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Isaac Titsingh (1745-1812), Dutch Japanologist

modernized Vitruvian Man

      Isaac Titsingh was born 10 January 1745 in Amsterdam and died 12 February 1812 in Paris, France, 68 years later. He was a Dutch surgeon, merchant-trader, ambassador, and scholar. He received an excellent education from his surgeon father and entered into the Amsterdam guild of surgeons in 1764. The following year, Titsingh earned a doctor of law degree from the University of Leiden. Setting aside his classical education and medical training, Titsingh became a career merchant with the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), the "Dutch East Indies Company." Titsingh's liberal, open intellect made him a pioneer in the area of international understanding and allowed him to achieve a mutual exchange of European and Asian culture.

1766-1779: Batavia, Java in the Dutch East Indies

     In 1765, Titsingh sailed from the Netherlands to Java in the East Indies. From 1766 until 1779, he was responsible for administrative activities in Batavia (today Jakarta, Indonesia). During his 34-year VOC career, Titsingh held various positions, ultimately becoming a senior official of the VOC.

1779-1784: Dejima, Nagasaki, and Edo, Japan

     Titsingh was the commerical Opperhoofd (Chief Factor) in Japan three times: 1779-1780, 1781-1783, and 1784. In exclusive official contact with Tokugawa Japan, he represented the European Asia-wide trading company. He traveled to Edo (today Tokyo) twice for audiences with the shogun and other high Bakufu officials.
      The singular importance of the VOC head in Japan during this period was enhanced by the Japanese policy of Bakufu-imposed isolation. The sole exception to this closed door was the VOC trading post or factory on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. In this highly controlled context, the VOC Dutchmen were the sole official conduit for trade and for scientific-cultural exchanges. The VOC Opperhoofd was nominally accorded standing similar to that of a Japanese daimyo (feudal lord) during the obligatory once-a-year visits of homage to Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu in Edo. Titsingh's informal contact with Bakufu officials and Rangaku (Dutch Studies) scholars were rare opportunities. Titsingh tried to equip Japan with an ocean-going fleet. However, when he left Japan, he was disappointed by the ability of its leaders to embrace change.

1785-1792: Chinsura, Bengal in India

     Titsingh directed the VOC station in Bengal from 1785 to 1792 as the VOC Governor General in Chinsura, Bengal, India. In socializing with the English, Titsingh met Sir William Jones, the Bengal jurist and philologist, who described the Dutchman as the Mandarin of Chinsura. Titsingh had congenial relations with Lord Charles Cornwallis, the Governor General of the English East India Company in Calcutta.

1792-1793: Batavia, Java in Dutch East Indies

      Titsingh's return to Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) led to new positions as Ontvanger-Generaal (Treasurer) and later as Commissaris ter Zee (Maritime Commissioner).

1794-1795: Canton and Peking, China

      In 1795, Titsingh's reception at the court of the Emperor Quianlong in Peking, China, stood in stark contrast with rebuffs to England's ambassador Lord George Macartney just prior to celebrations of Emperor Quianlong's sixty-year reign. The Titsingh delegation that traveled from Canton included Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest and Chrétien-Louis-Joseph de Guignes, whose complimentary accounts of this Dutch embassy to the Chinese court were published in the USA and Europe. Unlike the unsuccessful English embassy of the previous year, Titsingh made every effort to conform to Chinese customs, including kow-towing or kneeling and bowing with his forehead touching the ground to show respect to Chinese officials.

1796-1812: London, Bath, Amsterdam, and Paris

     In 1796, Titsingh returned to Europe and settled first in London, and then in Bath. In 1801, he returned to Amsterdam. Subsequently, he moved to Paris where he died in 1812. He was buried in the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Isaac Titsingh's Legacy

     Titsingh's library and his collection of cultural and scientific material was dispersed. Some items entered the collections of the Collège de France, Bibliothèque Nationale, British Museum, Kyoto University Library, and the University of Leiden. Seven of his articles about Japan were published in the Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen. His accounts of brewing sake and soy sauce production in Japan were the earliest to be published in an European language. His posthumously published books ensured his legacy.

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