Southern Perspectives? With Merian to Suriname and Back

As a historian of early modern history, I do research, but not field work. I converse with archivists and librarians as guides to the material, but not with eye witnesses or activists. In writing, I am also bound to certain academic genres and formats. If I experience the phenomenon someone has called „felt presence“ in texts and objects, I can speculate, but the material is rarely eligible for re-construction and analysis in my publications. At the Merian conference 2017 in Amsterdam in June, with its focus on „intersections“, two artists from the fields of literature and visual arts presented work about and with locals and covered terrain that neither the academy nor popular science, with its traditional focus on colonial exploration and adventure narratives, usually tread on.

The poet Cindy Snow from Massachusetts, US presented poems from a series in progress that is based on intensive examination of Merian’s illustrations. Snow read a memorable poem imagined from the perspective of a fictional Arawak woman working for Maria Sybilla Merian during her stay in Suriname. An „informant“ in the lingo of the history of science and knowledge, the Arawak person became an individual woman with the specific experience of abortion that made her avoid the peacock bush, hardly able to provide the sample she was repeatedly asked and reprimanded for.

The Dutch visual artist Joos van de Plas has based her ongoing revisitation of Merian’s work on her own research in Suriname, and her artist’s laboratory with caterpillars, pupae and butterflies. Van de Plas spoke of her „lifelong fascination with the process of metamorphosis, both in the literal and the metaphorical sense“. In the photographs accompanying her talk and artwork, black and brown people collect samples in the field, sketch, and interpret their findings in the office or lab. It was a mosaic of photographs with Surinamese locals in the position of researchers and experts, yet they did not speak at the conference. Also, the artist showed a film of her trip to a plantation mentioned by Merian, guided by a local man knowledgeable about the history of the place. It is deep in the woods today, and he had excavated a few objects from the Dutch past in a kind of post-colonial archaeology. His was the only Surinamese voice to be heard during the conference.

Many materials relevant for the history of science today were collected in the global South in the 17th and 18th centuries and have since been preserved in the spaces of arts and science within Europe. Research is rarely re-oriented and conceptualised including a Surinamese perspective, for example, or the perspective of women of colour, sometimes for lack of written records and unfamiliarity with other source material. So, in this context, it was refreshing to at least hear about different practices and alternate stories stemming from the historic objects and to reflect on different cultures of knowledge.

Where to go from here? Art provides a chance for the re-imagination of academic endeavours as shared history. Reflections on visibility and representation should be the first step towards future project and workshop designs developed together with researchers from Suriname, for example, or connecting historians of science with heritage specialists and activists in public history.

(First published 10 August, amended 23 August 2017)

Program of the Maria Sibylla Merian Conference 2017 
About the work of poet Cindy Snow 
Website of artist Joos van de Plas

Material from ‚place‘ to ’space‘: On analogue and digital sources


Material from ‚place‘ to ’space‘: On analogue and digital sources
Article in German at sister blog Rumphius

„Wenn es um die Beschreibung von botanischem Material in Rumphius’ Amboinsch Kruid-boek (Ambonese Herbal) geht, und um die Ensembles von Objekten, in denen diese Texte wiederum zwischen Ambon und Amsterdam enthalten waren, ist für mich das Handhaben oder handling ein zentraler Begriff. Wer hat wann was in die Hand genommen? Vielleicht weitergegeben? Und was folgt daraus? Diese Frage kann ich von den Objekten und Akteuren aus dem 17. und 18. Jahrhundert auch auf meine eigene Forschungspraxis anwenden: Was bekomme ich in die Hand? …“


Going Dutch: On research, history, and memory in translation

For my current research on a Dutch text from the late 17th century Moluccas, I identify as a historian in an interdisciplinary project at the Institute of Dutch Language and Literature at the University of Cologne. Yesterday I was working in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in Den Haag, with two volumes of Rumphius’ Ambonese Herbal lying at my desk, when a middle-aged Dutch man approached me about my work. About Rumphius?! In Leiden, surely? The misunderstanding might have originated in me whispering in my mongrel Dutch. On the other hand, with a few conferences in the Netherlands behind my back, it seems to me that research at the interface of art history, colonialism, and early modern history of knowledge is transnationalised, while projects on the „hardware“ of the Dutch Golden Age and one of its canonised figures are imagined only within the confines of patriotism. Leiden, in shorthand, used to be the training ground for colonial officials. So I find myself switching languages and codes, and more often than not missing the default position for academic exchange at a given place and time.

Two weeks ago, the Cologne working group on global history discussed Sebastian Conrads’s take on „Global history for whom? The politics of global history“ (chapter 10 of his 2016 book „What Is Global History?“ – also a shoutout to PhD-candidates Alexander van Wickeren and Melina Teubner for concept and organisation!). Within this field, according to Conrad, English has become the „hegemonic language“, and Asia a „privileged subject of global history writing“. And the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), the Dutch East Indies (Nederlands-Indië), and today’s Indonesia are placed at the fringe, if not even overlooked. The translation of documents from paper to digital records, as for example on the website TANAP (Towards a New Age of Partnership in Dutch East India Company Archives and Reasearch,, accessed 22 February 2017), does not equal resources for translation into English. Sources from the 17th and 18th century were written in Dutch, or Malay using Arabic script, while current research is still published in Dutch and Bahasa Indonesia. In my case, the original Dutch-Latin print version of the Amboinsche Kruid-boek from the 1740s has been digitised (, accessed 22 February 2017), but not the English translation.

Webseite Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, 22 February 2017 (Screenshot eha)

A few hours later, most of us met again for a lecture in the framework of the Global South Studies Centre (GSSC). Marcel van der Linden from the Internationaal instituut voor sociale geschiedenis (iisg) in Amsterdam spoke about „Precarianization, household labour and slavery: a global-history perspective“. As I am looking into the representation of slavery in the texts of the Ambonese Herbal at the moment, his arguments on slavery and capitalism resonated, especially his short case study of Barbados. For van der Linden, the so-called sugar revolution on the Caribbean island made it the first fully commodified society around 1650, regarding both consumption and production, with labour discipline and time management under unfree conditions in the cane fields as precursors to factory norms and scientific management. I was wondering how Barbados compared to Banda Neira at the same time, especially in regard to the tight management of the spice trees themselves – a commodification of live plants perhaps? To pose the question proved rather difficult: How to be concise and understandable at the same time? How to explain the emptying of the land with the genocidal politics of governor-general Jan Pieterszoon Coen in 1621, the establishment of perken (plantations) with Dutch or European perkeniers and Asian slaves, and the ecopolitics of the yearly hongi-tochten (military campaigns drawing local ships and VOC troops) for the extirpatie (controlling by cutting) of nutmeg and clove trees without giving a small lecture myself?

Barbados, it seems, is a stand-in for the British empire, and basic knowledge about its regime in the Caribbean can be assumed. Banda Neira, on the other hand, is a speck on the world map few historians would find immediately. If research in global history is focused on today’s geopolitical powers, and conceptionalised in terms of landmass ruled, whole regions might become marginalised if not invisible. But if development turns out to be a less important analytical category than sustainability in times of climate change, the comparison of island worlds and the discussion of their interconnectedness might be crucial (as Amitav Gosh has sketched in his piece on „What Nutmeg Can Tell Us About Nafta“, New York Times, 30 December 2016,, accessed 22 February 2017).

After my question, Marcel van der Linden retold the history of Banda for the audience in Cologne. He began with describing the monument of Coen in his neighbourhood in Amsterdam and ended with a statement along the lines of „this was not a good part of our history“, thus introducing questions of commemorative culture and morality to the discussion. Ideally, we would have time and space to reflect on our respective academic and cultural settings at such a point.

A 21st century Herbarium

A couple of weeks ago, after looking at two Chinese manuscripts on botany in the Wellcome Library (more on that shortly), I found a contemporary English-language „Herbarium“ in the bookshop downstairs. Other than the early modern herbals I usually work with, which had been motivated by the spice trade and the interest in other commodifiable plants independent of their category, this one is focused exclusively on herbs. Still, the author Caz Hildebrand can place her work “in a long tradition of books that combine words and illustrations to illuminate the beauty and the uses of herbaceous plants” (p.7). She chose 100 plants that “are all fascinating each with their own stories to tell […]” (p. 6).

To me it seems that the book jumps over the “Linnaean divide” of the 18th century, when the strict categories of taxonomy within the various disciplines of biology parted ways with the narrative approach inherent in many of the earlier works in natural history. Here, the author wants to “encourage their appropriate use” (p. 7) in different “aspects of life” and therefore interweaves the different strands of cultivation in the garden and uses in the kitchen, of eating and healing, of taxonomy and gastronomy, of image and text. For example, the book contains both the current binomials for the herbs and sketches of recipes, so it is as usable as it is readable. And not to forget leafable with its beautiful illustrations.

Because of its global approach to herbs – concerning “their varyingly medicinal, culinary, spiritual, cultural and magical qualities and histories” (p. 6) as well as their availability in the “supermarkets and nurseries” of a globalised world – stories of voyages are scattered throughout the book. Here are some bits from the poetic to the informative:

Chicory – Cichorium intybus: The woody herb chicory has bright blue flowers that – legend has it – are the metamorphosed eyes of a young woman, weeping for the loss of her lover’s ship.” (p. 63)

Culantro: Named Eryngium – Greek for ‘sea holly’ – on account of its spikiness, and foetidum – ‘stinky odour’ – because of its smell, this is a native of many Caribbean islands and Southeast Asia. (p. 85)

Scented Geranium (Pelargonium species) – Scented geraniums were discovered at the Cape of Good Hope in the 1620s by John Tradescant, the English kin Charles I’s chief botanist. The Victorians went crazy for them in England and grew them in heated greenhouses until 1914, when the practice was stopped in order to conserve energy for the war effort.

Caz Hildebrand. Herbarium. London: Thames & Hudson 2016.

The Post/Colonial Quality of Spice

In the May issue of Allerhande, the customer magazine distributed by the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, I found this advertisement by Verstegen. It showcases white pepper from Bangka, mace from Ambon and the Banda Islands, and nutmeg from Ambon, with the headline translating roughly as „quality begins at the source“. The short texts in the ad inform readers about the company’s quality management in 21st century Indonesia. They correspond strangely with sections from Rumphius’ Ambonese Herbal, in which he describes how the Dutch East India company (VOC) controlled spice production during the late 17th century. The ad even includes a Rumphius-like plate of the nutmeg plant and fruit. I have juxtaposed these quotes about plant materials becoming cultured spices in between the Indonesian archipelago and the Netherlands here, showing how little the representation of the produce has shifted.

Advertisement in customer magazine Allerhande, May 2016

Advertisement in customer magazine Allerhande, May 2016


Ad on „the warm taste of“ nutmeg:

In the small village of Hila, in Indonesia, Verstegen closely co-operates with a Dutch-Ambonese family that has established a business producing nutmeg here. That way we bring the best nutmeg to your kitchen. And we provide work opportunities and an honest price for the farmers. (my translation)


Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 28:

[…] but the most beautiful stands of Nutmeg Trees are found on Pulo-ay that is no more than 2000 paces long, flat and mostly planted with tall Nutmeg Trees, with some other fruit trees mixed in here and there; they are a delight to the eyes and a pleasure to stroll amongst, and they offer such a beautiful sight that the entire island seems to be one single garden, only surrounded by low hills and some underbrush at the shore, and the latter needs to be maintained in order to keep the sharp seawind from the Nutmeg grove. And though this island lacks fresh water, one will find many Burghers and Park [i.e. plantation] owners living on it, who obtain the requisite water from cisterns, so that Pulo-ay supplies easily a third of what is normally consumed in the world.


Ad on mace as „flower in the kitchen“:

Mace, also known as ‚fleur de muscade‘, which literally means flower of the nutmeg, is the aril of the nutmeg, the kernel of the nutmeg apple. It tastes warm, aromatic, and refines and combines a citrus-like sweetness with a mild bitterness. You can tell best quality mace by its orange colour. For decades, Verstegen has obtained this by ‚our‘ farmers on Ambon and the Banda islands in Indonesia.“ (my translation)


Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 29:

The cleaned Nutmegs are brought home where they presently pry the Mace of with a small knife, trying to leave it as much as possible in one piece; the slaves are well-trained to do this, and do this quite dexterously; this blood red mace is then dried for a few days in the sun, on top of certain squared brick places, that look like wide Altars, where the mace loses its its carmine color, turns a dark red, and finally yellow or orange […].


Ad on white pepper:

White pepper is the ripe berry of the pepper plant. It is more aromatic than black pepper, savory with a sweet aftertaste. The most beautiful Muntok white pepper comes from the island of Bangka [off the coast of Sumatra] in Indonesia. Here, Verstegen trains the farmers to select those berries that fulfill all the requirements. That way, only the best white pepper is filled in our jars: the Superior White Diamond. (my translation)


Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. IV, p. 317:

The people from Tsjeribon [Cirebon on Java] are unfairly accused of soaking white pepper in salt water out of malice, so that nobody can plant them again, but this usually happens to improve and conserve the spice […].


The advertisement presents the company’s involvement in today’s Indonesia as development-driven business co-operation. Rumphius recapped the origins of those relations in one sentence, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 3:

The Nutmeg groves are no longer owned by the old Inhabitants, since they were driven out because of their numerous massacres of the Dutch Nation, especially the massacre in May Anno 1609 of Admiral Pieter Willemsz. Verhoeven, whereafter the entire country was taken by force of arms by General Jan Pietersen Coen, and made into a Province of the United Netherlands, whereafter the Parks were divided among the Dutch and Mestiso citizenry, who have to maintain a large number of Slaves, usually 40 to 50 of them, while the large Parks can have as many as 80 to 100.


How much history does a consumer have to taste?

For the current debate on colonial violence and its legacy in the Netherlands, see those recent publications:

  • Vanvugt, Ewald. Roofstaat. Wat iedere Nederlander moet weten. Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar 2016.
  • Wekker, Gloria. White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2016.

Developing land: From the Dutch delta to the Moluccas

Waterways and dams are omnipresent in Holland, and their role for the economy in general (from Rotterdam to the inland) and especially tourism (the canals of Amsterdam) is obvious. While travelling by bus to the town of Zierikzee on one of the islands in Zeeland, I was looking at more water and dikes and polders. It reminded me of colonies in the sense of colere, to cultivate, and here also of managing land and water. According to the exhibition in the Stadhuismuseum (, this process began in the early middle ages. It is explained in detail in Han Meyer’s study of „De staat van de delta. Waterwerken, stadsontwikkeling en natievorming in Nederland“ (Nijmegen: Vantilt 2016).

How did this delta experience, via the politics of the chambers of the Dutch East India company, influence colonisation in the Moluccas? On Ambon and Banda, for example, there were no landscapes with zoet en zout, sweet and salty water and biotopes on the same scale. Rumphius the natural scholar wrote about trees in abundance, hills, and mountains. If there was a direct transfer, apart from the knowledge system of navigation and shipping, it must have been in the engineering of projects and the organisation of labour. Meyer writes about the islands of Southern Holland and Zeeland in the 16th century especially: „The diking and impoldering has for a great deal been realized by private initiatives.“ On the Northern islands in the delta, developers from Holland
„used a standardized concept: apart from a ring dike, the new polders were equipped with a drainage system, a town (stedelijke neerzetting), and a port. The town provided accommodation for agricultural workers, but also shops, a blacksmith, a townhall, a church, and a port.“ (p. 39 and 41 respectively, my translation) Merchants and company officials, then, might have adapted an established business model when planning forts and plantations on the Moluccas – an issue I will explore further during my next phase of archival research.

Zwischen Acapulco und Ambon: Zirkulation von Pflanzenmaterial im 17. Jh.

Einleitung: Blickrichtung, Windrichtung

Nachdem die erste niederländische Flotte mit einer reichen Ladung von Gewürzen aus dem indonesischen Archipel zurückgekehrt war, gründeten Händler und Politiker im Jahr 1602 die Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) als erste Aktiengesellschaft der Welt. Die Anfangszeit der VOC ist mit dem Import von Nelken und Muskat aus den Molukken verbunden. Innerhalb dieser Inselgruppe lag der militärisch-ökonomische Stützpunkt mit dem Kasteel Victoria auf Ambon, von wo aus die jährlichen hongi-tochten zur Kontrolle der Plantagen und Unterwerfung der einheimischen Herrscher unter das niederländische Regime in See stachen. (Cf. Nagel 2011) Für die Festigung von Stützpunkten in den Amerikas war die Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie (WIC) zuständig, Zeit ihres Bestehens eine der wichtigsten Akteure im atlantischen Dreieck, die eine Drehscheibe für den Sklavenhandel auf Curaçao etablierte.

Diese Arbeitsteilung der Institutionen und infolgedessen auch die Aufteilung der überlieferten Archive lenken den Blick auf Zirkulationsprozesse zwischen der Metropole Amsterdam im Norden und den Bericht erstattenden Festigungen in Batavia bzw. Willemstad. Auch die Quellengenres wie naturkundliche Texte sind den unterschiedlichen geographischen Regionen zugeordnet, zum Beispiel Maria Sibylla Merians Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium dem südamerikanischen Festland, 1705 in Amsterdam erschienen. Im gleichen Jahr publizierte François Halma auch die Amboinsche Rariteitkamer von G.E. Rumpf am gleichen Ort, eine Studie der marinen Fauna in den Molukken. Merian war mit der Kolorierung der Illustrationen beauftragt. Regionen des heutigen globalen Südens war jedoch nicht nur über die Akteure der Gelehrtenrepublik im Norden miteinander verbunden, wie das zweite große Werk von Rumpf zeigt, das Amboinsche Kruid-boek. Rumpf war 1653 als Söldner im Dienst der VOC nach Ambon gekommen, stieg schnell zum Kaufmann auf, und konnte als Naturkundler auf die Ressourcen der Handelsgesellschaft zurückgreifen. Unter anderem finanzierte die VOC ihm eine Bibliothek sowie Schreiber und Zeichner. Rumpf hatte eine einheimische Frau geheiratet und lebte bis zu seinem Tod 1702 auf Ambon. (Cf. Beekman 1999 und 2011)

In der zu Lebzeiten unveröffentlichten Amboinsche Historie hatte sich Rumpf intensiv mit der Rolle der portugiesischen und spanischen Kaufleute und Kolonisten in Südostasien auseinandergesetzt, als den europäischen „Anderen“ und politisch-wirtschaftlichen Konkurrenten. In zahlreichen Einträgen des Kruid-boek verweist er auf die alltäglichen Effekte der Kolonialregimes im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert: Die Verbreitung von Pflanzen aus den Amerikas auf den molukkischen Inseln und deren Verwendung als Lebensmittel und Medizin. Der Hafen von Acapulco in Neu-Spanien war nicht nur Umschlagsort für ostasiatische Artefakte wie Seide und Porzellan auf dem Weg nach Europa (cf. Gasch-Tomás 2014), sondern diente in umgekehrter Richtung auch dem Transport von Ökofakten nach Manila. Über die Philippinen diffundierten unter anderem Tomate und Cashew in die Biotope der benachbarten indonesischen Inseln.

Diesem pflanzlichen Material zu folgen bietet also die Chance, von einem anderen Ort über Zirkulation als „site of knowledge formation“ (Raj 2013) zu schreiben. Dazu nutze ich im Projekt das Netzwerk als Instrument (cf. Latour 2010). Das Material ist meist in Text und Abbildung repräsentiert (u.a. Digitalisate der Originalausgaben, englische Übersetzung), manchmal als bearbeitetes Produkt in Apothekerschubladen erhalten (z.B. Museum Boerhaave, Leiden) oder als Pflanzenindividuum in einem Tropengewächshaus lebendig (z.B. Hortus Botanicus, Leiden). Ein Zwischending sind die zeitgenössischen Herbarien (z.B. Naturalis, Leiden). Im Folgenden skizziere ich anhand einiger Beispiele, wie im Quellenmaterial Karibik und Indonesien verbunden sind und wie sich daraus konzeptionelle Überlegungen für eine andere Art der „area studies“ ergeben.


Die Möglichkeit des Perspektivwechsels – Ausgangspunkt, Akteure, spaces – sollte nicht darüber hinwegtäuschen, dass sowohl die beschriebenen Prozesse als auch deren Überlieferung ein Produkt des kolonialen Regimes der VOC und des Buchmarkts in den Niederlanden sind. Rumpf’s Lemmata im Kruid-boek beruhen unter anderem auf einer Kenntnis des Lateinischen, sie beinhalten stets den Vergleich mit naturkundlichen Standardwerken aus der europäischen Gelehrtenrepublik (cf. Buijze 2006) und darauf aufbauend erst auch die Diskussion der Verbreitung von Nutzpflanzen zwischen Brasilien, der Karibik und Südostasien. Zu dieser Zirkulation beigetragen hat auch die Möglichkeit der Korrespondenz innerhalb der europäischen Gelehrtenrepublik, für Rumpf ermöglicht durch die Kreuzungspunkte in den Netzwerken der VOC und der kaiserlichen Academia Naturae Curiosorum in Schweinfurt. (Cf. Valentini 1714).

Ein Beispiel für diese Form der Zirkulation findet sich im Text über den „Wild Chili Shrub“ (Ambonese Herbal III chapter 73). Rumpf beschreibt, wie der Name den Transfer einer Pflanze von den Amerikas in die Molukken reflektiert und verweist auf die Standards unter zeitgenössischen Botanikern, die mit dem Austausch von Information über längere Zeiträume und lange Distanzen rangen.

In Latin Capsicum silvestre, in Malay Tschili utan, on Ambon Tschilli abbal, all from the resemblance of the fruits to chilis or Spanish peppers, even though it has nothing in common with it in terms of sharpness and powers, but I want to follow common opinion here, as Herbalists are wont to do, in order to be understood. (Ambonese Herbal III: 417)

Gleichzeitig sind Rumpf’s Manuskripte, Text wie Bild, in Arbeitsteilung entstanden: mit den Zeichnern und Schreibern im Workshop auf Ambon (cf. Leupe 1871), sowie in Interaktion und teils auch Kooperation mit lokalen Informantinnen und Informanten auf den molukkischen Inseln, von Fischern im unmittelbaren Verwaltungsbereich bis zu Adligen in Kriegsgefangenschaft. (Cf. Beekman 2011)

Im Papier als Trägermaterial sind Kultur und Natur, Schrift und Pflanze verbunden. Rumpf hat auch eine Transformation von Blatt zu Papier im Wortsinn beschrieben: Einheimische Schreiber nutzten Bananenblätter, die mit einer bestimmten Art von Muschel geglättet worden waren, als Schreibgrund. Gleichzeitig hat Rumpf die Kurzlebigkeit dieses Materials kommentiert, was sich auch als einen impliziten Kommentar über die Deutungshoheit verstehen lässt: „One can also write letters on them, but they won’t last long.“ (Ambonese Herbal IV:16)


Die Unterstützung der VOC für die Feldforschung von Rumpf war davon motiviert, Medikamente für die Söldner und Sklaven vor Ort zu identifizieren und neue commodities für den Export nach Europa zu finden. Deswegen, und weil Rumpf daran gelegen war, eine möglichst umfassende Studie zu verfassen, sind im Kruid-boek Informationen über die Verbreitung und alltägliche Verwendung von Blüten, Früchten und Samen durch die lokale Bevölkerung gespeichert.

Zum Beispiel hält er im Eintrag über den „Papaje Tree, Male and Female“ (Ambonese Herbal I chapter 44) fest:

People think that this Tree was brought here from the West Indies by the Castillians, wherefore it lacks a Native name as well. […] Both have a mixed shape, looking somewhat like the Indian palm, or Calappus tree, but also like our Fig Tree, and it has all kinds of additional characteristics that do not correspond to other trees. (Ambonese Herbal I: 414)

Nachdem er die Papaya über Interviews und Beobachtung, Sprache und Form, als nicht-einheimische Pflanze (Neophyt) kategorisiert hat, geht er noch auf die Verbreitungswege ein, die Naturkunde, und gleich im nächsten Satz auf den Gebrauch und Nutzen, die Ethnographie:

Place. Since, as I said, this is a foreign fruit, one will find it these days only where European nations live or used to live; and if one sees them in other places, they were brought there by means of kernels either by the Natives or by the birds. They are so abundant on Ternate that the people cannot bear to look at them anymore, calling them pig fodder, because they fatten their pigs on them […]. (Ambonese Herbal I:418)

Der letzte Satz verweist auf die Ambivalenz botanischer Zirkulation in kolonialen Regimes, die bewusst oder zufällig angestoßene Veränderung von Biotopen und damit auch Ressourcen, mit dem augenfälligsten Beispiel der Plantage als Monokultur.


Wie die Pflanzen verbanden auch die Plantagen und die damit einhergehende Verschleppung und Versklavung von Arbeitskräften die indonesischen mit den karibischen Inseln. Bereits in den 1620er Jahren hatte die VOC unter Jan Pieterszoon Coen die Bevölkerung der Banda-Inseln südlich von Ambon ermordet oder verschleppt und die als „Gärten“ bezeichneten Plantagen mit Muskatbäumen unter europäische Verwaltung gestellt. (Cf. van Rossum 2015, Baai 2014)

Als Rumpf’s Manuskript des Kruid-boek in den 1690er Jahren in Batavia kopiert wurde, stellte ein Maler in auf dem Frontispiz für das Auctuarium (BPL 1924, Bijzondere Collecties, UB Leiden) in der Position eines Herren über einen Sklaven dar. Weil Rumpf als Rumphius bis in die 2000er Jahre vor allem eine Figur der Wissenschaftsgeschichte war, ist diese Darstellung des potenten kolonialen Kaufmanns bereits mit der Publikation der Rariteitkamer 1705 von der des bescheidenen, kenntnisreichen Naturkundlers abgelöst worden. Das Frontispiz beruht auf einer Zeichnung von Rumpf’s Sohn Paul August, der seinen erblindeten Vater als Helden in seinem Arbeitszimmer mit allen Insignien einer europäischen Wunderkammer dargestellt hat.

Dieser Rumphius tastet einsam nach einer Pflanze, um sie zu bestimmen. In seinen Texten hat Rumpf jedoch weit über die botanische Taxonomie erfasst, durch wie viele Hände die Arbeit mit und an Pflanzen, unter anderem denjenigen aus den Amerikas, bestimmt war.

Resümee: Nachleben

Der tropische Wald, wie er auf dem Titelbild des Auctuariums repräsentiert ist, lebt als Biotop vor allem im Kruid-boek von Rumpf fort. Rumpf war auch einer der Naturforscher, der im Verband mit Akademiekollegen die Praktiken der Feldforschung etabliert hat. So hat seine Repräsentation einer bereits globalisierten Pflanzenwelt hat immer wieder Handlungen ausgelöst, zum Beispiel zu Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts den US-amerikanischen Botaniker E.D. Merrill in Manila zu einem erneuten Mapping der ambonesischen Fauna angeregt. (Cf. Robbins 1958) Jenseits solcher Dokumente aus der Wissenschaftsgeschichte bieten sich Rezepte und Kochbücher als weitere Quelle an, um die Zirkulation und Lokalisierung von Pflanzen zwischen Acapulco und Ambon, den Amerikas und Asien im Detail zu erforschen. (Cf. das Projekt „Shared Taste“ in Leiden, In der indonesischen Küche hat längst auch die mächtig scharfe Chili ihren Platz gefunden, während in umgekehrter Richtung die Kokosnuss über Manila nach Mexiko kam. (Cf. Harries 2012)


“The Blind Seer” and his Hands: The Relation of Image and Knowledge in Botany

In one of the preliminary texts to the Amboinsche Kruidboek (Ambonese Herbal), its author Rumphius described his physical blindness as a consequence of prolonged exposure to the equatorial sun: “This walking in the heat of the Sun caused my sight to be struck to such an extent by a Suffusion or Cataracta Nigra, that I had lost most of it within three months.” (Preface “To the Reader”, English translation by E.M. Beekman, vol. I, p. 176)

This explanation has been picked up when Rumphius was revived as a national hero in the late nineteenth-century Netherlands. The narrative that was established by historians of science such as P.A. Leupe in his 1871 biography “Georgius Everhardus Rumphius. Ambonsch natuurkundige der 17de eeuw” and codified in the Rumphius Gedenkboek (Memorial Volume) published by the Koloniaal Museum in Haarlem in 1902, presents Rumphius as a tireless natural scholar defying both his own ill body and the metaphorical corrupt body of the Dutch East India Company. In 1944, G. Ballantijn published his biography “Rumphius. De blinde ziener van Ambon”, the blind seer of Ambon. Image and narrative are compounded by the 18th century engraving of a haggard Rumphius with dead eyes confined to his study classifying specimens by touching them (available in digitised form at

Not a historian of medicine, I am wondering if the blindness might have been a symptom of syphilis. As far as I have read at the moment, this possibility has not been discussed yet, either because it is too far off or because heroisation excludes a sexually transmitted disease and the uncomfortable follow-up question if the soldier-merchant Rumpf had been engaged in prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation in the context of colonial wars and administration on the Moluccas. This figuration of a more potent company scholar is depicted on the title page for the Auctuarium of the Herbal that was copied in Batavia in the 1690s (Bijzondere Collecties Leiden, BPL 1924, vol. II, digitized version available via the online catalogue).

Because Rumphius had constantly been in the field of botanical exploration for at least two decades, he had stored so many mental images in his mind and tacit knowledge in his hands that further “Erkenntnis” – perception, insight, knowledge – was probable even without eyesight. In 1740, the Herbal’s editor Johannes Burman noted in his preface “To the Benevolent Reader and True Practicioners of Botany”:

“[…] many a time I heard from trustworthy People who at the time lived in those Parts, that this great Man was so skilled in his work, that at the time all sorts of Plants that were unknown to other people, were sent to him from the remotest parts of the Indies, even though he was already robbed of his vision and of the light of the day. He could discover the leaves, fruits, or seeds from the smell, taste, shape, or other attributes, and assign them to their proper genus, which surely shows a most amazing knowledge and perspicacity.” (English translation by E.M. Beekman, vol. I, p. 183).


Sound, Touch, and Vision: The Translation of Ginseng from the Chinese to the Dutch

In the „stream of translation“ (Latour) flowing from the island of Ambon, where Rumphius‘ had collected the specimens for the Ambonese Herbal at the end of the seventeenth century, to the city of Amsterdam, where Johan Burman made one editorial decision after the other in the 1740s, the relation of text and image was steadily transformed.

One of the manuscripts kept in the Special Collections of the Leiden University Library (BPL 314) contains a warning for the printer and engraver. Rumphius highlighted questions of vocabulary, punctuation marks and clerical errors for the first, and instructed the second to adjust proportions or to choose from two illustrations of one plant.

In the case of ginseng, the editor made this choice instead of the engraver. Rumphius had made clear that his (mental) image of the plant’s leaves was mediated by a local informant and his paper model:

„A certain Chinese by the name of Suyku, showed me the shape of the [ginseng] leaves anno 1685. He said he was a Chinese Medicus and that he had seen it grow on a certain Lord’s estate, who ordered it brought there from distant places; and the same Suyku cut the plant shape out of paper for me, as best he could remember, and we used it for the accompanying illustration.“

In the manuscript, this coloured drawing is supplemented by a smaller sheet of paper with two pencil drawings of the ginseng plant copied from a Chinese Herbal. Rumphius elaborated on Suyku’s „tale“ as well as as excerpts from the Chinese Herbal that had been „related“ to him, an indication that he did not understand Chinese himself, but someone in his vicinity. It might have been that his wife, a local woman who went by the Christian name Susanna, belonged to the community of ethnic Chinese around Kasteel Victoria.

Ginseng in Rumphius' Kruidboek

Ginseng in Rumphius‘ Kruidboek

In the end, the editor Burman prized his own network node in Amsterdam over that of Rumphius in Ambon. In the plate for the print version, he included yet another image because, as he wrote in his commentary, „they [the copies from the Chinese Herbal] did not warrant such, and since they resembled mostly those by Cleyerus in the German Epheremides, where one will also find others depicted. The one I display in its stead here, was copied in China itself by the Honorable Mayor, N. Witsen, who was a very careful observer of foreign plants, and this is the true and genuine root [..].“

Unfortunately, neither the paper model, a cheap and volatile epistemic thing, nor the copper plate, a solid and expensive object at the time, have been taken from the stream of translation to find rest in one of today’s archives.

– Quotes on ginseng from the English translation by E.M. Beekman, vol. 5, p. 545 ff.
– Slide from my presentation „Between the Exact and the Economic. Material and Illustration the Rumphius‘ Rariteitkamer and Kruidboek, 1670s to 1740s“ at the Conference „Art and Science in the Early Modern Low Countries (1560-1730)“, Huygens ING/Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 17/18 September 2015


Native and foreign, global and local: Moving plant species across empires in the Ambonese Herbal

On the title page of an Ambonese Herbal manuscript, a tall ficus tree takes centre stage, while (presumably) Rumphius in intricate European clothing stands to the right of it, a hat on his head and a paper in his hands, observing a black local man working on the tree in the foreground. In the bottom section there is another illustration, a view of the fort Victoria on Ambon in 1690, seen from the water filled with tall ships flying the Dutch flag among smaller Asian vessels and a palm plantation in the background.

As an author, Rumphius had a strong sense of place, describing specific plant specimen throughout his books. The tree on the title has been identified as ficus virgata according to the Linnean system, but Rumphius had named it “The Domesticall Grossularia or the Berry Tree” (chap. 3, vol. 3 in the English translation by Beekman, like all the following quotations). In the section about the use of the tree he gives the following account:

“When we took the hostile Fort Laäla on little Ceram in 1654, we found a large Waringin tree of this species, it was draped in all sorts of ropes and cords, though most had been cut off because, as we came to understand, such rootlets were chewed, the sap swallowed, and also put on a wound, as an antidote to Macassarese dart poison […].” (p.16)

As the global and the local are connected by the stock figure of the native dressed in a loincloth on the title page, the text of the Ambonese Herbal does not escape botanical globalisation. Having written the history of Ambon for the VOC, Rumphius was well aware of the historical movements within the Portuguese and Spanish empires across continents. Because he wrote about what plants and practices he saw on the spot, he included many references about the circulation and appropriation of plants coming from the Caribbean or South America. Among those was “The Wild Chili Shrub” (chap. 73, vol. 3). Rumphius describes how the name reflects the transfer and reflects on the standards among contemporary botanists who were battling with exchanging information over time and space:

“In Latin Capsicum silvestre, in Malay Tschili utan, on Ambon Tschilli abbal, all from the resemblance of the fruits to chilis or Spanish peppers, even though it has nothing in common with it in terms of sharpness and powers, but I want to follow common opinion here, as Herbalists are wont to do, in order to be understood.” (p. 417).

The Ambonese Herbal also stores information and narratives that have been rewritten since the late 17th century. For example, Rumphius had named the peanut “The Japanese Chamaebalanus” (chap. 54, vol. 4) and explained to his future European readers:

Name. In Latin Chamaebalanus Japonica. In Dutch Japponse Aardakers. In Chinese Thou Thau, that is, Earth-beans, and so also in Malay, Katjang Tana or Katjang Jappon. It is not familiar to the Ambonese. Place. As the name indicates, it was first brought to these Indian countries from Japan, and is now cultivated rather often in Batavia. Otherwise, it grows in Sina, and it thrives in the Land of Macassar. Use. These Earth-fruits are used mostly with tea, presented with other salted and dry Dainties that go with Tea-water, to make you thirsty and make you want to drink that hot water. […] One will find the same plant in our West-Indies, it is described by Piso lib. 4 cap. 64 with the Brazilian name Mundubi. In Portuguese Amenduinas, that is little Almonds. The people from Peru call them Lerio Manobi, or as Nic. Monard. states Anchic. The Spaniards call them Ibimani […].” (p. 474)

Today, the Convention on biological diversity has defined “invasive alien species (IAS” as those “whose introduction and/or spread outside their natural past or present distribution threatens biological diversity.” (, 28 July 2015) In the late 1700s, when the global circulation of useful plants within and across the European empires had started, Rumphius took note of the issues caused by such invasions in his chapter on the “Papaje Tree, Male and Female” (chap. 44, vol 1):

“People think that this Tree was brought here from the West Indies by the Castillians, wherefore it lacks a Native name as well. […] Both have a mixed shape, looking somewhat like the Indian palm, or Calappus tree, but also like our Fig Tree, and it has all kinds of additional characteristics that do not correspond to other trees.” (p. 414)
Place. Since, as I said, this is a foreign fruit, one will find it these days only where European nations live or used to live; and if one sees them in other places, they were brought there by means of kernels either by the Natives or by the birds. They are so abundant on Ternate that the people cannot bear to look at them anymore, calling them pig fodder, because they fatten their pigs on them […].” (p. 418)

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“ (, 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.

The market place today: From botanical water to natural capital

Sometimes research and fashion crisscross each other in interesting ways. Last summer it was obvious when looking at the windows of high-end department stores in Switzerland and Austria that the objects of the 18th century collector were absolutely en vogue. The trend trickled down to widely circulated interior magazines, and curiosities became popular at German and Belgian flea markets. From mounted animals to midcentury plant illustrations to Scottish gin named „the Botanist“ – why that interest in the natural world? One answer could simply be: fashion, and the way it revives and recycles aesthetics from another era, what was rare once now becoming a unique selling point. On the other hand, the tangible quality of a curiosity collection provides a sense of grounding in elite culture, as digitalisation changes the humanities and books seem to be on a trajectory to re-turn into scarce expensive objects.

This spring, there were arguments made at the conference „Materia medica on the move“ to again understand food as medicine in early modern terms, while a Dutch supermarket offers „cold pressed power shots“, for example with curcuma and lime, and a British herb and tea company „organic clean greens“ in powder form, including ginger. In the health and food sector, producers and consumers alike profit once again from the bioprospecting of the 17th and 18th centuries. Different than before, there is an ambivalence about the circulation of neophytes – bad when it changes established ecosystems in Europe, for example, still good to shuffle those cocoa and coffee trees around to match demand.

This re-capitalisation of nature and its objects now ties in with the concept of sustainability on a global scale. To quote from the Guardian:
„Natural capital is everything nature provides us for free. It is what our economy is built on. […] Natural capital should, therefore, be at the heart of economics and economic policy. […] The natural assets that really matter are the renewables […] For the economy as a whole, national accounts need to provide for this capital maintenance as a first call on its revenue.“ (, viewed 16 June 2015)
In this context, the historical objects of botany, especially the surviving herbaria, become re-valued as well. What does that imply for the research agenda in the history of botany?

Lontar: From palm leaf to manuscript

Two weeks ago, in the small reading room for manuscripts from the special collections at Leiden University, a researcher explored scripture on narrow long brown leaves. Both these leaves from a palm tree (Palmyra, Borassus flabellifer) and the manuscript they constitute go by the name of lontar. The technique was characteristic of the literary cultures on Java and Bali especially:

„[…] the library in the sense of a collection of authoritative written texts cared for and consulted by specialists was well known in the precolonial Indies. Manuscripts written on lontar (processed palm leaves) had been produced in the region for many centuries. The fragile medium required careful stewardship. […] More than 19,000 Javanese lontar manuscripts survive today in libraries and museums.“ (E. B. Fitzpatrick, The Public Library as Instrument of Colonialism. The Case of the Netherlands East-Indies, in: Libraries & the Cultural Record 43, 2008, here p. 276)

From 2011 onwards, lontars from Bali have been made accessible via „The Balinese Digital Library“ hosted by the Internet Archive in San Francisco ( Lontar is also part of the cultural parcel that Indonesia will present to the general reading audience at the Frankfurt Book Fair in mid-October 2015.

In his late 17th-century Ambonese Herbal, G. E. Rumpf uses the term lontar for a kind of palm tree under the heading „Jager Tree, or the First Vinous Palm Tree“ (in his Dutch original „Jager-Boom: of de eerste Wyngevende Palm-Boom“, in the Latin translation from the 1740s „Lontarus Domestica, Palma Vinaria Prima, Sive Jagarifera. Lontar“), which he then differentiates into „a domesticall and a wild Lontar“. After the products made of the domesticated tree such as beer and sugar (jaggery) he also describes the use of its leaves as carrier medium:

„The Javanese, Macassarese and other Malay, make paper from the young, whitish leaves of this tree, writing daily letters on it with a stylus, then they fold it along its natural fold lines, lace a thread through it so they can tie it together, just as other nations, where the Lontar does not grow, do with the Calappus tree. This way of writing on leaves was far more common in the olden days, because, with the arrival of and trade with foreigners other paper was introduced, and these tree leaves gradually went out of fashion and are no longer used, so that these days hardly anyone still writes letters on olas and leaves except in Malabar and its surrounding regions.“ (English Translation E. Beekman, The Ambonese Herbal, Vol. I, p. 260)

300 years later, an anthropological film about life on the Indonesian island of Roti centered on this palm tree and was titled „The Water of Words: A Cultural Ecology of a Small Island in Eastern Indonesia“, the water referring to lontar gin (1983, by James J. Fox, Timothy Asch and Patsy Asch, Documentary Educational Resources).

Today, the post-colonial focus is placed on the preservation of lontar as a specific cultural heritage. Rumpf, with the eye of a VOC-merchant turned ethnographer and naturalist, highlighted a seemingly universal process of replacement by market forces at the start of a colonial regime in the late 1600s.

Leaves and Language

Working as a merchant-naturalist on the Moluccan islands in the late 17th century, and collecting information for the VOC in the Netherlands, G.E. Rumpf continually reflected upon the transportation of botanical knowledge from Asia to Europe and therefore about the transformation from plant to paper.

This transformation could be quite literal. For example he described in The Ambonese Herbal how dried banana leaves that had been smoothened with a certain type of shell could be used as paper. It was only suited for messages with a short shelf-life, though: „One can also write letters on them, but they won’t last long.“ (p. 16, vol. 4, all quotes referring to the respective English translations)

As regards the process of putting words on paper, Rumpf described the use of the Writing Fern in a specific alphabetic context: „It has no use in Medicine, but the black stems that are quite old and have withered leaves, are used by the Moors in place of goose quills, to make writing pens, they are perfect for this purpose because they are so stiff, goose quills are a little to supple for their hands when they are shaping Arabian letters.“ (p. 162, vol. 5)

Concerning illustrations, Rumpf organised a couple of lines into a chapter „Some Stones That Can Be Used for Painting“ in The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, mentioning the colours green and white, but not explicitly referring to his own practice of picturing plants (p. 257). At one point, Rumpf grappled with the problem of picturing a wild plant; perhaps he would have liked to have this Petola Leaf included as book illustration later. Because he found it resisting the transformation from 3D to 2D, he pressed it onto a page of his manuscript instead: „I was unable to depict it with either pen or brush because the lineaments on the leaves were too ingenious, wherefore I pasted the entire plant here on a piece of paper, all the more so, because when dried it will preserve its colors better.“ (p. 176, vol. 5)

These reflections are part of his efforts to match the developing empirical formats in botany and to make his findings legible for an educated European audience. Dániel Margócsy has put this problem of standardisation across space, and time as well, into a programmatic question: „In the period before the widespread acceptance of Linnaeus’s binomial system, how do you establish a common system of communication that could ensure your private identifications of plants are understood by your correspondents all around Europe?“ („‚Refer to folio and number‘: Encyclopedias, the Exchange of Curiosities, and Practices of Identification before Linnaeus“ in Journal of the History of Ideas 71 (2010), 63)

In contrast to these difficulties with plants as agents in communication stands Rumpf’s description of a local reading of plants. For the Malay and Moluccans on Ambon, leaves and flowers were part of a precise and, it seems, efficient semiotic system, which he called „the Malay Grammar“ (p. 55, vol. 5) or with a colonialist tint „the Hieroglyphic Grammar“: „The Reader is requested not to laugh too much at such trifles, since here, in the Indies, it is often very useful to understand this Hieroglyphic Grammar, in order not to be cheated.“ (p. 212, vol. 4; also editor’s footnote)

“Delawan“ and “Hollandsch papier“: Materials for practising botany

In the introductory texts to The Ambonese Herbal, Rumphius alluded to the practicalities of book production, writing of a “clean copy”, the manuscript “dressed up in new clothes”, and “the figures, which the first six books are still lacking, but which can easily be bound together at the end of the work” (The Author, to the Book; Preface “To the Reader”; Dedication “The Lords Directors of the United East India Company, in The Ambonese Herbal, translated by E.M. Beekman, New Haven/London 2011, Vol. I, p. 173–181). While he also described his choice of language and the use of scribes, he does not make a note of the paper itself as carrier of information within the spaces of the VOC.

In the introduction to “Document Raj. Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India” (Chicago/London 2012), Bhavati Raman focuses on the “textual habits produced by the force of colonial rule” (p. 4) and the “micropractices of writing” (p. 2), also touching on the practices around the palm leaf. The volume on “Mediating Netherlandish Art and Material Culture in Asia” (edited by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and Michael North, Amsterdam 2014) includes papers on paintings and referrals to prints, but does not have entries on canvas and paper in its index. The material culture of botany, as practiced by Rumphius, occupies the space in between the exercise of colonial rule by using pen and paper and by trading forms of art. The availability of paper was central to the production, transport and preservation of botanical texts as well as botanical objects such as plant parts.

In regard to writing on paper, the introduction to “Ridjali. Historie van Hitu. Een Ambonese geschiedenis uit de zeventiende eeuw” (edited by Hans Straver, Chris van Fraassen and Jan van der Putten, Utrecht 2004) is helpful in referring to the History of Ambon by Rumphius, his practice of duplication/copy, and the materials involved, that is foliovellen and Hollandsch papier. Analysing the paper of one of the surviving manuscripts of Ridjali’s history, Z.J. Manusama has shown that the watermark points to paper production in the 17th century and the countermark to an order placed by the VOC (p. 18).

In regard to using paper for packaging, Rumphius included two descriptions of indigenous practice in the Kruid-boek. In the entry about the “Paper-Giving Fig Tree”, he elaborated: “Sakka Javana is a tree that is not much different from the Ambonese one, its leaves are slightly smaller, and they make a kind of paper from its bark, that is a dirty white and coarse, like our packing paper, called Daluwan in Malay and Javanese; along the entire East coast of Celebes, especially around Tambucco, and on the West side of Cajeli Bay, one will find two kinds of trees that are used to make paper cloth, and differ little, or not at all, from the Javanese Deluwan.” (The Ambonese Herbal, translated by E.M. Beekman, New Haven/London 2011, Vol. III, p. 37/38) In the entry about “The Linen Shrub”, he noted: “These Budjas [paper cloths] also make very good packing paper, for which one otherwise uses Deluwan, which is the coarse tree-paper, for wrapping all kinds of seed, because it is better to keep them in this than in our paper, and it is also easier to fold and bend.” (The Ambonese Herbal, translated by E.M. Beekman, New Haven/London 2011, Vol. III, p. 379)

Specific orders of vellum and paper for map-making, calendars etc. can be found in the VOC-archives in the Nationaal Archief, The Hague, as well as a map recycled as cover for a ship journal. I am interested in learning more about the transport and handling of these materials. How were they packaged and stored (that is waterproofed) on the ships bound for Asia? Was the Dutch paper commissioned by the VOC something like a prized commodity for its merchants in the East Indies? Did the VOC establish new lines of production for paper? And did the quality of local materials influence the writing and packaging of botanical goods to be shipped back to the Netherlands?