Isaac Titsingh FRS (10 January 1745 in Amsterdam - 2 February 1812 in Paris) was a Dutch surgeon, scholar, merchant-trader and ambassador.
During a long career in East Asia, Titsingh was a senior official of the Dutch East India Company (the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC). He represented the European trading company in exclusive official contact with Tokugawa Japan. He traveled to Edo twice for audiences with the Shogun and other high bakufu officials. He was the Dutch and VOC Governor General in Chinsura, Bengal. Titsingh worked with his counterpart, Charles Cornwallis, who was Governor-General of the English East India Company. In 1795, Titsingh represented Dutch and VOC interests in China, where his reception at the court of the Emperor Qianlong stood in stark contrast with rebuffs to England's ambassador George Macartney just prior to celebrations of Qianlong's sixty-year reign. In China, Titsingh effectively functioned as ambassador for his country at the same time as he represented the VOC as a trade representative.
Japan, 1779 - 1784
Dejima and Nagasaki Bay, circa 1820. Two Dutch ships and numerous Chinese trading junks are depicted.
Titsingh was the commercial Opperhoofd or Chief factor in Japan in 1779-1780, 1781 - 1783, and 1784. The singular importance of the head of the VOC in Japan during this period was enhanced by the Japanese policy of sakoku-imposed isolation. Because of earlier religious proselytizing during this period, no European or Japanese could enter or leave the Japanese archipelago on penalty of death. The sole exception to this "closed door," was the VOC "factory" or trading post on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki bay on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. In this time of seclusion, Titsingh is believed to have been the first Freemason in Japan.
In this highly-controlled context, the VOC traders became the sole official conduit for trade and for scientific-cultural exchanges between Europe and Japan. The VOC Opperhoofd was accorded the status of a tributary of the Shogun; and twice he had to pay during an obligatory once-a-year visits of homage to the Shogun in Edo. In such rare opportunities, Titsingh's informal contacts with bakufu officials and Rangaku scholars in Edo may have been as important as his formal audiences with the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieharu.
Titsingh died in Paris (February 2, 1812), and he is buried in Pere-Lachaise cemetery. His gravestone reads: "Here lies Isaac Titsingh, formerly a councillor of the Dutch East India Company, Ambassador to China and to Japan. Died at Paris the 2nd of February 1812, aged 68 years."
Titsingh's library and his collection of art, cultural and scientific material was dispersed; and some entered the collections of the French state. Among the Japanese books brought to Europe by Titsingh, was a copy of Sangoku Tsuran Zusetsu (An Illustrated Description of Three Countries?) by Hayashi Shihei (1738 - 93). This book, which was published in Japan in 1785, deals with Chosen (Korea), the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa), and Ezo (Hokkaido). In Paris, the text represented the first appearance of Korean han'gul in Europe. After Titsingh's death, the printed original and Titsingh's translation were purchased by Jean-Pierre Abel-Remusat (1788 - 1832) at the College de France. After Remusat's death, Julius Klaproth (1783-1735) at the Institut Royal in Paris was free in 1832 to publish his edited version of Titsingh's translation.
Titsingh's experiences and scholarly research were the genesis for published articles and books. The Batavian Academy of Arts and Sciences (Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen) published seven of Titsingh's articles about Japan.
Titsingh's accounts of brewing sake and soy sauce production in Japan were the earliest to be published in a Western language. His work was more widely disseminated throughout Europe by the beginning of the 19th century.
Titsingh's published compilation of a preliminary Japanese lexicon was only the early evidence of a project which continued for the rest of his life.
His legacy is ensured by posthumously printed works.