Forsskål's Flora Revived

F. Nigel Hepper and I. Friis
The Plants of Pehr Forsskål's Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica
Kew, Royal Botanical Gardens, 1994, xii, 400 pp.

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 33(1993):22

Most students of Yemen's history are aware of the famous Danish expedition sent to Egypt and Yemen in 1761 and popularly described in Thorkild Hansen's Arabia Felix (1962).The man we usually associate with this ill-fated expedition is Carsten Niebuhr, since he had the good fortune to be the only survivor of the expedition. However, the scientific work of Pehr Forsskål (1732-1762), a Swedish botanist, was one of the chief legacies of this trip. Well, at the time he was considered Swedish, though he was actually born in Helsinki, now the capital of Finland. He must have been a rather precocious kid, because he entered the university in Uppsala in 1742 at the ripe young age of 10. Here he learned philosophy, theology and even a smattering of oriental languages. Fortunately for the history of botany, Forsskål attended the lectures of Linnaeus, the venerable founder of botanical classification, at Uppsala. Forsskål was more than a botanist in his youth. He submitted two theses, one of which was so controversial it was rejected out of hand in the political climate. The subject was civil liberty, which was clearly denied in the case of this thesis even after it was published as a book. The book was confiscated (by none other than Linnaeus, oddly enough) and condemned from Swedish pulpits. When offered the prospect of a trip to Arabia on a royal Danish expedition, it is not surprising Forsskål jumped at it.

The Danish ship "Groenland" set sail from Copenhagen on January 4, 1761 reaching Constantinople on July 30. The expedition reached Cairo in November and stayed in Egypt for about nine months. It was not until December 29, 1762 that Forsskål reached Luhayya in Yemen. By late March both Forsskål and Niebuhr made an excursion to Ta'izz. In May the expedition Arabist, von Haven, died in Mocha. Forsskål himself died in Yarim on July 11, 1763. The only expedition member to survive was Niebuhr, who eventually returned to Copenhagen in 1767 and set to work for ten years publishing the results, including Forsskål's botanical work.

Until now botanists have had to rely on the original 1775 publication of Forsskal's work and a few subsequent uses of the data. Now F. Nigel Hepper and I. Friis have produced The Plants of Pehr Forsskål's Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica (Kew, Royal Botanical Gardens, 1994, xii, 400 pp). This valuable and authoritative edition contains an informative introduction on Forsskål and the Danish expedition and a systematic catalogue of Forsskål's botanical specimens. A taxonomic index is also provided

Book Excerpt

"It is certainly wonderful to penetrate a country worth seeing for its different plant growth; but it is more praiseworthy to change from a prejudiced idea of a barbaric nation to a friendly relationship with a simple, but well mannered people, who may disagree between themselves, but nevertheless are amicable to strangers, who are uneducated in sciences, but not restricted in intellect, who are poor, but yet hospitable. This tradition has not grown from a void, but is due to a general convention which prevents the violation of strangers. This is how the Arab Yemen is different from the Arab Egypt; here the noble live far from the centres, ...and the life of the common people is even more parochial. The inhabitants of Arabia Felix are satisfied with durable alliances, and do not want unjust conquests. To this can both Forsskål and I bear testimony, saluted as we have been among unknown people; we have always achieved complete protection. He came to places hardly touched by a European foot, and certainly not by that of a botanist. Here came a man, unknown and apparently eccentric, one for whom not trade but the names and uses of plants was the singular purpose. Encouraged by these principles of the nation, he lived a shepherd's life among the Arabs. Admirably were both the older Arab, the younger one, and the girl equally eager to provide information about the flora of their country. When young people each day gather fodder plants, they involuntarily carefully investigate the botany of their field; and what they have in youth counted as play, they still remember when old. This is the reason why flora in her idiom has named very few plants that the Arab has not given a name to in his own language."(from Niebuhr's Introduction to Forsskål's Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica)

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