The Swedish botanist and physician Carl Peter Thunberg (1743–1828), a pupil of Linnaeus, was the only European who visited and published his observations of Tokugawa Japan in the eighteenth century. On his way to and from Japan, Thunberg, travelling as a surgeon with the Dutch East India Company, visited territories in the Dutch colonial empire: the Cape Colony, Batavia (present-day Jakarta), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Wherever he went, he assembled huge collections, above all of natural history specimens. Thanks to his collections and support from influential gentlemen, he made a spectacular career at the University of Uppsala upon his return. He published a ground-breaking work on Japanese plants, Flora Japonica (1784), and a travel account that was translated into several languages.
The purpose of this book is to reconstruct Thunberg’s scientific career, by exploring exchanges within the networks which he built in Europe, the Dutch colonial empire, and Tokugawa Japan. Drawing on a wide range of sources, it is a study of social practices in natural history, in a global perspective. Thunberg’s voyage took place in a period of European expansion, with fierce competition between different chartered companies. The book studies his dealings with both Europeans and non-Europeans in the various ‘contact zones’ which he visited. Special emphasis is put on the role of non-European intermediaries, ‘knowledge brokers’ or ‘knowledge go-betweens’ (Kapil Raj).
In the Dutch empire, Thunberg accepted and skilfully used the existing colonial structures. His dealings were mostly with Europeans. He was occasionally assisted by indigenous intermediaries, but never mentions them by name. In Japan meanwhile, where he could not rely on a colonial infrastructure, Thunberg and his Japanese colleagues – interpreters in Nagasaki, physicians at the shogun’s court in Edo, present-day Tokyo – developed a system of mutual exchanges. Since the seventeenth century, the Dutch trading post on the island of Deshima off Nagasaki had been a place for scientific interchange between Japan and Europe. Thunberg taught Western therapeutic methods in the field of materia medica and, in exchange, received services in botany and other areas. The Swede and his Japanese partners contributed to each other’s careers, and at the same time acted as knowledge brokers between East and West.
The book focuses on Thunberg’s early career, up to 1787 when King Gustav III, on Thunberg’s initiative, founded a new Botanical Garden and a monumental building for natural history – today’s Linneanum – at the University of Uppsala. An overview is also given of his later career, from 1788 to 1828.
Uppsala: Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study , 2014. , 376 p.
Carl Peter Thunberg, eighteenth century, Linnaeus, natural history, South Africa, Japan, Java, Sri Lanka, scientific practices, exchanges, networks, Uppsala University, Linneanum