 1835-1837. Just before his death An autobiographical memoir of Sir John Barrow... (London, 1847) was published.


List of sources:

African Court Calendar, 1801, 1802. (Reprinted by the South African Library).

Barrow, J. An account of travels into the interior of southern Africa, in the years 1797 and 1798; including cursory observations on the geology and geography... London, 2 vols, 1801-1804.

The Cape diaries of Lady Anne Barnard, 1799-1800 (2 vols; ed. by M. Lenta and B. Cordeur). Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, Second Series, No. 29 and 30, 1999.

The Cape journals of Lady Anne Barnard, 1797-1798 (ed. by A.M. Lewin Robinson). Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, Second Series, No. 24, 1994.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 2, 1972.

Duminy, A. Mapping South Africa; a historical survey of South African maps and charts (second, revised impression). Auckland Park: Jacana, 2013.

Forbes, V.S. The first modern geographer and geologist in South Africa: Sir John Barrow. South African Geographical Journal, 1944, Vol. 26, pp. 44-75.

Forbes, V.S. Pioneer travellers in South Africa: a geographical commentary upon routes, records, observations and opinions of travellers at the Cape, 1750-1800. Cape Town: Balkema, 1965.

Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. Botanical exploration of southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1981.

Liebenberg, E. From Barrow to Jeppe - the development of 19th century cartography in South Africa. In E. Liebenberg (ed.), Proceedings of the symposium on the history of cartography of Africa... (pp. 103-119). Pretoria: International Cartographic Association, 2003.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Norwich, O.I. Maps of Africa. Johannesburg: A.D. Donker, 1983.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979 (Vol. 1-4); Cape Town: South African Library, 1991 (Vol. 5).

South African Commercial Advertiser, 13 May 1848, pp. 2-3, "Botanical garden, Cape Town".

Talbot, W.J. Pathfinders and pioneers, explorers and scientists. In A.C. Brown (ed.), A history of scientific endeavour in South Africa (pp. 1-32). Cape Town: Royal Society of South Africa, 1977.

Theal, G. Records of the Cape Colony (Vol. 4, pp. 85-86, 221-274). London, 1898-1899.

Warner, B. Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, 1820-1831. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1995.


Compiled by: C. Plug


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