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.
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 Kyūshū. 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.
In 1785, Titsingh was appointed Director of the VOC trading post at Chinsura in Bengal. Chinsura is up-river from Calcutta on the Hooghly River, an arm of the Ganges. He seems to have savored the intellectual life of the European community. Titsingh was described as “the Mandarin of Chinsura” (see Mandarin (bureaucrat) and scholar-bureaucrat) by William Jones, the philologist and Bengal jurist.
While at Batavia, he met with Lord Macartney who was en route to China. Titsingh's comments were important factors in McCartney's decision to abandon a planned expedition to Japan in 1793. Mccartney's report to London explained:
- "... the expediency of attempting an intercourse with the Japanese subsists in its full force. Tho from the conversations I had at Batavia with a Dutch Gentleman of a very liberal disposition who was several years resident in Japan, Isaac Titsingh, I collected nothing that could induce me to depend on a favorable reception there, I learned nothing to deter me from the trial. The risk would, at least, be personal, as we have hitherto there no trade to lose. And no moment, if any, could be so propitious for opening up a new trade with them , as when, from the present general confusion of affairs of the Dutch East India Company, their connection with the Japanese is greatly on the decline.
Titsingh was appointed Dutch Ambassador to the court of the Emperor of China for the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. In Peking, the Titsingh delegation included Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest and Chrétien-Louis-Joseph de Guignes, whose complementary accounts of this embassy to the Chinese court were published in the U.S. and Europe.
Titsingh's gruelling, mid-winter trek from Canton to Peking allowed him to see parts of inland China which had never before been accessible to Europeans. His party arrived in Peking in time for New Year's celebrations. By Chinese standards, Titsingh and his delegation were received with uncommon respect and honors in the Forbidden City, and later in the Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace). Unlike the unsuccessful British embassy of the previous year under Lord George Macartney, Titsingh made every effort to conform with the demands of the complex Imperial court etiquette—including kowtowing to the Emperor.
Neither the Chinese nor the Europeans could have known that this would be the last appearance by any European ambassador at the Imperial court until after the Opium Wars of the next century. Titsingh is believed to have been the first Freemason in China, and the only to be received in the court of the Qianlong emperor.
Return to Europe, 1796–1812
Titsingh died in Paris (February 2, 1812), and he is buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery. His gravestone reads: "Ici repose Isaac Titsingh. Ancien conseiller des Indes hollandaises. Ambassadeur à la Chine et au Japon. Mort à Paris le 2 Février 1812, agé de 68 ans." [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 Tsūran Zusetsu (三国通覧図説 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'gŭl in Europe. After Titsingh's death, the printed original and Titsingh's translation were purchased by Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat (1788–1832) at the Collège de France. After Rémusat'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.
• 1781 --"Bereiding van saké en soya," in Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen (Transactions of the Batavian society of arts and sciences), Vol. III, Batavia.
• 1814 -- "Ieso-Ki, ou Description d'Yeso, par Arai-Tsi-kogo-no-Kami, Instituteur du Ziogoen (empereur militaire) Tsoena-Josi, écrite en 1720. Ieso-Ki ou Description d'Yeso, avec l'histoire de la révolte de Sam-say-In, par Kannamon, interprète japonais, écrite en 1752. Notice de deux cartes japonais, manuscrites, communiquées par M. Titsingh," in Annales des voyages, Vol. XXIV, Paris.
• 1819 -- Cérémonies usitées au Japon pour les mariages et les funérailles (Ceremonies Performed at Marriages and Funerals in Japan). Paris: Nepveu. OCLC 185485254.
• 1820 -- Mémoires et anecdotes sur la dynastie régnante des djogouns, souverains du Japon (Memories of and Anecdotes about the Reigning Dynasty of Shoguns, Sovereigns of Japan), avec la description des fêtes et cérémonies observées aux différentes époques de l'année à la cour de ces princes, et un appendice contenant des détails sur la poésie des Japonais, leur manière de diviser l'année, etc.; Ouvrage orné de Planches gravées et coloriées, tiré des Originaux Japonais par M. Titsingh; publié avec des notes et éclaircissemens Par M. Abel Rémusat. Paris: Nepveu. OCLC 255146140.
• 1822 -- Illustrations of Japan; consisting of Private Memoirs and Anecdotes of the reigning dynasty of The Djogouns, or Sovereigns of Japan; a description of the Feasts and Ceremonies observed throughout the year at their Court; and of the Ceremonies customary at Marriages and Funerals: to which are subjoined, observations on the legal suicide of the Japanese, remarks on their poetry, an explanation of their mode of reckoning time, particulars respecting the Dosia powder, the preface of a work by Confoutzee on filial piety, &c. &c. by M. Titsingh formerly Chief Agent to the Dutch East India Company at Nangasaki. Translated from the French, by Frederic Shoberl with coloured plates, faithfully copied from Japanese original designs. London: R. Ackermann. OCLC 5911523.
• 1824 -- Bijzonderheden over Japan: behelzende een verslag van de huwelijks plegtigheden, begrafenissen en feesten der Japanezen, de gedenkschriften der laatste Japansche Keizers en andere merkwaardigheden nepens dat Ryk. Uit het Engelsch, met gekleurde platen naar Japansche originelen. S Gravenhage: De Wed. J. Allart. OCLC 7472268.
• 1834 -- [Siyun-sai Rin-siyo/Hayashi Gahō, (1652)] Nihon Ōdai Ichiran (Nipon o daï itsi ran); ou, Annales des empereurs du Japon, tr. par M. Isaac Titsingh avec l'aide de plusieurs interprètes attachés au comptoir hollandais de Nangasaki; ouvrage re., complété et cor. sur l'original japonais-chinois, accompagné de notes et précédé d'un Aperçu d'histoire mythologique du Japon, par M. J. Klaproth. Paris: Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain and Ireland. OCLC 84067437.
Media related to Isaac Titsingh at Wikimedia Commons
- An'ei -- Japanese era names
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- Foreign relations of imperial China
- Royal Society -- Issak Titsingh was elected to membership in the Society in 1797; and his nomination letter has been posted with other membership records at the Royal Society web site. here. Those signing that nomination letter were: William Marsden, Henry Cavendish, Alexander Dalrymple, Joseph Correa de Serra, Maxwell Garthshore, William Larkins, John Lloyd, Henry Crathorne, Charles Wilkins.
- Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest -- map of overland journey from Canton to Pekin
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric. (2005). "Isaak Titsingh" in Japan Encyclopedia, p. 966, p. 966, at Google Books.
- Edo-Tokyo Museum exhibition catalog. (2000). A Very Unique Collection of Historical Significance: The Kapitan (the Dutch Chief) Collection from the Edo Period -- The Dutch Fascination with Japan, p. 207.
- Far East Lodge No. 1, "A Brief History of Freemasonry in Japan;" excerpt, Titsingh "is believed to be the first mason to visit Japan" in 1779
- Edo-Tokyo Museum exhibition catalog, p. 210.
- Jones, W. (1835). Memoirs of the life, writings and correspondence of Sir William Jones, by Lord Teignmouth. London.
- Macartney to Dundas, 23 December 1793, British Library, India and Oriental, Factory Records, China, 1084 G/12/20.
- van Braam Houckgeest, Andreas Everardus. (1797). Voyage de l'ambassade de la Compagnie des Indes Orientales hollandaises vers l'empereur de la Chine, dans les années 1794 et 1795; see also 1798 English translation: An authentic account of the embassy of the Dutch East-India company, to the court of the emperor of China, in the years 1974 and 1795, Vol. I.
- de Guignes, Chrétien-Louis-Joseph (1808). Voyage a Pékin, Manille et l'Ile de France.
- van Braam, An authentic account..., Vol. I (1798 English edition) pp. 283-284.
- Screech, Timon. (2006). Secret Memoirs of the Shoguns: Isaac Titsingh and Japan, 1779-1822, p. 58., p. 58, at Google Books: excerpt, "Titsingh became the first Freemason ever to set foot in China" in 1794-1795.
- Cullen, Louis M. (2003). A History of Japan, 1582-1941: Internal and External Worlds, p. 137.
- Vos, Ken. "Accidental acquisitions: The nineteenth-century Korean collections in the National Museum of Ethnology, Part 1," p. 6.
- Kublin, Hyman. "The Discovery of the Bonin Islands: A Reexamination," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 43, Issue 1 (March 1, 1953). p. 35.
- Pouillon, François. (2008). Dictionnaire des orientalistes de langue française, p. 542.
- viaLibri: Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen: Verhandelingen (Batavian Academy of Arts and Sciences: Transactions).
- Titsingh, Isaac. (1781). "Bereiding van de Sacki" ("Producing Sake"), Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap (Transactions of the Batabian Academy), Vol. III. OCLC 9752305
- Titsingh, Isaac. (1781). "Bereiding van de Soya" ("Producing Soy Sauce"), Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap (Transactions of the Batavian Academy), Vol. III. OCLC 9752305
- Morewood, Samuel. (1824). An Essay on the Inventions and Customs of Both Ancients and Moderns in the Use of Inebriating Liquors, p. 136.
- Titsingh, Isaac. (1781). "Eenige Japansche Woorden" ("Some Japanese Words"), Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap (Transactions of the Batabian Academy), Vol. III. OCLC 9752305
- WorldCat Identities: Titsingh, Isaac 1744-1812
- Boxer, Charles Ralph. (1936). Jan Compagnie in Japan, 1600-1850: an essay on the cultural, artistic and scientific influence exercised by the Hollanders in Japan from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, p. 172.
- Boxer, p. 172; Malte-Brun, Conrad et al. (1853). Géographie universelle, p. 209.
- Association of American Geographers. (1911). Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. I.
- Boxer, Charles Ralph. (1936). Jan Compagnie in Japan, 1600-1850: an essay on the cultural, artistic and scientific influence exercised by the Hollanders in Japan from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. OCLC 221034415
- Duyvendak, J.J.L. (1937). "The Last Dutch Embassy to the Chinese Court (1794-1795)." T'oung Pao 33:1-137.
- Edo-Tokyo Museum exhibition catalog. (2000). A Very Unique Collection of Historical Significance: The Kapitan (the Dutch Chief) Collection from the Edo Period—The Dutch Fascination with Japan. Catalog of "400th Anniversary Exhibition Regarding Relations between Japan and the Netherlands," a joint-project of the Edo-Tokyo Museum, the City of Nagasaki, the National Museum of Ethnology, the National Natuurhistorisch Museum and the National Herbarium of the Netherlands in Leiden, the Netherlands. Tokyo.
- de Guignes, Chrétien-Louis-Joseph. (1808). Voyage a Pékin, Manille et l'Ile de France. Paris.
- Jones, William. (1835). Memoirs of the life, writings and correspondence of Sir William Jones, by Lord Teignmouth. London.
- Lequin, Frank. (2005). Isaac Titsingh in China (1794–1796). Alphen aan den Rijn.
- _____. (2002). Isaac Titsingh (1745–1812): een passie voor Japan, leven en werk van de grondlegger van de Europese Japanologie Leiden.
- _____. (1990–92). The Private Correspondence of Isaac Titsingh, 1779-1812. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben. 10-ISBN 90-5063-057-X; 13-ISBN 978-90-5063-057-3 (cloth)
- Malte-Brun, Conrad, Victor Adolphe Malte-Brun and Jean-Jacques-Nicolas Huot. (1853). Géographie universelle; ou description de toutes les parties du monde sur un plan nouveau, d'après les grandes divisions naturelles du globe; précédée de l'histoire de la géographie chez les peuples anciens et modernes, et d'une théorie générale de la géographie mathématique, physique et politique. Paris: Garnier Frères. OCLC 13471017
- Morewood, Samuel. (1824). An Essay on the Inventions and Customs of Both Ancients and Moderns in the Use of Inebriating Liquors: Interspersed with Interesting Anecdotes, Illustrative of the Manners and Habits of the Principal Nations of the World, with an Historical View of the Extent and Practice of Distillation. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green. OCLC 213677222.
- Nederland's Patriciaat, Vol. 13 (1923). Den Haag.
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric and Käthe Roth. (2005). Japan encyclopedia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 10-ISBN 0-674-01753-6; 13-ISBN 978-0-674-01753-5; OCLC 58053128
- O'Neil, Patricia O. (1995). Missed Opportunities: Late 18th Century Chinese Relations with England and the Netherlands. (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington).
- Rockhill, William Woodville. "Diplomatic Missions to the Court of China: The Kotow Question I," The American Historical Review, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Apr., 1897), pp. 427–442.
- Rockhill, William Woodville. "Diplomatic Missions to the Court of China: The Kotow Question II," The American Historical Review, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Jul., 1897), pp. 627–643.
- Screech, Timon. (2006). Secret Memoirs of the Shoguns: Isaac Titsingh and Japan, 1779-1822. London: RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 978-0-415-54671-3 (paperback); ISBN 978-0-7007-1720-0 (hardback); ISBN 978-0-203-09985-8 (electronic)
- van Braam Houckgeest, Andreas Everardus. (1797). Voyage de l'ambassade de la Compagnie des Indes Orientales hollandaises vers l'empereur de la Chine, dans les années 1794 et 1795. Philadelphia: M.L.E. Moreau de Saint-Méry.
- _______________. (1798). An authentic account of the embassy of the Dutch East-India company, to the court of the emperor of China, in the years 1974 and 1795, Vol. I. London : R. Phillips.
- (Dutch) Titsingh Institut, Leiden
Arend Willem Feith
|VOC Opperhoofd of
Hendrik Casper Romberg