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 (https://archive.org/details/Bali&tab=about). 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)