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Engelbert Kaempfer, a 17th century explorer

March 17, 2013

There are many  18th century descriptions of Asia, but what about the very first western explorers, those who reported about lost worlds from the 17th century, even before the birth of Linnaeus who invented the modern scientific naming system of organisms?

After finishing studies at Uppsala University the German explorer Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) made journeys to Russia, Persia, India and East Asia including Java, Siam and Japan. His one month long visit to the Dutch settlement in ‘Ajuthia’ in Siam was in May-June 1690. It is believed he was the first western natural scientist visiting there. The original mémoires from his visit to Siam are kept at the British Library and were not published until 2003. However, other impressions from his Asian adventures were published already in 1712:

Kaempfer Engelbert.72

This book with the impressive title below could be nicknamed ‘Exotic delights’ as indicated by the text of this allegoric illustration from the book. The full title is:

Kaempfer, Engelbert (1712). Amoenitatum Exoticarum Politico-Physico-Medicarum Fasciculi V Quibus continentur Variae Relationes, Observationes & Descriptiones Rerum Persicarum & Ulterioris Asiae multa attentione, in peregrinationibus per universum Orientem, collectae.

The book is divided into five fascicles (page numbers refer to the pdf, not to the original book):

1. Relationes de aulae Persicae stato hodierno (p. 28).

2. Relationes & observationes historico-physicas de rebus-variis (p. 306).

3. Observationes physico-medicinas curiosas (p. 574).

4. Relationes botanico-historicas de palma dactylifera, in perside crescente (p. 730).

5. Plantarum japonicarum (page 856).

Alphabetical Index (page 1004).

During my time as a researcher at Uppsala University I wanted to check if he had any interesting information on the legendary matsutake mushroom in Japan. Therefore I travelled by train to the Royal Library in Stockholm where the pre-ordered book was waiting for me in the reading room. It was in surprisingly good condition but I quickly realized Kaempfer never saw that mushroom. However, I got enchanted by his descriptions about crocodiles, date palms and Japanese medicine so I stayed there many hours reading in amazement.

Here in Thailand I was reminded of Engelbert Kaempfer when I studied the finger ginger of the genus Kaempferia, coined by another Uppsala scientist; Linnaeus. I e-mailed the Swedish Royal Library to ask if they had now digitalized the book, but that had already been done in Munich. So, thanks to modern technology I simply downloaded the entire book in pdf format!

Engelbert Kaempfer Naja

Being a physician he was interested in venomous snakes and poisonous plants. One chapter is entitled ‘Tripudia serpentum in India Orientali’ (page 636). From the description it seems he handled ‘naja’ or ‘vipera cobra de cabelo’ himself. The little mammals in the illustration above are probably mongooses which he describes too. The plants are antidotes but I have failed to identify what plants he refers to. He mentions a root being the most effective remedy (‘Primum antidotum ex vegetabili regno, radix est, plantae Malaicè…’), but only uses local names. This was before Linnaeus’ binomial system, i.e. the standardized international naming system containing a genus name and a species name such as Oryza sativa for ‘rice’. Linnaeus also invented the plant family system, which brought order. By mentioning a scientific family name the reader gets a fair view of the plant, while in Kaempfer’s days the plant kingdom was a gigantic mess.

You can download the pdf for free here (1042 pages):

Europe’s cultural collections is a nice portal for finding digitalized old literature and illustrations from various libraries scattered all over Europe:

It is amazing one can sit under a mango tree in the Thai countryside, listen to birds and read rare books published 300 years ago. I am grateful I lived to experience this.

Eric Danell, Dokmai Garden

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 17, 2013 4:32 PM

    Also this seems like a great way to learn or brush up one’s Latin ( with the help of )

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