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Botany in Asia

Edward Worth collected a number of the most famous works on Asian botany in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. First and foremost among them was his 12 volume edition of the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, a magisterial work on botany in the Malabar, which had been the project of the then Governor of the Malabar, Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede.


Rheede tot Drakenstein, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (Amsterdam, 1673-1703) vol 1, Fig 1.

The examination of the botany of the Malabar and associated areas in south Asia was made possible by a combination of forces, both scholarly and military. The seventeenth century in the Netherlands had witnessed the rise of two such forces: the Dutch East India Company and the botanical garden, initially at the University of Leiden and afterwards at Amsterdam. Clusius, in his capacity as governor of the botanical garden at Leiden, had been the initial beneficiary of the new plants being brought back to the Netherlands from their expanding Dutch colonies, and a close working relationship developed, which would come to its full fruition with the Hortus Malabaricus project. As Bhattacharyya (1982) notes, the Dutch were not the first to write about the botany of its Indian colonies – Portuguese writers such as Garcia da Orta (c. 1490-1570) and Acosta Christobal (1512-1580) had led the way in the sixteenth century but it was the produce of the Dutch botanical writers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century which attracted Worth’s attention. This was undoubtedly because he had studied at the University of Leiden in the 1690s, taking his medical degree at Utrecht.

Worth collected works by colleagues of van Rheede’s who likewise had connections both to the botanical garden at Leiden and the Dutch East India Company. One of the most important of these was Paul Hermann (1646-1695), a German botanist who later became director of the Leiden botanical garden. Worth owned a copy of Hermann’s Paradisus Batavus (Leiden, 1698), a posthumous publication which had been edited by William Sherard, who, like Hermann, had been a student of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s at Paris. The work, which was a description of plants in the Leiden Botanical garden, was yet again a reminder of the far flung nature of that particular collection for the ‘Batavus’ of the title could be read in two ways: as a reference to the ancient name of the Netherlands itself, or as a reference to Batavia (Java), the location of the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. Hermann had travelled around Batavia and Ceylon in the 1670s when he had worked for as a ship’s medical office for the Dutch East India Company. He had also travelled in South Africa.


Engelbert Kaempfer, Amoenitatum exoticarum politico-physico-medicarum fasciculi V (Lemgo, 1712), p. 850, Tsubaki.

Another German botanist with who had worked for the Dutch East India Company was Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716). Kaempfer spent nine years in South East Asia. He had initially travelled to the region as part of a Swedish embassy to Persia in 1683 and from there  had travelled as a surgeon-physician on one of the Dutch East India Company’s ships. By 1689 he had made it to Batavia (Java) and it was while he was there that he heard that the Dutch merchants at Deshima, in the bay of Nagasaki, required a doctor. By 26 September 1690 he had arrived in Japan and it was here that he amassed material for Fasciculus V of his Amoenitatum exoticarum politico-physico-medicarum fasciculi V (Lemgo, 1712). As Stearn (1999) suggests, this work is a ‘preliminary Flora of Japan’. It contains his descriptions and illustrations of cultivated and wild plants growing in the area around Nagasaki and contains images of some of the most quintessential Japanese plants. Among these is the pictured flower, given the name ‘Tsubaki’ by Kaempfer but known today as Camellia japonica. Linnaeus would later base his description of Camellia japonica on this illustration.


Bhattacharyya, P. K. (1982), ‘Beginning of Modern Botany by Dutch in 16th-18th Century (Basic Features and Characteristics)’ in Indian Journal of History of Science vol 17, no 2, pp. 365-376.

Stearn, W. T. (1999), ‘Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716). Pioneer investigator of Japanese Plants’, in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine vol 16, no 2, pp. 103-115.

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