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.