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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FORTY SIX The Real Pinkerton

A rather nice, impromptu competition has been going on as to who could bake the best Frankfurter Kranz and I am pleased to announce the winner – my dear friend Marshall. Here he is with his winning entry:

To celebrate, we went to a lovely cafe in the Unter Markt to have a slice with our coffee. And as I was rubbing liniment on my legs in preparation for the push over to Erlangen today, a chap came up and asked to sit at out table. “I heard you humming Vogliatemi bene ", he said, "And I wanted to ask if you knew that Lieutenant Pinkerton was from Wurzburg?”

He told us the following story. In 1796, Pinkerton - a.k.a. Philipp Franz von Siebold – was born here to a family of doctors and unsurprisingly went into the profession himself. At the age of 26, he joined the Dutch army in order to go out to the Dutch East Indies: he was something of a polymath and had a particular interest in the natural world. While in Jakarta, he so impressed the Governor General that he appointed him doctor to the Dutch trading post on a tiny islet off Nagasaki.

Franz von Siebold by Keiga Kawahara (c)wikicommons

For one with a traveller's instinct, this was an extraordinarily fortunate posting. Japan was so very little known then - closed to the outside world by the Shogun and frozen in time. Rather like Germany itself, Japan was a medieval patchwork of independent han – small states under their own Daimyo, all obedient to the Shogun who in turn was notionally loyal to the Emperor. For centuries the country had been closed to all but a handful of traders – and these were only Chinese or Dutch. Not until Commodore Perry and his US Navy warships steamed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 did the country open up.

Siebold could not explore Japan because the Dutch were confined to their two acre island and were not permitted even to go into the town of Nagasaki, let alone the rest of the country. The Japanese supplied the Dutch with all they required, including specially designated prostitutes – the oranda-yuki.

But after Siebold had successfully treated an ailing local official, he was allowed into Nagasaki, where he started to provide medical services to the locals, including the first vaccinations. They paid him in kind – woodblock prints, tools, things from the patients' houses – a range of objects forming an ethnographic collection that survives to this day.

In time Seibold founded a medical school in Nagasaki. The curriculum was western and Dutch was the language of instruction. The traffic was two-way: while Siebold taught medicine, his students provided samples of Japanese flora and fauna for his collections. As the years went by, these collections expanded hugely, as did the range of illustrations of Japanese wildlife that he commissioned from various local artists.

Against the local laws, he smuggled tea plants out of Japan and back to the East Indies: within a decade, Java had become a major tea exporter. He was not punished for this – but he did get into trouble for alleged spying. It is not clear how, but he managed to obtain permission to go to Edo (Tokyo) to the Shogun's Court. Here he acquired maps of Japan – strictly forbidden – was arrested as a Russian spy and, in 1829, banished from Japan.

He left behind a heartbroken woman, Taki Kusumoto, with whom he had set up home. He also left a two year old daughter, Ine Kusumoto, who, by law, could not be taken from the country. But she had obviously inherited Siebold medical genes because she became the first female doctor in Japan.

Ine Kusamoto (c)wikicommons

So Siebold returned alone to the Netherlands with his remarkable collections. At Leiden, botanists are still studying the thousands of the samples he brought back. Many now grace our gardens: hosta, hortensia, azalea, coltsfoot and the Japanese larch among others. And, unfortunately, the Japanese knotweed: all the infestation in Europe has come from the single plant he brought back. And, if in your flowerbed, you have a hydrangea otaksa, think of Cio-Cio-san: Siebold's pet name for Taki was otakusa – and he named the plant after her.

hydrangea otaksa

They did meet again. In 1859, the new Meiji government having lifted his sentence, Siebold returned to Nagasaki. By then he had been married to a Dutch woman for fifteen years and had five children. It seems there was a brief reunion with Taki and perhaps also with Ine, now a distinguished doctor at the Imperial Court. But Siebold went home again after two years – and, in true Pinkerton style, left behind him a second daughter by a Japanese woman.

He died in 1866, Taki the year before, and Ine Kusumoto, his first Japanese daughter, in 1903 – so none of them was left to see the first performance of their Madame Butterfly in 1904.

Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi sing Vogliatemi bene (the Race Marshal's preference) -

This is a little film of Dejima, the Dutch trading post -

This is the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden which houses a great many of Siebold's plants -

Gamelan music which has been played on Java since the 8th century and would have been heard by Siebold -

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