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James Cuninghame – 'a learned and most industrious promoter of natural philosophy'

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By any standards, James Cuninghame FRS (ca. 1665–1709) led a remarkable life. A Scot trained in medicine in Leiden, he participated in four voyages bound for Asia, as a surgeon or trader, and discussed his discoveries with major figures of the time in natural philosophy in London, notably Hans Sloane, James Petiver, Leonard Plukenet and John Woodward. He narrowly escaped death in attacks on East India Company (EIC) factories in Pulo Condore (Vietnam) and Banjarmassin (Borneo), and was imprisoned in France, the Canary Islands and Cochinchina, but he never failed to be an enthusiastic and conscientious collector, acquiring specimens of both natural and artificial objects (including hundreds of pressed plants, insects and shells, and watercolours of plants by native artists), as well as items of trade interest (tea samples, china clay, a scarlet dye, maps, a Chinese compass), wherever he touched land. Although probably best known as one of the first people to bring extensive natural history collections from China (chiefly from Amoy (Xiamen) and Chusan (Zhoushan)) to Europe, Cuninghame also made collections in the Canary Islands, Ascension, St Helena, the Cape of Good Hope, Java, Malacca, Pulo Condore and Cochinchina, all of which are among the earliest that survive from many of these locations. New research is shedding light on the contexts in which Cuninghame travelled. His Amoy voyage, for example, is now known to have to have taken place on an interloping ship rather than one belonging to the EIC – remarkable in the context of trade with China at this time.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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