Early North American Exploration: Carolina and Virginia

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John White watercolor of a milkweed plant done in 1585, British Library.

In the last two posts (1,2) I’ve discussed botanical explorations in Canada and New England; now I want to move south to areas where there was more work done on plants and more collection of specimens rather than just seeds.  As with almost all issues in the history of botany, there were political, economic, and cultural factors influencing how plants were studied.  Plymouth and the other early New England colonies were founded by Puritans and other religious dissenters.  They were not wealthy nor were they in most cases linked to the wealthy and powerful in Britain.  The situation was very different in Virginia and adjacent areas.  From the beginning, these colonies were founded with economic development in mind.  British monarchs rewarded those who did their bidding with large parcels of land, and these individuals had the wherewithal, along with the government backing, to succeed.  Admittedly, the early settlers had a rough time particularly at first as they had to find suitable sites, learn about the perils and opportunities of the land, and negotiate with indigenous peoples.  Early attempts at settlement were financed by Sir Walter Raleigh on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina.  The colony ultimately failed but the 1585 expedition there included the scientist Thomas Harriot who wrote the first book in English on North American flora and fauna, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, and the artist and mapmaker John White who documented the people and landscapes he saw, as well as some plants and animals, though many of the original watercolors did not survive (see figure above).

By the mid-17th century there were thriving British colonies in New England and in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas.  The coast provided many useable harbors, plenty of fish and other wildlife for food, and fertile land for agriculture.  However, the purpose of these colonies was not just to successfully settle the land, but to develop resources that would make its British landlords wealthier and provide them with novelties to impress their peers.  While the Spanish found gold and silver to the south, Britain has to be satisfied with other kinds of riches.  The thick forests were one resource.  As the British navy expanded and the homeland continued to develop, Britain needed ever more wood and had already lost a great deal of its woodlands, which were being cut down from the Middle Ages onward.  So there was need for kind of trees abundant in North American forests, those that yielded long, straight boards and wood that resisted rot.

There was also another reason for tree hunting: to find new species to plant in the expanding gardens of the British upper classes.  As the country’s naval power increased after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, so did its economic strength and for those who benefitted from this, gardens became a significant way to display their wealth.  Even today, if you look at garden catalogs, you’ll see that new introductions tend to be expensive, but people in the know are often willing to pay the price to be the “first on the block” with the latest hybrid.  This was equally true in the 17th century when many with means were passionate gardeners who were learning about new plants, creating hothouses for finicky species, and encouraging collectors to send seeds and specimens.  Seeds were being sent back from Spanish and French explorers since the first half of the 16th century.  The 17th century British botanical scene was interested in botany as well as gardening, so specimens were sent along with the seeds.  Specimens also gave gardeners some sense of what those seeds might produce, so they could encourage collectors to provide more seeds of particularly intriguing species.

In an earlier post, I discussed the major role that Hans Sloane, James Petiver, and Leonard Plukenet played in supporting plant collectors and amassing specimen collections that are now found in the Sloane Herbarium (SH) at the Natural History Museum, London.  Mark Laird (2015) has written about their work in relation to gardeners including one of my favorites, Mary Somerset, the Duchess of Beaufort who kept her own herbarium, now part of SH. It gives some sense of her attention to her garden, and how she was attempting to document what varieties she grew there, with pages full of different varieties of the same species, tulips for example.  In other cases, she preserved specimens of exotic plants that she had nursed to health in her hot houses.

Among the collectors supported by Sloane et al., was John Banister, who had studied at Oxford and was the first university-trained collector to send specimens back to England.  He was encouraged by Bishop Henry Compton, himself a member of Sloane’s botany club that met at the Temple Coffee House in London.  Banister was dispatched to Virginia as a clergyman but he had prepared for his role in natural history as well.  Before he left, he studied specimens that had already been sent from North America, including many grown from seed collected by French explorers.  Banister brought with him a herbarium of such plants and left a catalog of them in Oxford so that botanists there would know what he was referring to.  In all there are over 300 of his specimens in Oxford and many more in SH.  He communicated with his professor at Oxford, Robert Morison, who was also in contact with the coffeehouse group.  Both Petiver and Plukenet published on Banister’s collections but Plukenet’s work was the most extensive.  He described almost 100 species and in many cases included illustrations made from Banister’s drawings (Ewan & Ewan, 1970).  Morison also collaborated with John Ray in studying the Virginia plants, some of which were described in Ray’s, Historia plantarum (Raven, 1950).  Though many botanists were using Banister’s specimens, he still wanted to write his own book but after collecting for many years he was killed in a hunting accident in 1692.


Ewan, J., & Ewan, N. (1970). John Banister and His Natural History of Virginia 1678-1692. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Raven, C. E. (1950). John Ray Naturalist: His Life and Work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Early American Exploration: New England

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Josselyn’s illustration of a pitcher plant in New England Rareties, Biodiversity Heritage Library

Children educated in the United States are taught that the Pilgrims learned about growing corn from the indigenous peoples who lived in and around Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.  From the very beginning, local botanical knowledge was pivotal to the success of the settlement, as it was for all such enterprises in unfamiliar places.  Within a few years after the founding of the colony in 1620, William Wood wrote New England’s Prospect (1634), a general description of the area and how it was developing.  It makes fascinating reading as Wood pictures getting lost in untrod woods, searching for food during a harsh winter, and enjoying the bounties of a “fertile summer.”  The book isn’t illustrated, but it has brief sections on plants used for food, as well as on the various kinds of useful trees available.  Wood notes that crops which grow well in England do equally well in the colony, and some actually do better and grow bigger.  As to trees, the cherry is different from the English cherry, and so is the walnut, but they are at least as good and useful as their British cousins.  It is easy to detect a nostalgia for plants that are now only a memory for Wood, but there is also a sense of wonder at what the dense woods may hold.

John Josselyn first visited New England in 1638 and stayed a year.  He returned in 1663 and remained until 1671.  Afterwards he wrote two books on his experiences, New England Rarities (1671) and An Account of Two Voyages (1674).  He is considered gullible since some of his descriptions border on the fantastic, but he does give interesting information on plants, listing 32 species growing in Plymouth gardens (Reveal, 1992).  His first book describes the birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and plants he encountered in Massachusetts, including areas where his relatives had settled that are now part of Maine.  It’s not surprising that Josselyn provides an extensive list of fish, since he is reporting on coastal communities with access to both salt and freshwater species.  However, he only mentions three insect species.  As for plants, he focuses on their medicinal uses.  For example: “An Indian bruising and cutting of his knee with a fall, used no other remedy than alder bark, chewed fasting, and laid to it, did soon heal it.”  In 1865, Josselyn’s books were reprinted; and the botanist Edward Tuckerman wrote an introduction to Rarities putting Josselyn’s botanizing in context.   Tuckerman deems him to be “little more than an herbalist,” but gives him credit for botanizing and making use of references like John Gerard’s The herball, or, Generall historie of plantes (1597), a book highly regarded at that time.  Tuckerman considers Wood’s book a better introduction to the natural history of the area, but concedes that Josselyn provides more on plants.  Then leaving Josselyn behind, he continues with a brief but interesting review of what had come to be known about plants of North America since Josselyn’s time, including mention of such greats as John Bartram, Peter Collinson, and Alexander Garden.  If you are interested in the history of American botany, Tuckerman’s book is a good read.

One thing that makes Rarities notable is that it’s illustrated.  For those accustomed to the polished engravings of the European floras of the time, Josselyn’s images are disappointing, but they carry some information as well as a certain charm.  The drawings of walnuts aren’t inspiring, but Tuckerman notes that Josselyn “sufficiently exhibits” characteristics of the (see illustration above).  Josselyn describes a plant he calls Paris or One Berry, but which Tuckerman identifies as Cornus canadensis, the bunch berry.  The illustration is rather stylized and imprecise, displaying features that could be interpreted as either plant.  This is why reading not the original Josselyn book, but Tuckerman’s edited version is more informative and satisfying.  Both versions are available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, as examples of its wealth of resources.  And in case you haven’t heard, BHL now has a full-text search function which makes it even more useful in historical research.

To get a few herbarium specimens in here, as well as a little family history, I want to mention Cotton Mather, a New England Puritan minister infamous for his involvement in the Salem witch trials.  However, he was also a close observer of nature, who supported the use of smallpox vaccination and did early work on the hybridization of corn.  Among his descendants was my husband of good New England stock, Robert Mather Hendrick.  Cotton Mather corresponded with the London botanist and collector James Petiver (see earlier post) and sent him seven specimens, with notes (Stearns, 1952).  These are in the Sloane Herbarium, and there is also a letter from Mather to Sloane in the Sloane manuscript collection in which he discusses his views on smallpox—a small but interesting piece of American, and British, history.


Reveal, J. L. (1992). Gentle Conquest: The Botanical Discovery of North America with Illustrations from the Library of Congress. Washington, DC: Starwood.

Stearns, R. P. (1952). James Petiver: Promoter of natural science, c. 1663-1718. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 62, 243–365.

Early North American Plant Exploration: Canada

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Title page of Jacques Cornuti’s Canadensium Plantarum Historia (1635), Biodiversity Heritage Library

The last set of posts (1,2,3,4) dealt with plants brought back to Europe from early explorations of Central and South America.  Some of these species were indeed spectacular and whetted European appetites for more botanical novelties.  Gardening was becoming a passion and having the latest flower or tree was a sign that a gardener could not only afford a rarity but had the connections to obtain them.  Yet the impulse to find horticultural wonders was about more than just showing off; it was part of a larger political and economic drive to investigate the riches, botanical and otherwise, of the New World.  While the Portuguese and Spanish were focusing on the south, France and Britain, though operating in the Caribbean, were also attempting to establish colonies in North America.  One of the their prime goals was to discover a passage to the East.  Many were convinced that there must be a navigable body of water that crossed this land, though they were uncertain as to how vast the land might be.  It is the botanical fruits of these explorers, and the herbarium specimens that document their efforts that are the topic of this series of posts.

The first major French expedition was in 1534:  Jacques Cartier’s (1491-1557) voyage to Newfoundland and then on to the Gulf of St. Lawrence with stops in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.  He returned to France the same year, and in 1535 set out again, this time traveling down the St. Lawrence River to what is now Montreal.  There his ships were stuck in ice for the winter, and the crew survived the ordeal in part because indigenous people told the French of the restorative powers of a conifer that Cartier called arborvitae or tree of life (Thuja occidentalis) because it had cured his men’s scurvy.  After this harrowing experience, Cartier returned to France in 1536, bringing seeds of a number of plants as well as tales of the wealth in gold and diamonds to be found in what he came to call Canada.  It was the promised mineral wealth that led the king to send Cartier back to Canada in 1541 to establish a colony.  Problems arose when the king then dispatched a friend, Jean-François Roberval, to take over command and ordered Cartier to provide back up.  After the explorer had loaded his ships with ore, he angrily sailed back to France, only to find out that the rocks didn’t contain precious minerals or gems.  That was the end of Cartier’s service to the king, but he did write a report of his second voyage in which he described over 30 plants.  Some of the seeds he gathered flourished in the king’s garden and were distributed to gardeners and botanists in Britain and Spain.

The same held true for plants collected by Samuel de Champlain, who arrived in Canada for the first time in 1603, 60 years later.  He eventually made over 20 voyages between Canada and France over 30 years, exploring along the St. Lawrence River and founding the city of Quebec.  Champlain described a number of plants and brought back seeds for such notable plants as the “potato of Canada,” the Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus.  In 1635 Jacques Cornuti described about 60 Canadian plants in his illustrated Canadensium Plantarum Historia (1635) (see title page above).  These descriptions were based on plants grown by Jean Robin and his son Vespasien in the king’s garden, and many of them were probably brought back by Champlain from his own garden in Canada (Dickenson, 1998).

In the first half of the 16th century when Cartier was traveling, the herbarium had only recently been first developed, probably by Luca Ghini in Italy, so it isn’t surprising that the Frenchman didn’t preserve specimens.  However, the plants that grew from Cartier’s seeds were used as sources of specimens.  The Robins shared seeds and cuttings with a number of botanists including Carolus Clusius, an avid botanist and horticulturalist and garden networker (Egmond, 2010).  They  also traded seeds with the botanist John Gerald and the nurseryman John Tradescant in England, Cardinals Farnese and Barberini in Rome, and Caspar Bauhin in Switzerland, who described many of these plants.  The latter sent some of the seeds to his correspondent Joachim Burser who not only grew plants from the seeds he received, but took cuttings and made herbarium specimens from them.  This collection was particularly important because Carl Linnaeus studied it in concert with Bauhin’s book, Pinax theatri botanici, thus many of the specimens in this herbarium are type specimens for Canadian species.  The collection is now in the herbarium of the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University in Sweden, as still another example of plant specimens zigzagging around in the course of botanical investigations.

The Canadian plants were of interest to gardeners was because these were more likely to grow in European climates than were the tropical plants from Central and South America.  However, they often weren’t as novel as the southern plants.  Because the climates in North America and Europe were somewhat more similar, the plants tended to be similar—not identical—but similar.  This created the need for more careful taxonomic work to parse out just how different these new finds were, and whether they constituted new species, which in many cases they did.  The same held true for the plants of the more temperate climate of the British colonies which were being created at about the same time a little to the south.  These will be the subject of the next posts.


Dickenson, V. (1998). Drawn from Life: Science and Art in the Portrayal of the New World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Egmond, F. (2010). The World of Carolus Clusius: Natural History in the Making, 1550-1610. London, UK: Pickering and Chatto.

Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Maurits


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Frans Post’s “A Brazilian Landscape” (1650) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nearly 40 years ago, when I started dating my husband, we would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art because of his interest in art history.  I was not as enthralled with the Impressionists and even less with genre painting—his two loves—so I searched for something I could get excited about.  That’s how I began to look for biology in art, and I’ve never stopped.  I can remember on one visit discovering a painting by Frans Post, a Dutch artist who had traveled to Brazil in the 17th century and recorded the landscapes and people he encountered.  I vividly recall walking into a gallery, seeing his “A Brazilian Landscape,” (see figure above) and focusing on the rich vegetation it pictured.  Here was someone who knew how to paint plants; here was a painting that, as far as I was concerned, was a work of science as well as art.  At the time, it didn’t occur to me to question how a Dutch artist ended up in Brazil, because obviously Post must have visited the country; the painting was definitely an eye-witness depiction.  In the years since, I’ve encountered Post’s work, particularly his Brazilian paintings, now and again, so I’ve come to know a little more about his story.

In her book on expeditions to Latin America up to the time of Charles Darwin, Daniela Bleichmar (2017) describes the survey of parts of Brazil by Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Seigen (1604-1679).  The Netherlands formed the Dutch West India Company in 1621 and took over the northeast coast of Brazil from the Portuguese in 1624, remaining in control until 1654.  Their colony was called New Holland or Dutch Brazil, and Maurits was governor there from 1637 to 1644.  He set out to study the area and to do this he employed two artists, Albert Eckhout and Frans Post.  He also brought with him, at his own expense, a German naturalist, Georg Marcgraf and a Dutch physician, Wilhelm Piso.  They directed collection of specimens and objects of interest, all of which were shipped back to Europe.  Thus Maurits and his collaborators made the first systematic study of New World natural history (Appleby, 2013).  It is said that it was the Maurits model that Mark Catesby used when he took his second trip to North America which resulted in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.

The fruits of Maurits’s expedition are many.  There are, of course, Frans Post’s landscapes, which as I have noted are also plant scapes, picturing breadfruit trees, pineapples, cycads, cacti, and other Brazilian botanical wonders, along with indigenous peoples going about their lives.  The other artist, Albert Eckhout, painted from a closer perspective, doing portraits of individual indigenes and still lifes of local plants with an emphasis on fruits.  These are reminiscent of Dutch still lifes of flowers, but more somber and definitely designed to give as much information as possible about the subjects.  Many of the fruits are shown both whole and cut in half to reveal the seed arrangement.  One painting focuses on a large palm inflorescence paired with a basket of peanuts, chili peppers, and spices.  Another depicts a pineapple, melons, and cashews, with a passion flower vine twisting among them, a fully opened flower in the foreground (see figure below).  These would not be considered botanical illustrations in the strict sense of the term, in part because there are just too many species crowded together.  On the other hand, they are detailed and realistic; the species are in most cases easily identifiable, so they are definitely informative botanical documents as well as notable works of art.  The philosopher David Topper (1996) writes about just such art arguing that the line between artistic work and empirical scientific document is often impossible to draw.  Art and science in cases like this cannot be pulled asunder.

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Albert Eckhout’s “Still Life with Watermelons, Pineapple and Other Fruit” (1640) in the National Museum of Denmark.

As to the textual outcome of the expedition, the naturalist Georg Marcgraf died right before the expedition returned to Europe, so the publication work was undertaken by the physician Wilhelm Piso.  He published Historia Naturalis Brasiliae in 1648.  As Bleichmar notes, this was the first major illustrated natural history of any region of the Americas where the text and the illustrations were the result of first-hand experience by naturalists and artists.  It opens with Piso’s observations of medical and botanical observations.  This is followed by Marcgraf’s contribution on plants and animals.  In all cases, Piso gave Portuguese, Spanish, and indigenous names for each species.  There is a volume of Marcgraf’s herbarium at the University of Copenhagen’s herbarium.  It contains what are probably the first dried plant specimens from the tropical New World, and includes 177 species (Ossenbach, 2017).  One of the orchids is Trigonidium acuminatum.  There is an image of the same species in the Historia that is almost identical in its features (see figures below).

While Maurits’s name is associated with this expedition, he was more the organizer than an active participant.  He was essentially a military man who had earlier been involved in the campaign against the Portuguese that led to the Dutch control of northeast Brazil.  His job was to run the colony’s government, but he valued knowledge of its natural history enough to not only fund but manage the survey.  He obviously selected his team well since they produced a great deal of visual and textual information in a timely fashion compared, for example, to the results of Francisco Hernández’s work in the 1570s that remained unpublished well into the next century (see first post in this series).  What I hope should be apparent from this series of posts (1,2,3) and the previous one (1,2,3,4), is that there were many different approaches to exploring the plants of unknown lands in the early modern period.  These differences involved personalities, politics, culture, and geography.  That variety is what makes the history of botany so fascinating.


Appleby, J. (2013). Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination. New York, NY: Norton.

Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ossenbach, C. (2017). Precursors of the Botanical Exploration of South America. Wilhelm Piso (1611-1678) and Georg Marcgrave (1610-1644). Lankesteriana, 17(1), 61–71.

Topper, D. (1996). Towards an Epistemology of Scientific Illustration. In B. S. Baigrie (Ed.), Picturing Knowledge: Historical and Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art in Science (pp. 215–249). Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Monardes

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Nicotinia pictured in Joyfull Newes Out of the New Founde Worlde in Biodiversity Heritage Library

One of my favorite natural history book titles is Joyfull Newes Out of the New Founde Worlde, published in England by John Frampton in 1577.  But Frampton didn’t write the book, he just translated it from the Spanish and introduced Latin America to the British reading public.  The author was Nicolás Monardes (1493-1588), who himself never set foot in the New World.  So why mention him in a series of blog posts on botanical exploration in the Americas?  I’ve chosen to deal with him because he wrote a very good book that became popular throughout Europe.  It represents a different approach to learning about exotic plants.  Monardes never saw them growing in their native soil, but he did grow them in his garden where he observed them closely, collected seeds and specimens from them, and distributed these to correspondents throughout Spain and Europe.  He also experimented with preparing medicines from the plants he grew, and this information went into his written descriptions.

Monardes was well-placed to obtain botanical information from Latin America because he lived in Seville, the only port from which Spanish ships sailed to the New World. He was a trader who dealt in a number of products including dyes, hides, medicines, and cloth.  He was also a physician who incorporated new plants he came upon in trade into his medical practice, often after experimenting with what he had grown in his garden.  In addition, one of his sons settled in Peru and sent back specimens, seeds, and information.  While the writers I dealt with in the last two posts—Gonzalo Oviedo, José de Acosta, and Francisco Hernández—all discussed a broad range of topics including not only information on plants, but on animals, geography, and ethnography, Monardes focused exclusively on plants and particularly those that had medicinal uses.  As Daniela Bleichmar (2017) notes, while plants from Constantinople and the Near East, including tulips and other flower bulbs, were treasured for their rarity and beauty, those from the New World were valued more for their medicinal properties.

One of the reasons Monardes’s book was so popular was that he described at length plants with fascinating properties.  For example, he devoted 16 pages to tobacco.  It was one of the first New World plants extensively used in Europe and during the 16th century 60 different European books dealt with it; another 350 were published during the first half of the 17th century.  It can be seen as the marijuana of its time, though admittedly Cannabis was known and used from ancient times.  Monardes named tobacco Nicotiana for his friend Jean Nicot who was French Ambassador to Lisbon and was said to have introduced tobacco to the French court where it soon became popular (see figure above).  Bleichmar gives a thorough review of early attitudes toward this plant’s use.  Some considered it a panacea, a miracle drug to treat a variety of ailments from arthritis to toothaches, and even bad breath.  Monardes was among those with this viewpoint, and the popularity of his book meant that these ideas spread through Europe.  On the other hand, some saw tobacco as a moral poison, a branch of the sin of drunkenness, with the spewing of stinking fumes leading to shameful lust.  In part, this attitude stemmed from reports of how tobacco was used by indigenous peoples which left them in day-long stupors.  Fortunately, other plants Monardes presented were more benign.  Of course, chocolate was discussed as was the sunflower, passion flower, sweet potato, and the pepper.

Vivid descriptions of so many plants is what made Monardes’s book popular.  Frampton’s translation into English definitely had a catchy title, but what also stimulated sales was the brisk trade that existed at this time between the Iberian Peninsula and Britain.  Tobacco and other exotic plant products were becoming available so there was a positive feedback between supply and information, each spurring on the other.  The Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius, who had collected in Spain and spoke Spanish as well as seven other languages, translated the book into Latin, producing an abridged version and giving it a broad audience among the educated classes throughout Europe (Egmond, 2010).  Later, in his book on exotic plants Clusius drew heavily from Monardes.  This was a common practice among botanists of the day and was often responsible for rapid diffusion of botanical knowledge.

The original Spanish edition as well as Clusius’s and Frampton’s books were all illustrated, another reason for the book’s popularity.  By the later part of the 16th century, woodcuts had become more common in the botanical literature, particularly in books that were meant for a wide readership, rather than more technical taxonomic works such as that of Cesalpino (see earlier post).  In the second edition of his book, Monardes quotes a letter from a Spaniard in Peru who wrote that he relied on the book for information identifying native medicinal plants because the indigenous people were not forthcoming with information, one reason being that plant use was often tied to their religion.  This suggests the complexities of communicating botanical knowledge between the new and old worlds in the early modern period.


Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Egmond, F. (2010). The World of Carolus Clusius: Natural History in the Making, 1550-1610. London, UK: Pickering and Chatto.

Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Hernández

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Cactus in Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651) in Biodiversity Heritage Library

In the last post, I discussed two early commentators on Latin American natural history, Gonzalo de Oviedo and José de Acosta.  While they were careful observers, spent much time in the New World, and wrote extensively on its flora, there is no evidence that they collected plant specimens.  Oviedo traveled from 1514-1546 and published in 1526 with an expanded edition in 1535.  The earliest extant herbarium is from 1532, the work of a student of the Italian Luca Ghini (see earlier post), who probably originated the practice of pressing plants.  In other words, Oviedo’s observations were made so early that it’s unlikely he even knew of the technique, especially because there was far more communication by the Italians with French, German, and English naturalists, than with the Spanish.  However, by the time King Philip II of Spain sent Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1514-1587) his personal physician to the New World in 1570, things had changed.  The technique was no longer a novelty, so it’s not surprising that Hernández was said to have collected specimens of upwards of 3000 plants, many of medicinal importance.

Hernández arrived in Mexico in 1571 and toured the country and other areas of Central America until 1577 when he returned to Spain because of ill health.  He had worked with a team including a geographer, artists, botanists, and indigenous medical practitioners who had the expertise to lead him to interesting and useful plants.  While it is not always the case that native knowledge was acknowledged by explorers, it was almost always drawn upon because the new comers knew nothing of an area’s geography nor of the culture of its people.  In addition, the plants were so different in this “new” world, that even expert European botanists were perplexed by the flora they encountered, to say nothing of attempting to figure out their medicinal uses.  Hernández was more than willing to seek local expertise and to credit it.  He noted the native language, Nahuatl, names for each species and also had three indigenous artists document the plants.

When Hernández returned to Spain with this material, the King was thrilled, but thought that Hernández wasn’t up to making order out of it, so he gave the task to his new physician, the Italian Nardo Antonio Recchi.  Thus began a complex and lengthy process that ultimately led to the publication of only a part of Hernández’s hoard.  Recchi did not see the Nahuatl names and indigenous information as useful to Europeans.  Instead, he chose to focus on material that was somewhat similar to plants found in Europe.  Later research suggests that he used only about 600 of Hernández’s 3000 specimens.  This approach, not surprisingly, caused conflict with Hernández, and Recchi returned to Italy in 1583 claiming health concerns and settling in Naples.  He brought with him a copy of his manuscript and 600 illustrations produced from Hernández’s drawings, yet he never published the work.  After Recchi died in 1594, the manuscript passed to his nephew who hadn’t the means to publish it, yet there was still interest.  Naples had an active botanical community including Fabio Colonna and Giovanni della Porta who were anxious to learn about plants of the New World, though finally it was a Roman who made a move.

Federico Cesi was 19 years old when he banded together with three friends to form the Accademia dei Lincei or Academy of the Lynx in Rome in 1603, the name coming from the lynx’s keen eye, suggesting that the group saw observation as key to scientific inquiry (Freedberg, 2002).  Though they were not all naturalists—Galileo later joined the group—they were committed to the importance of visual evidence in the study of nature.  As early as 1604, the Lincei, as the group was called, set their sights on obtaining the Hernández/Recchi manuscript.  At last, Cesi went to Naples in 1610 not only to locate it but to encourage Neapolitan naturalists including Colonna and della Porta to establish a branch of the Lincei in their city.  While there, Cesi arranged to obtain the images and text from Recchi’s nephew.  But Cesi died before completing the work, which the Lincei finally finished publishing in 1651 (see figure above).  Each entry did begin with the Nahuatl name of the species, making it at the time the largest botanical glossary of non-European names.  This publication, though it represented a limited portion of Hernández’s original material, became particularly important after much of the Hernández documents, including his herbarium, was destroyed in a fire in the King of Spain’s Escorial Palace in 1671.  This explains why there are no specimens linked to Hernández’s writings.

There are still other threads to this story.  In 1626 Cassiano dal Pozzo, one of the Lincei, visited Spain with Cardinal Barbarini and following Cesi’s instructions, examined Hernández’s drawings.  While there, Barbarini obtained the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano, an Aztec herbal, and the Lincei had it copied (the original is in the National Library of Anthropology in Mexico and the copy in the Royal Library, Winsor).  They tried to correlate it with the Hernández material, but couldn’t; the cultural gap was too wide (Gimmel, 2008).  Also, as Daniela Bleichmar (2017) describes in her book on Latin American exploration, there was an edition of the Hernández/Recchi Latin manuscript published in Mexico City in 1539.  It was a Spanish translation by Francisco Ximénez, who added some of his own commentaries on the plants.  There were 478 entries describing the species’ traits and medicinal uses.  There were no illustrations, but Mexicans found the book helpful because the plants were familiar to them and this was a handy reference.  On the other hand, Europeans complained that even with illustrations, the Lincei edition was of little medical use because most of the plants described were unavailable in Europe.


Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Freedberg, D. (2002). The Eye of the Lynx. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Gimmel, M. (2008). Reading Medicine in the Codex de las Cruz Badiano. Journal of the History of Ideas, 69(2), 169–192.

Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Oviedo and Acosta

1 Pineapple Oviedo

Pineapple pictured in Historia general de las Indias (1535) in Biodiversity Heritage Library

The last set of posts (1,2,3,4) dealt with early European botanical exploration in Asia and how it was documented both in publications and in herbarium collections that are still extant.  This set of entries again looks at early European botanical exploration in Latin America.  Here again, publications resulted from the work, but there are few known plant collections surviving.  So why even discuss the topic in a blog devoted to herbaria?  Well, I argue that this absence reveals something about the history of herbaria, the aims of exploration, and the many threats to the longevity of preserved plant material.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478-1557) published the first work on the natural history of the New World by someone who had been there.  This was in 1526 after he had traveled in the Caribbean and South America from 1514 to 1523.  He returned again in 1526 and remained for 20 years, during which he published a second larger version, Historia general de las Indias (1535), with 35 woodcuts.  Like most early natural histories on newly discovered lands, this one dealt not only with plants but with animals and the cultural use of natural materials as well as geography.  Still, it was filled with wonderous and novel plants, especially food plants.  The book included what may be the first illustration of corn, and Oviedo also described the avocado, banana, and papaya.  He explained the preparation of cassava and in his 1535 book, introduced the pineapple to Europeans, discussing its delicious sweetness as well as its odd structure.  The book included an illustration of the fruit (see figure above), but the drawing wasn’t done from live material, so while it gives the essence of the pineapple and is identifiable, it is hardly an accurate rendition.  However this doesn’t reduce the value of Oviedo’s work that documents what an early European observer found most exciting about the vegetation of the American tropics.  He emphasized the importance of direct observation of wonders that were so different from those in Europe.  Since the earliest known herbarium dates from 1532, it’s not surprising that Oviedo didn’t collect specimens.  Physical documentation of what was observed would come later, though seeds and cuttings reached Europe from Columbus’s time on.

Another plant Oviedo described was the cacao tree, and he wasn’t the only one to be fascinated by chocolate and the ways it was used by indigenous peoples, including mixing it with eggs and feeding it to children.  Others discussed its medicinal benefits in treating diarrhea, coughing, and other ailments.  Among these writers was José de Acosta (~1539-1600), a Jesuit missionary who spent 20 years in Latin America, first in Peru and then for a short time in Mexico.  In Peru he had an number of positions, including five years touring the country as assistant to the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo.  Acosta took extensive notes on what he saw, not only on the animals and plants, but on the geography of the regions in which he traveled and the customs and history of the indigenous peoples.

When Acosta returned to Spain in 1588, he wrote a seven-volume book on his observations, Histoire naturelle et moralle des Indes.  As the title suggests, he wrote from a Christian perspective about this new world and its native populations, noting their customs and their response to Christian ideas.  But this was more than just a religious work.  Acosta was an acute observer who gave detailed, firsthand descriptions and did not sensationalize native customs as some Spanish writers did, nor did he push the religious viewpoint too far.  He discussed granadilla or small pomegranate, which had been described as the passionflower because some observers saw its intricate flower as having anthers that resembled the nails of Christ’s cross and the corolla, the crown of thorns.  Acosta considered this fanciful and metaphorical, and didn’t think it added anything to the description of the plant which had important medicinal uses.

Acosta was an early example of a class of botanical observers, that is, religious missionaries, who made important contributions to botanical knowledge well into the 20th century.  Especially at the time he visited Latin America, people didn’t travel just to study plants.  This role was tacked on to others, such as physician, colonial administrator, military man, or missionary.  In some cases, these occupations took most of the individual’s time and natural history observation was a sideline.  In other cases, the latter became the main focus.  This was in part because learning about the natural world was seen as a way to learn about God through his creations and also as an important part of taking control politically and culturally in these new lands.

Aside from the web sources I’ve linked to, much of the information for this post came from Daniela Bleichmar’s book, Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin (2017), based on an exhibition of the same name at the Huntington Library, Arts Collections, and Botanic Gardens in San Marino, California.  It’s a beautiful book with a very interesting text, but I was loathed to buy it because I had Bleichmar’s earlier book (2011), Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment, which covers Spanish expeditions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  I thought there would be a great deal of overlap.  Then I read a review in which Patricia Jonas had made the same assumption and then discovered that she was wrong.  So I bit the financial bullet and bought the book; it was definitely worth it.  There is little redundancy between Bleichmar’s two works, and Visual Voyages is striking in the way text and illustrations are closely connected and complement each other.  I will again be using the book as a source for the following posts about other early writers on Latin American natural history.


Bleichmar, D. (2011). Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Herbarium Travels: Petiver, Plukenet, and Sloane

4 Phytographia

Title page of Leonard Plukenet’s Phytographia. In the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The names of James Petiver, Leonard Plukenet, and Hans Sloane have come up a number of times in the last three posts on plant collectors in Asia (1,2,3).  This is despite the fact that none of them traveled East, and only Sloane ever left Europe, spending a couple of years in Jamaica.  However, these men are important to the story of early botanical discovery in Asia because they were the recipients of specimens collected there.  Without them, the finds might not have survived for well over 300 years.  All three had a passion for collecting and were members of the Temple Coffee House botanic club.  In the case of Petiver and Plukenet, they were also driven to write about botany.  Sloane did produce a two-volume Natural History of Jamaica, which has fascinating descriptions as well as illustrations of the island’s flora and fauna, but it took him decades after his visit to complete the project.  The other two were more consistently prolific, drawing on their collections for subjects.  I should also say that everything I write about the three is slanted in that I only deal with plants, while they all collected broadly, especially Sloane, whom I’ve discussed in an earlier post.  Plukenet and Petiver published on new animal as well as plant species, especially insects since they were the easiest to transport.

Leonard Plukenet (1642-17106) trained in medicine and had an affluent medical practice that supported his family of seven children and his collecting habit as well.  In 1690, he was made supervisor of the king’s gardens at Hampton Court Palace, so he moved in high social circles, but he also had a botanical network.  Like Petiver and Sloane he was a member of the Temple Coffee House botanic club and in addition was connected with such outstanding botanists as John Ray, who thought highly of his plant knowledge.  Plukenet collaborated with Ray on the second volume of the latter’s Historia Plantarum.  He also published his own work, beginning with the three-volume Phytographia (1691-1692) that had 250 plates and was produced at his own expense.  Another volume came out in 1696, followed by three other works.  All were published together in 1720.  James Dandy (1958), who cataloged Sloane’s herbarium, where Petiver’s and Plukenet’s collections eventually ended up, wrote that Phytographia was an important publication because it described so many new species and included illustrations of them.  It was used extensively by Carl Linnaeus, who in many cases relied exclusively on Plukenet’s text and images to name species.  There are some wonderful gems in Plukenet’s collection including specimens from John Banister who collected in Virginia, the pirate William Dampier material from India, and the James Cuninghame specimens I mentioned in the last post.

James Petiver (1658-1718) was an even more avid collector than Plukenet.  He did not have Plukenet’s economic resources, so he had to finance his publications by subscription.  Most of these works were each composed of descriptions of 100 species, primarily plants.  And as with Plukenet’s writings, his were cited by Linnaeus.  Petiver was scrupulous about giving credit to the collectors who sent him specimens, because this was a way of rewarding them and also encouraging them to send more material.  He worked hard at cultivating travelers of all kinds as collectors.  In a biographical sketch, Raymond Stearns (1952) writes:  “Anyone who went abroad, especially if they were educated were asked: friends, friends of friends, customers, fellow apothecaries, physicians, surgeons, captains, merchants, planters, and missionaries” (p. 261).  However, he wasn’t just interested in exotic plants; those from Britain and the continent were also well received, and he participated in the Temple Coffee House botanic club’s Sunday field trips as well.

Petiver even wrote an instruction sheet on collecting.  This included a N. B.:  “As amongst Foreign Plants, the most common Grass, Rush, Moss, Fern, Thistle, Thorn, or vilest Weed you can find, will meet with Acceptance, as well as a Scarcer Plants” (p. 365).  He also wrote that plants in fruit or flower were more desirable, and that fleshy fruits should be sent in spirits or brine.  He was happy to provide jars, papers, and other needed supplies, and was willing to pay for specimens.  In some cases, he supplied medicines for the collectors’ physical complaints.  He also scolded them if they didn’t come through, and one collector was so angered he sent nothing more.  Of course, materials often were lost in transit, and it was particularly frustrating to Petiver when letters got through but the specimens didn’t; the letters promised wonders that he then didn’t receive.  The picture painted by Dandy and Stearns is of a man obsessed, and Petiver’s passion was obviously fueled by discussion at the coffee house, where the group connived schemes to send collectors to areas of interest.  This even involved encouraging one of the members, Bishop Henry Compton, to assign a botanically trained Anglican priest to North America.

There is something about this group that intrigues me:  a band of plant zealots meeting over coffee for many years.  Petiver joined when the group began in 1689 and was still a member at his death in 1718.  When I was in London a few years ago, I went to the Temple Bar area and found the lane where the coffee house once stood.  This is a part of the city that has retained many of its old buildings and narrow streets, so it was relatively easy to visualize these men hurrying to reach their meeting place on a dark winter’s night, have a nice hot coffee, and look at plant specimens.  What could be better than that?


Stearns, R. P. (1952). James Petiver: Promoter of Natural Science, c. 1663-1718. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 62, 243–365.

Herbarium Travels: James Cuninghame

3 Cuninghame

Specimens collected by James Cuninghame in Amoy (now Ziamen), China. In the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London.

James Cuninghame (ca. 1665-1709) was a Scottish physician who was the first voyager to successfully send plant specimens from China to Europe.  Little is known about his early life, not even his date of birth.  However by the 1690s, he was studying medicine in London and had contact with members of the botanic club that met at the Temple Coffee House (Riley, 2006).  Among the club members were such plant enthusiasts as James Petiver, Leonard Plukenet, and Hans Sloane, whose herbarium figured in the last two posts (1,2) and will do so again here.  Cuninghame made two trips to China and on both he was able to amass a large collection of plants, as well as zoological specimens.  Obviously, the ships he travelled on made many stops along the way, and he collected in these areas as well, so his herbarium also contains plants from Java, what is now Vietnam, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Canary Islands.  His specimens from these islands are again the earliest known.

While it had been assumed that Cuninghame had been employed by the British East India Company (EIC) for both his voyages to China, recent research on his letters that are in the British Library indicate that the first time in 1697 he was not on a company ship, but rather went on a private vessel as a free-lance merchant (Jarvis and Oswald, 2015).  The Tuscan arrived in Amoy, one of the few Chinese ports open to foreign traders, in July 1698 and remained for six months.  During that time, Cuninghame collected 176 plant species and seed samples for 84 of them.  He also commissioned almost 800 plant watercolors done by local artists.  All are named and some have notes on their uses.  This is an amazing treasure trove that is still extant in the British Library.

In 1700, Cuninghame left for China again, this time in the employ of the EIC.  He remained on the island of Chusan (now Zhousan) south of Shanghai for two years and made large collections of plants, animals, and cultural materials.  In 1703 the EIC’s post in Chusan was abandoned, and Cuninghame was sent to Cochin China in what is now Vietnam where he continued to collect.  There was a rebellion there in 1705, and he was the only member of his group who survived.  Cuninghame was imprisoned for two years and finally made his way to Indonesia and on to India, where he wrote his last letter to Petiver and Sloane, and where he died in 1709.  All Cuninghame’s specimens arrived safely in England.  His saga points to the hardships of the plant collector’s life, particularly in those early days, though traveling to remote areas and dealing with political, physical, and cultural difficulties remains difficult.

Almost all of Cuninghame’s specimens, manuscripts, and watercolors ended up in the Sloane collection.  While many of his specimens were studied and published, there are still some that have never been given determinations, hinting at interesting finds that may still lurk in the Sloane Herbarium not only related to Cuninghame but to other collectors as well (Dandy, 1958).  There are many duplicates since not only was Sloane sent material directly, but much was also sent to Leonard Plukenet and James Petiver, who were also Cuninghame’s patrons and avid collectors.  At times they could be less than cordial to each other, with each denigrating the other’s collections and methods.  Of the two, Plukenet was more careful in mounting and labeling his specimens.  Particularly toward the end of his life, Petiver let his material get away from him and many of his sheets look carelessly prepared.  He also had the habit of removing old labels and then not replacing them, so some of his collection is nearly worthless.  However, he and Plukenet were both trained in medicine and were skilled botanists.  They each received collections from many plant explorers and then published lists of descriptions of these species, often with illustrations.  These are important documents since some of them were cited by Carl Linnaeus in Species Plantarum (1753).

Petiver published a description of Camellia japonica in 1702, including the first printed illustration of the species.  This is just one of 200 Cuninghame species that Petiver described.  Plukenet presented images of Cuninghame’s plants in his Phytographia, which appeared in several volumes, and also describes them in Amaltheum Botanicum, which like Petiver’s work is a list of plant descriptions.  Plukenet quoted from the extensive information Cuninghame had included on his labels, a level of detail not common at that time. Plukenet’s and Petiver’s publications were eagerly received by plant enthusiasts, including those, like John Ray, who were interested in plants in their own right, and also horticulturalists who were seeking new and interesting species to grow in their gardens.

Not only are Cuninghame’s specimens, notes on plants, and drawings important, but so are observations on Chinese cultural practices.  For example, his is the first description by a Westerner of tea cultivation.  In other letters, he tells of adventures that have nothing to do with plants, such as his two-year imprisonment after the 1705 rebellion in Cochin China.  There are also letters that describe an earlier, though much briefer, incarceration on La Palma in the Canary Islands at the start of his first trip to the East.  The problem began when the captain tried to recapture crew members who had deserted the ship ,and the attempt ended up with the captain, crew and Cuninghame all being jailed.  There are a series of 12 letters between Cuninghame and a cleric named Juan Poggio, who was involved in the group’s release.  Plant collecting definitely involves a lot more than just pressing plants.


Jarvis, C. E., & Oswald, P. H. (2015). The collecting activities of James Cuninghame FRS on the voyage of Tuscan to China (Amoy) between 1697 and 1699. Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 69(2), 139-153.

Riley, M. (2006). The club at the Temple Coffee House revisited. Archives of Natural History, 33(1), 90–100.

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.