Trade, ecology, and plants: Words from the 18th century Dutch „Indian letters“

In the Nationaal Archief in The Hague there is a handwritten dictionary tucked away in the boxes with the private estate of a late 19th century history professor and archivist (1.13.04 – 1240 – Collectie Heeres). The „collection of words“ from 1758 explains foreign terms used in the so-called Indian letters by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that had been borrowed from languages between Persian and Japanese.

Among the various entries relating to plants, there are terms that describe local ecology, hint at the VOC plantation economy and explain the production of nutmeg on the Moluccas (my translation):
„Nut eaters are birds such as doves that swallow the nuts and release them intact, from which nutmeg trees will grow, but the spice shall have no taste“
„‚Parken‘ are places where the nutmeg trees stand that are planted regularly […]“
„‚Perkeniers‘ are the owners of the parken“
„‚Parreparre‘ is a mat on which the nuts are dried and limed“

The list also contains many entries about work under colonial rule, from harvesting cinnamon to the handling of elephants. It mirrors the linguistic flexibility around the Indian Ocean and South China Sea which Amitav Ghosh has revived in his Ibis trilogy. For example, the anonymous Dutch compilation explained „Lascarijns“ as „domestic soldiers, also runners, messengers“, while „lascar“ in 18th century English referred to „an East Indian sailor“ (oed.com, viewed 17 June 2015).

This „collection of words“ could be regarded as transnational heritage and would merit digitisation and open access to facilitate comparative research.


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