The Explorer Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716)
Reprinted from New York Chapter Newsletter
In the gardens of the Osuwa Temple at Nagasaki stands a rough stone with the name Engelbert Kaempfer. In this way the Japanese honored the name of the scientist who gave the world the first accurate description and history of their land and people.
Engelbert Kaempfer was born at Lemgo in the dukedom of Lippe-Defmold in Germany, the son of a minister. He had an insatiable hunger for knowledge and learning. At age 17 he left his hometown to continue his studies at schools in the leading cities of northwestern Germany. At this early age he already showed his love for travel and exploration. For his further studies he chose Universities as far away as possible such as Danzig, Krakau (Poland) Koenigsberg and Uppsala (Sweden). He was in no way satisfied merely to gain the necessary knowledge to enable him to make a living in a specific scientific field, but aimed at an education as broad as possible. He studied the philosophy and history of the most diverse people. His knowledge of languages was unbelievable. Besides Latin and Greek he spoke or understood Dutch, Swedish, Portuguese, French, English, Russian, Polish, Persian, Malayan, Japanese and other Asiatic languages. But besides this he also gained broad knowledge in natural sciences and medicine. He was an excellent botanist. At his time few people possessed his broad general knowledge and since he also was able to draw exceptionally well, he was equipped for exploration as few people of his time were.
At age 31 he gained employment as secretary of a Swedish legation that visited Russia and Persia. In 1685 he entered the services of the Dutch East India Company as a ship's surgeon. By 1689 he reached Java, a paradise for any botanist, where he stayed for 8 months.
In May of 1690 Governor Outhoorn led a Dutch delegation to Japan and offered Kaempfer the post as legation physician. Since the massacre of the Christians a hundred years before, only the Dutch, whom the Japanese considered the fairest of the foreigners, were permitted to enter their country and only under the most severe restrictions and control.
They were restricted to Desima, a small artificial island made of rocks and surrounded by a double fence, just outside of Nagasaki. A bridge connected the island with the town and the Japanese were instructed to avoid all contact with the foreigners outside of the necessary trading and to report anyone who disobeyed these orders
This seemed to make it absolutely impossible to learn anything about conditions in Japan and the life of the people. But Kaempfer wrote a book of 470 pages: "History and Description of Japan". For the foreword to this book he explains how this was possible. "Dear reader", he writes, "it was not as difficult as it appears to get the necessary information. Aside from their national pride and warlike spirit, the Japanese people are very friendly and courteous and very eager to learn about other countries and the rest of the world. By playing up to them and fulfilling every possible wish, I gained the confidence of my superiors and translators, who visited me daily. I always offered my services as physician, as well as a little instruction in astronomy and mathematics free of charge and never forgot a liberal portion of the highly appreciated European liquors. This made them so tractable that I had no difficulty in getting any information I wanted, as long as I was alone with the person."
It was especially fortunate for Kaempfer that a very smart and well educated young man of about 24 years of age was given him as servant, whom he instructed in medicine. This he appreciated so much that he supplied him with any information Kaempfer desired and also got him some Japanese books. To better the contact, Kaempfer taught the young man the Dutch language with such success that he spoke and wrote it fluently within a year. During the two years of his stay in Japan this highly intelligent young man was Kaempfer's daily companion and on Kaempfer's two trips to the court at Yeddo he was permitted to accompany him also. In October of 1692 Kaempfer left Japan for Batavia and in 1694 he returned to Europe after an absence of ten years. Then he retired to his home town, Lemgo, to write and publish the results of his explorations in elegant Latin in his "Amoenitates Exoticae" (The Wondrous World of Foreign Countries). His "The Plant World of Asia on the Far Side of the Ganges (river)" found no publisher, but some of the plants that Kaempfer described first, still carry the botanical definition "kaempferi".
It is unfortunate (from our biased point of view) that Mr. Meier-Lemgo was more interested in Kaempfer than in his namesake azalea. A good tale of how his young Japanese friend smuggled him to the plant, or vice versa, would be a perfect climax to this article. Unfortunately, that part of the story must remain untold.
Bowers agrees that Kaempfer discovered it on a commercial visit in 1690. Lee, on the other hand, states that he "knew of it as early as 1703", probably the date of some of the books mentioned above. Both agree that our first plants here resulted from seed sent by C. S. Sargent to the Arnold Arboretum in 1892.
Rolf and Simone Schilling, long time active members of the New York Chapter, recently 'retired' and moved to Virginia. They have already planted more than 1000 azaleas and rhododendrons in their new garden - some 'retirement'! Rolf writes, "We are both 'squirrels' - never throwing anything away. Recently while looking for something in the basement I chanced upon a carton with German magazines. Snooping through them, I was amazed to find a copy of "Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) Monthly for Home, Art and Life", of October 1926, the very month that I came to the United States'. In leafing through it I was thrilled to find an article: The Explorer Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) by Karl Meier Lemgo. We azalea fanciers know his name from the Kaempferi varieties, so when I translated some of it to Simone she thought it should be of interest to the Rhododendron Society members".