Bollaert, William (1807-1876)

Traveller, writer, chemist, scholar and adventurer who carried out mineral surveys in Peru and Chile in the 1820s and 1850s and pursued a number of military activities for a number of causes in the global Hispanic world, some recorded in the two-volume The Wars of Succession of Portugal and Spain, from 1826 to 1840 (London: Edward Stanford, 1870)1870). Bollaert’s South American travels gave him material for many publications, including Antiquarian, Ethnological and Other Researches in New Granada, Ecuador, Peru and Chile (London: Trübner & Co., 1860). His translation of The Expedition of Pedro de Ursa and Lope de Aguirre in Search of Eldorado and Amagua in 1560–1 (1861) contained an introduction by Clements Markham (1830-1916), who also travelled widely in Peru and was similarly influential in the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Bollaert wrote on ancient and modern history, ethnology, anthropology, science, literature and travel; by 1865, he had published eighty articles mainly relating to the Hispanic world in a variety of popular magazines and scholarly journals, all underpinned by his substantial private diaries and papers. Yet he is mainly known for his writings on Texas, the coastland of which he surveyed for the British navy in the 1840s as well as exploring its interior. His findings were used long after his death in the publication of W. E. Hollon and R. Lapham Butler (eds.), William Bollaert’s Texas (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1956).

Born on 21 October 1807 in Lymington, England, he was the eldest of at least eight children of a Dutch emigrant Andrew Jacobus Bollaert and Jane (née Collings) of Lymington. His father was an unregistered apothecary in London who had served in the 60th Regiment of Foot. William became a chemical assistant at the Royal Institution in 1821, working in the laboratory of William Brande and Michael Faraday, but his father’s sudden blindness compelled him to look for a more profitable position. He travelled to Peru in 1825 to take up a post as an assayer and chemist at the Guantajaya silver mines. He was commissioned by the Peruvian government to survey the Tarapaca province for mineral reserves with a local expert, George Smith of Iquique (of who little is known) who became a long-life friend and companion. They are thought to be the first Europeans to have traversed the Atacama Desert. Their survey helped to establish the nitrate industry in Peru in which William Gibbs (1790-1875), and successive company heads of Antony Gibbs and Sons, maintained an interest. After returning to London in 1830, a cousin of  Sir Charles William Doyle (1770 or 1782? -1842), Sir John Milley Doyle (1781-1856) recruited Bollaert to travel to Porto in 1832. There he engaged in military activities in support of the return of Donna Maria II for which eventually he was made knight of the Order of Tower and Sword of Portugal.  During the six consecutive years he acted also as an agent of the Carlist cause in Spain.

Back in London, Bollaert became increasingly involved in the RGS and was admitted as a Fellow. In 1840, he entered in contact with a land agent who was promoting British emigration to the newly independent republic of Texas. He read the account by the Scottish writer William Kennedy – The Rise, Progress and Prospects of Texas (1841) – and was attracted by a potential share in the land grant that Kennedy, then British consul in Galveston, had been offered there. From his arrival in Texas in 1842, Bollaert wrote extensive and detailed private journals of his survey of the coastline for the British navy and his observations on the natural history, botany, geography, history and peoples of the area. These journals, his diary, sketches and correspondence with Kennedy are held at the University of Texas, Austin.

Bollaert returned to London in 1844 where he found work as a clerk in a firm of merchants trading with Spain and devoted his spare time to writing articles about all his experiences. He married Susannah McMorran (c.1816/17–1900), had five children and received a medal from the Royal Society of Arts for an essay on salt preparation. In 1853 he returned to  Peru to carry out further government surveys for nitrate minerals and later for coal deposits in Chile. Coal was increasingly in demand for British steamships operating along the Pacific coast. This is evident in the writing of captain George Peacock (1805-1883) of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company. Peacock, also active in the discovery of local supplies of coal and guano in the 1840s, communicated with Bollaert on these issues and sent his observations on guano to Antony Gibbs and Sons. Bollaert published his observations on coal in the Journal of the RGS in 1855 and was also a prolific contributor to the journals of many other learned societies. With a continuing interest in resettlement and scientific exploration, he became involved in the Ecuador Land Company in 1859   He recorded the discovery of a slab containing the coat of arms of a guano lord in the Antiquarian, Ethnological and Other Researches in New Granada, Ecuador, Peru and Chile (London: Trübner & Co., 1860), after contributing several articles on the artefact for a number of British periodicals. The slab was subsequently named The Bollaert Slab and is now held by the British Museum.

            Ill heath dominated his last decade and he died in relative obscurity and straitened circumstances in London in 1876.

            The list of articles relating to the Hispanic world that he produced during his eventful life is vast and includes ‘Survey of the Island of Quiriquina in the Bay of Concepcion, in search of coal. In conjunction with Geo. Smith (of Iquique, Peru), his old friend and companion’ (apparently privately printed, 1828); ‘On the Chirihuanos or Travelling Doctors of Peru, Transactions of the Medico-botanical Society, 1831 (Bollaert was one of the founders of the society and later corresponding member); ‘On the Llama Family’, Linnean Society, 1832, ‘Southern Peru – its Deserts; Desert of Atacama, United Services Journal, 1848; ‘History of the Incas of Peru’, Belle Assemblée, 1851; ‘On the History of the Incas, and on the Indias of Southern Peru’, Transactions of the Ethnological Society, 1852; ‘The English Carlist’, Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, 1852; Researches in the province of Tarapacá, Peru, and discovery of the ‘pintados’ or ancient Indian pictography’, Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries of London (London, vol. 4, 1857): 105; ‘Account of the recently-discovered Tombs at Chiriqui, in New Granada, containing gold objects, pottery, celts, etc’, Journal of the Society of Antiquaries, 1859, second series I, p. 36; ‘Examination of recently discovered Peruvian Zodiac or Calendar (gold)’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, January 1860; ‘History of the Llama, Alpaca, Huanaco, and Vicuna Species, and their Mixed Breeds’, Sporting Review, February 1864, ‘Palaeography of the New World’, Memoirs read before The Anthropological Society, vol. 1, 1865; ‘Maya hieroglyphic alphabet of Yucatan’, extracted from Memoirs read before The Anthropological Society,  vol. 1, 1865, among many others.

 Sources: University of Texas, Austin,  Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, ‘William Bollaert Papers, 1841-1849’, 2H428, 2Q443; University of Oxford, Bodleian Library, ‘Miscellaneous papers of William Bollaert with a printed pamphlet by W.M.F. Castle’ (1830-1887), MSS Dep. E. 270-2; W. Bollaert, ‘Arrival in Texas in 1842 and Cruise of the Lafitte by a traveller’, Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal, November 1846, 341-355; W. Bollaert, ‘Observations on the Geography of Texas’, The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 20 (1850), 113-135; W. Bollaert, ‘Observations on the Natural History of Texas’, New Sporting Magazine (September 1851), 166-176; W. Bollaert, ‘Observations on the Coal Formation in Chile, S. America’, The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 25 (1855), 172-175; W. Bollaert, Antiquarian, Ethnological and Other Researches in New Granada, Ecuador, Peru and Chile (London: Trübner & Co., 1860), 72, 108, 150, 152; W. Bollaert, ‘Additional Notes on the Geography of Southern Peru’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 12 (1867), 126-134; W. Bollaert, The Wars of Succession of Portugal and Spain, Vols 1 and 2, (London: Edward Stanford, 1870); W. E. Hollon and R. Lapham Butler (eds.), William Bollaert’s Texas (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1956); Antony Gibbs and Sons, Merchants and Bankers: A Brief Record of Antony Gibbs & Sons and Its Associated Houses’ Business During 150 Years (London: Millbank Press, 1958), 29, 31, 36-38, 42-55; R. G. Greenhill and R. M. Miller, ‘The Peruvian Government and the Nitrate Trade’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 5 (1973), 107-131. L. M. Roeckell, “Bollaert, William (1807–1876), traveller and author.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  [, accessed January 06, 2018]; M. L. Tate, Handbook of Texas Online, “Bollaert, William” [, accessed January 06, 2018]; A. Goudie, Great Desert Explorers (London: Silphium Press and The Royal Geographical Society with IBG, 2016).

Author: Lesley Kinsley

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