A Good Read: A Scottish Plant Hunter in Nineteenth-Century Japan

The Society for the History of Natural History, or SHNH (http://shnh.org.uk/) produces a newsletter for its members three times a year. One item in the newsletter is ‘A Good Read’, where members of the society can write an article on their favourite natural history book. Past issues of the newsletter (available at http://shnh.org.uk/newsletter/) have included contributions on Mary Kingsley’s travels in West Africa and the history of herbals. When asked to step up I chose the story of a Scottish plant hunter and his adventures in Japan:

Robert Fortune’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China (London, John Murray, 1863).

A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist
A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist

‘Having heard and read so many stories of this strange land’ recalled Robert Fortune in 1863, ‘I had long looked upon Japan in much the same light as the Romans regarded our own isles in the days of the ancient Britons.’ In a good read, it is impossible to tell where adventure ends and natural history begins. It is this quality that attracted my undergraduate-self to the Scottish botanist’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China. Following centuries of isolation (sakoku), Japan had been forcibly opened to Western trade with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s fleet outside Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853. Treaties were subsequently signed between the Tokugawa shogunate, United States and multiple European powers. New trading ports were opened and travel privileges granted to foreigners.

In the wake of diplomats and merchants came Victorian plant hunters. Working on behalf of the United States patent office, Fortune was keen to not only gather ‘vegetable productions of an ornamental and useful kind’ but also ‘other objects of natural history and works of art.’ He first arrived in Japan in 1860, at a time of transition. Steam machinery and telegraph lines rested alongside temples, teahouses and gardens. Fortune’s lively description of everyday life in nineteenth-century Japan is intermingled with botanical observations and notes on garden design. A moment of hero worship appears when he meets the elderly German physician and ‘veteran naturalist’ Philipp Franz von Siebold. Yet Fortune’s Japanese guide Tomi is described as overly-fond of sake (rice wine), managing to stay only ‘largely sober’ during the daylight hours.

Following a brief sojourn in China, Fortune’s narrative continues upon his return to Japan in the spring of 1861. Fortune prepared and stored his ‘collections of dried plants, seeds, insects and shells’ and soon had cases crammed full of ‘rare species’. Yet all was not well. Fortune lived under the protection of the Tokugawa government following attacks on foreigners by disaffected rōnin (masterless samurai). Characteristically, the collector within him took the time to show his guardians his natural history books and collections, ‘with which they appeared greatly pleased .’ His rationalisation to the Japanese officials is indicative of the whole practice of imperial natural history: ‘in England we had such things introduced from all parts of the world… I was now endeavouring to add to our collection all that was useful or beautiful in Japan.’

Robert Fortune’s adventures in China are better known than his Japanese travels, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the former found him disguised in native dress and fighting off pirates. But his expeditions to Japan also have much to offer readers: a nineteenth-century shopping spree in Edo, visiting ‘garden after garden in succession’ and infectious delight on acquiring a male Aucuba japonica, the ‘Holly of Japan.’ Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China is now freely available, along with many of Fortune’s other works, at the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

SHNH Newsletter, No. 110, July 2016, pp. 13-14 

 

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