Cunningham, James (d.1709?) (DNB00)

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CUNNINGHAM, JAMES (d. 1709?), botanist, a Scotchman, went out in 1698 as surgeon to the factory established by the East India Company at Emouï, on the coast of China, and in 1700 made a second voyage to the settlement at Chusan, on which island he remained two years. During his stay he turned his scientific knowledge to good account, and made large botanical and other collections. Through his diligence Sir Hans Sloane was enabled to add considerably to his cabinets and garden. He was the first Englishman to make botanical collections in China, and sent over to Ray, Plukenet, and Petiver many new plants, for which he is repeatedly thanked in their works; indeed his name occurs on almost every page of Plukenet's ‘Amaltheum Botanicum,’ where his collections, to the number of four hundred plants, are described, and in the third volume of the same writer's ‘Phytographia,’ where drawings are given of them. Petiver described about two hundred of Cunningham's plants in his ‘Museum.’ The whole collection forms part of the Sloane Herbaria, now in the Natural History Museum, South Kensington. From the island of Ascension Cunningham forwarded to Petiver an account of the plants and shells he observed there. In February 1702–3 he was sent to the company's station at Pulo Condore to try and open up a trade with Cochin China, but, through the jealousy of the Chinese, the attempt proved a failure, and in 1705 the Macassars, growing distrustful, made a sudden attack on the English, whom they killed almost to a man. Cunningham escaped the massacre only to endure a captivity of nearly two years in Cochin China, from which he proceeded in 1707 to Batavia, and thence to Banjar-Massin, to take charge of that settlement. He did not meet with any better success there, for a few weeks after his arrival the Banjareens, at the instigation of the Chinese, expelled him by dint of superior numbers, and destroyed the settlement (Bruce, Annals of the East India Company, iii. 664). Soon after this Cunningham embarked for England. His last letter, addressed jointly to Sloane and Petiver, is dated ‘Calcutta, 4 Jan. 1708–9,’ and he expresses a hope of overtaking it, and therefore writes but briefly. It was received by Sloane ‘about August 1709.’ What became of him is not known, for no trace of his will or report of his death is to be found in this country. He probably never reached England, but died on the voyage home.

The East India Company acknowledged his services by appointing him in 1704 second in council of the factory at Borneo, and in 1707 chief of Banjar.

Cunningham had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1699, and his contributions to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ are both numerous and important. The following may be mentioned: ‘An Account of a Voyage to Chusan in China’ (xxiii. 1201–1209; reprinted in vol. i. of Harris's ‘Voyages’), in which he was the first writer to give an accurate description of the tea plant; ‘Observations on the Weather, made in a Voyage to China,’ 1700 (xxiv. 1639); ‘A Register of the Wind and Weather at China, with the observations of the mercurial barometer at Chusan, from November 1700 to January 1702’ (xxiv. 1648). His account of the massacre at Pulo Condore (a copy of which is to be found in the Sloane MS. No. 3322, ff. 76–7) was afterwards inserted in the modern part of the ‘Universal History, (x. 154, edit. 1759). Many of his letters to Petiver are preserved in the Sloane MS. No. 3322, ff. 54–75; those to Sloane himself are in the same collection, No. 4041, ff. 317–36. He invariably spells his name ‘Cuninghame.’ Robert Brown has complimented Cunningham by calling after his name a species of the madder tribe.

[Information from the India Office, and from B. D. Jackson, esq.; Pulteney's Biog. Sketches of Botany (1790), ii. 59–62; Bretschneider's Early Sketches, 37–88; Biographie Universelle (Michaud), ix. 571; Nouvelle Biographie Générale, xii. 628.]

G. G.