Herbarium Travels: Engelbert Kaempfer

2 Sciadopitys verticillata

Specimen of Sciadopitys verticillata collected by Engelbert Kaempfer. In Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

The last post dealt with Paul Hermann, a German-born physician and plant collector who worked for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Asia.  This same description fits Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) as well.  He was born in Westphalia, graduated from the University of Kraków, spent four more years studying in Königsberg, and eventually ended up in Uppsala, Sweden where he was offered a university position.  However, he was more interested in travel and took a position with a Swedish ambassador sent on a mission through Russia to Persia, leaving in 1683 and arriving in Isfahan in 1684.  After staying for a year, the Swedes returned home, while Kaempfer signed on with the VOC, becoming chief surgeon in the Persian Gulf.  This provided him with opportunities to see the region including Muscat and the coastlands of western India, collecting and taking note of the plants and animals he encountered.  By 1689, he was in Batavia (now Jakarta), studying Javanese natural history.   The following year, he was sent to Nagasaki as physician to the Dutch trading post there.

Aside from this port, which was open to Dutch and Chinese ships, Japan was essentially closed to foreigners.  Traders were usually confined to the port, and in fact, to a man-made island called Deshima which isolated them even more.  However, once a year the Dutch traveled to the capital at Edo to have an audience with the Shogun.  Kaempfer made the most of this opportunity and also studied the plants that he encountered in Nagasaki.  He encouraged locals to bring him material from other areas as well.  He also was interested in zoology, mineralogy, and climate, in addition to Japanese history and culture.  But since I only have eyes for plants, I’ll stick to them here.  Perhaps most notably Kaempfer was the first Westerner to describe the ginkgo tree and send specimens and seeds to Europe (Crane, 2013).  Seeds planted at the Leiden Botanical Gardens germinated, and some of those ginkgo trees survive today.  Kaempfer also described camellias and rhododendrons growing wild in mountainous areas.  He was very interested in economic botany and his History of Japan (1728) included a section on the types of plants that were central to Japanese culture.  Tea is one obvious example, but he also described mulberry leaves for feeding silkworms and making paper, the importance of giant radishes in the Japanese diet, and the failure of grapes to ripen.

Kaempfer documented all that he observed in careful notes, in seed collections, and in specimens.  He was able to learn a great deal because he was respectful of the Japanese, and they came to appreciate his medical expertise.  He received much information from interpreters.  He also used botanizing field trips during the pilgrimages to Edo as a way to gain knowledge about other aspects of Japanese life.  Michael Harbsmeier (2018) argues that Kaempfer’s case is an early example of fieldwork, of using local knowledge and working with native peoples to learn about an area.  Kaempfer had done the same thing earlier in Persia, where he befriended not a native, but a long-time resident of Isfahan, a French Capuchin monk named Raphäel de Mans who had been there almost 20 years when Kaempfer arrived.  This suggests that plant collecting involves a great deal more than just pressing plants, that social skills are important and can influence the success of fieldwork.

Kaempfer remained in Japan for two years, then stayed in Java, a Dutch stronghold, for another two, finally returning to Amsterdam in 1695.  He spent the rest of his life in Lemgo, where he had been born, serving as physician to the local count.  In 1712, he published Amoenitatum exoticarum or Exotic Delights, which presented the natural history of Japan as well as material on Persia.  He drew not only on what he had learned about Japanese plants firsthand, but also from such important Japanese natural history texts as its first illustrated encyclopedia Kinmo zui; many of his illustrations are based on those in this work.  When Kaempfer died four years later, his notes and specimens were sold to Hans Sloane, the great British “collector of collectors,” as James Delbourgo (2017) describes him.

In his 1958 catalog of Sloane’s 265-volume herbarium, James Dandy writes that Sloane Herbarium volume 211 of Kaempfer plants is among the most important volumes in the collection, and that probably no other has been consulted and cited so frequently.  Most of the plants are from Japan, but there are a few from Persia and Ceylon as well.  Some of the illustrations in Delights seem to be based on specimens.  There is a second Sloane volume H.S. 213 with Kaempfer plants, but contrary to the first, this one is of little value, having just scraps, often merely leaves and with many duplicates.  While the Paul Hermann specimens described in the last post are in several collections, there is no other known Kaempfer material outside of the Sloane Herbarium.  What makes volume 211 particularly useful is that Sloane also bought the accompanying manuscripts that included original plant drawings with Japanese names and with a list of references to the Delights and other works.  There was also the manuscript of Kaempfer’s history of Japan that Sloane’s German secretary translated into English.  Oddly, the German edition wasn’t published until many years later and was based on a translation from the English version.  As with the case of Hermann, specimens and documents of early plant hunters have long, and often twisting, stories attached to them, making them all the more interesting.


Crane, P. (2013). Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Harbsmeier, M. (2012). Fieldwork avant la lettre. In K. Nielsen, M. Harbsmeier, & C. J. Ries (Eds.), Scientists and Scholars in the Field: Studies in the History of Fieldwork and Expeditions (pp. 29–50). Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press.

Kaempfer, E. (1728). The History of Japan. London: Woodward and Davis.

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