Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), collector in Japan

Ets Siebold

Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold was born in the city of Würzburg in Bavaria (Germany), into a family of doctors. His grandfather, father and both his uncles were professors of medicine at the University of Würzburg. Siebold started studying medicine at the same university in 1815.

In 1822 Siebold entered the service of the Dutch East Indies Army as surgeon major and was stationed in Batavia. There he caught the attention of the governor-general. Siebold had managed to learn both Dutch and Malay in a short time and took his tasks very seriously. He seemed the ideal person to send to Japan, a country that was destined to take a central place in the rapidly changing world politics. Until then, Japan was an unknown power with strictly closed borders. Trade was only allowed through the Dutch trade post at Deshima, a small artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki.

Siebold arrived in Deshima in 1823 with the assignment to collect information on the islands of Japan and its social and political structures and to investigate the possibilities of expanding the existing trade. Foreigners were not allowed to leave the trade post, but as a doctor Siebold had other opportunities. When Siebold cured a local officer of influence he was allowed to open a small practice outside the trade post and to make house calls on Japanese patients.

During his first visit to the Japanese mainland, he contacted Japanese doctors and scientists. Some of them had already learned how to speak and write in Dutch and were known as Rangakusha – literally: Holland experts. Japanese officials had encouraged the learning of Dutch among a small group of scientists to understand the books and maps the Dutch brought with them as gifts. Siebold's house was soon transformed into a meeting point for lectures, meetings and discussions and the host was regarded an expert on Western science. Through these contacts, Dutch became a lingua franca, providing Japan access to Western science and inventions.

Siebold also won acclaim as a general practitioner and made numerous house calls in a wide area around the trade post. He was not allowed to receive payment for his services so grateful patients gave him objects and artifacts instead. These gifts formed the basis of his ethnographic collection. Following the examples of Jan Cock Blomhoff (1779-1853), commander of Deshima between 1818 and 1823, and of bookkeeper Johannes van Overmeer Fisscher (1800-1848), Siebold collected many everyday household goods, woodblock prints, tools and handcrafted objects.

He concentrated on collecting plants, seeds, animals, and all kinds of everyday tools. Siebold hired local artists to record images of animals, objects and daily practices on paper and paid three professional hunters to hunt down rare animals. During his trips to patients, he collected as much natural material as he could and his students brought him whatever they could lay their hands on.

In 1825 two assistants from Batavia were assigned to Siebold: apothecary Heinrich Bürger and the skilled painter C.H. de Villeneuve. Bürger was an important help in collecting objects and became Siebold's successor after 1828, when Siebold was no longer allowed to practise.

In 1828 Siebold made the court journey, the so-called edo sanpu from Nagasaki to Edo (present-day Tokyo). Siebold was to leave for Java, immediately after his return to Deshima. During the many months of the court journey, Siebold not only collected many plants, animals and artifacts, but also came into possession of maps of Japan. Unfortunately the items became too numerous and so they were sent ahead to Deshima. The maps were discovered by the Japanese authorities and Siebold was subsequently accused of high treason and being a spy for Russia. The possession of maps was strictly forbidden. After a period of house arrest during which many of Siebold's contacts were investigated, he was expelled from Japan in 1829, and never to enter the country again. At that moment Siebold could not know that this ban would be lifted in the years to come.

Up to then his collection had been preserved in several cities, spread over institutions in Leiden and the Belgian cities of Gent, Brussels and Antwerp. After staying with his family, Siebold decided to move to Leiden and settled in a canal house on Rapenburg 19. The house was on the same canal as the botanical gardens and opposite the museum of natural history (today located elsewhere in the city of Leiden). Siebold opened his collection to the public as early as in 1831. After displaying it at several locations in Leiden, he opened a museum in his Rapenburg home in 1837.

The natural history materials had come to Leiden in four shipments, sent during Siebold's stay at Deshima. The last shipment he accompanied himself when he was forced to leave Japan in 1829. Heinrich Bürger remained on Deshima and managed to send three more shipments in the following years. These shipments, with more than 10,000 items in total, form the Japanese collections in museum Naturalis and the National Herbarium in Leiden.

Using the large number of animals Bürger and Siebold had sent to the Netherlands, zoologists Temminck (Coenraad Jacob, 1778-1858), Schlegel (Hermann, 1804-1884) and De Haan (Wilhelm, 1801-1855) could make a full description of Japanese fauna. Their research was published in 'Fauna Japonica' between 1833 and 1850 and the Japanese animal world, unknown in the West until then, became the best-described fauna of all non-European countries. King William I expressed a strong interest in Siebold's collection. After many talks and prompting, the Royal cabinet of Rarities, (het Koninklijk kabinet van Zeldzaamheden) was combined with the collection of Siebold and two other important researchers at Deshima. The collection of Siebold was bought by the Dutch government and the new museum became the predecessor of the current National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.

In the years that followed, Siebold acted as an important advisor on Japanese matters for various countries. In 1859 he travelled to Japan once more.