“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 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georg_Eberhard_Rumpf.jpg).

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