Research Articles

Robert Plant (1818–1858): A Victorian plant hunter in Natal, Zululand, Mauritius and the Seychelles

Donal P. McCracken
South African Journal of Science | Vol 107, No 3/4 | a359 | DOI: | © 2011 Donal P. McCracken | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 18 July 2010 | Published: 01 March 2011

About the author(s)

Donal P. McCracken, Centre for Communication, Media and Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa


In the 1850s Robert William Plant collected plants and other natural specimens in what is now KwaZulu-Natal. This one-time Englishman compiled a dictionary for gardeners before emigrating to Natal in 1850. There he worked as the agent for Samuel Stevens, the London dealer in ‘curiosities of natural history’. Though Plant collected mainly plants, he also sent consignments of beetles, butterflies, bird skins and shells back to Britain. He published the first scientific paper on Zululand and was requested by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to write the first Flora natalensis. It was while collecting for this never-to-be-completed treatise that Plant contracted malaria in Maputaland. He died in St Lucia in 1858 and in doing so became South Africa’s martyr to botany. What emerges from this study is a picture of the difficulties faced by plant hunters in mid-19th-century South Africa, the sort of plants they collected and the necessity for them sometimes to diversify into other natural history products to survive.


biography; botany; history; plant hunting; southern Africa


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