Edward Beckwith

Photographing the Cheng Ho Expedition

Beclwith on expedition 1940


Edward P. Beckwith, the official photographer for the Cheng Ho Expedition. April 1940.

By Janet Mosely

A majority of the photographs from the voyage of the Cheng Ho were taken by Edward Pierrepont Beckwith.  A friend of John Archbold, he volunteered to join the expedition as official photographer.  He brought to the group valuable experience as a traveler and navigator as well as a certain bonhomie diplomacy.

Ned, as he was more commonly known, was born in 1877 in New York City into a rather colorful, patrician family. His maternal grandfather, Judge Edward Pierrepont, was at one point Ambassador to the Court of St. James in England. Ned’s father, Leonard Forbes Beckwith, drew the maps for a travelogue entitled “Fifth Avenue to Alaska”.  Ned himself graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1901 where he studied engineering and chemistry. As a scientific researcher for General Electric he conducted research on, among other things, the use of tungsten filaments for lamps.  His love of science and travel led him to join the Carnegie Institute’s 1932 Cosmic Ray Expedition to Mount McKinley, Alaska and the 1937 Rainbow Bridge-Monument Valley Expedition which mapped and explored 2,000 miles of Navajo country in Utah and Arizona.

Ned recorded his experiences on the Cheng Ho expedition in a private diary which begins with his November 12, 1939 departure for Manila.  It makes for interesting reading and provides a rather laconic perspective of the expedition.  “I tried 3 fruits I had not sampled before, Chico, Pomolo, & Durian.  The Chico was rather tasteless, the Pomolo was good, & the Durian possibly an acquired taste.”  (Diary of Edward (Ned) Beckwith Cheng Ho Expedition 1939-1940-Wed, March 13, 1940 at Poso.) 

Ned’s diary is available for all to read as a daily blog beginning on the seventy year anniversary of the Cheng Ho trip.  Please check www.fairchildgarden.org/chengho to read the diary. There is an excellent sampling of photographs from the Cheng Ho available on Flickr.  Please go to www.flickr.com/exploreplants

Ned and Hugo in open car

Overland travel

Ned using local transportation to cross the Celebes

Edward and Hugo keeping cool (but eventually getting tremendous sunburns) in the back of a borrowed car while crossing the Celebes. April 1940.

Hugo Curran, the expedition’s field collector, and “Ned” Beckwith enjoying a well-earned rest. May 1940.

Beckwith with the aid of several locals and the local four-footed transportation traversing the interior of the Celebes island. April 1940. 

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