The secret island

German physician and botanist Engelbert Kaempfer, having entered – like many of his countrymen – in the service of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), arrived in Batavia in September 1689. Eight months later he left for Japan to take up the post of physician to the Embassy at Deshima. His diplomatic tact and medical knowledge gained the trust of the population, allowing him to gain an insight in the local culture and customs, and learn the language. He compiled one of the first records of the Japanese alphabet (‘t Japansch ABC).

During his stay he accumulated an impressive dossier of botanical notes, drawings and samples. He returned to Amsterdam in October 1692 and, subsequently, took a medical doctorate at Leiden University in April 1694. His first book Amoenitatum exoticarum was published in Germany in 1712. In it he gave detailed descriptions of plants that had not been seen or recorded in Europe before. When Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections were to form the nucleus of the British Museum, heard of Kaempfer’s death, he purchased the latter’s manuscripts, notes, drawings and maps. Sloane instructed his librarian John Gaspar Scheuchzer to translate this legacy into English, resulting in The History of Japan, a book that has been hailed as a landmark in the study of that secretive country.