Engelbert Kämpfer Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Based on his own travels, Kämpfer wrote detailed and highly accurate accounts of Japan and other areas of Asia, the Middle East, and Russia. In addition, he wrote on Asian natural history, diseases, and medical practices.

Early Life

Born the son of Johannes Kämpfer, a teacher and minister, Engelbert Kämpfer was provided ample opportunity to study. As a youth, Kämpfer studied the sciences and the humanities at a number of Swedish, Polish, German, and Dutch schools and universities. Enrolled at Danzig in 1672, he wrote a thesis on the politics of monarchy; the following year, he earned a degree in philosophy from Kraków. He then studied medicine and natural history at Königsberg. While his early education included the study of medicine, he did not take a formal medical degree until some twenty years later.

Throughout his early education, Kämpfer was an avid student of foreign languages. He learned French, Greek, and Latin, the primary languages of intellectual discourse in his day, and also English, Swedish, Portuguese, Spanish, Aramaic, Russian, and Polish. In his later medical and scientific investigations, he often had occasion to draw on his multilingual background.

By 1681, Kämpfer had traveled to Uppsala, Sweden, to study medicine and anatomy with the famous physician, Olof Rudbeck. His excellent scholarship and ties to Rudbeck and other professors presented him with the chance to travel to Persia, an opportunity which ultimately led him to journey to the Southeast Asian lands of Java and Siam (modern Thailand) en route to Japan.

Life’s Work

At the age of thirty-two, Kämpfer joined a Swedish embassy to Persia. Departing in 1683, he began a series of travels throughout the Middle East and Asia that continued for ten years. Serious illness during this time did not deter him from energetic investigation of the exotic lands he explored.

Throughout his travels, he wrote detailed diaries which proved useful sources of information for contemporary adventurers and later scholars alike. Prior to his travels through Russia and Persia, Kämpfer’s notebooks contained largely personal memorabilia—greetings from friends and relatives, fellow students, and famous people he had met. Beginning with his entry into Russia in 1683, Kämpfer’s diaries reveal a boundless curiosity about the lands and cultures through which he now passed.

Russian officials stalled the Swedish embassy because the Russian diplomatic ego was bruised by the fact that the embassy’s itinerary listed Persia before Russia. It took two months for Swedish officials to resolve the dispute. During this time, Kämpfer absorbed all the new information he could acquire. His diaries include descriptions of a meeting with the young man who became Czar Peter the Great, reports of conditions in Siberia, and copies of letters to Czarina Sophia.

In January, 1684, the embassy finally reached Persia. Although the official business of the embassy was delayed for several months while permission for an audience with the shah (king) was arranged, Kämpfer found plenty to occupy his time. At Baku, on the Caspian Sea, he collected specimens representative of the flora and fauna of the area, explored the local geographic wonders, and practiced medicine.

The embassy’s business was completed in a relatively short time, but when it returned to Sweden in 1685, Kämpfer decided to stay. He remained in Persia for three more years, working as an employee of the Dutch East India Company. While traveling to ports on the Strait of Hormuz, Kämpfer was stricken by serious illness—high fever, malaria, and dropsy. For a while, his life was clearly in danger, but he managed to recover by leaving the humid lowlands for the healthier climate of the hills.

Finally, in 1688, Kämpfer boarded ship for Southeast Asia. Traveling along the coast of Arabia, he crossed the Indian Ocean to Malabar, Ceylon, Bengal, and, ultimately, Sumatra. Throughout his voyage, he wrote a number of medical treatises. Among them, his essay on perical, the swollen foot ulcers unique to the inhabitants of Malabar, was the first to describe this ailment. In 1689, he arrived in Batavia (modern Jakarta). Staying there only a few months, he departed for Siam and Japan in May, 1690. He arrived in Japan that fall, on September 26, to spend a year as the resident physician to the Dutch trading community in Nagasaki.

At this time, opportunities for Europeans to travel to Japan were rare. After a major rebellion in which the Portuguese were implicated, Japan limited Western visits to Dutch traders in 1639—even the Dutch could enter and leave only on specified days of the year, regardless of weather conditions. Their business activity in Japan was restricted as well, and they could only establish an office (factory) on a small island (called Deshima) in Nagasaki harbor in southern Japan. While the Dutch were allowed to trade with Japan, suspicion of them remained high, and it was...

(The entire section is 2075 words.)