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?

A Kruid-boek from the Water-Indies, or writing nature and culture on the Moluccas

A budding interest in the material culture of knowledge circulation between the Netherlands, Indonesia, and German brought me, first, to a case study on tobacco, and second, to the works of 17th century German-Dutch-Moluccan merchant and naturalist G.E. Rumphius. Third, it propelled my new research project into the hybrid space of plants in history. A whole catalogue of questions on colonial botany has grown on me since: about plants and books and ships, about concepts such as epistemic things (Hans-Jörg Rheinberger) and ensembles of things (Hans Peter Hahn), and about migration and the coloniality of bioprospecting (Londa Schiebinger). Hence this blog for presentation, discussion, and networking.

Rumphius’ Het Amboinsche Kruid-boek is a mine of information – on plants and botany as well as their use and representations, both in Asia and in Europe. Written and illustrated in the late 1700s on Ambon, the book was published in Amsterdam from 1741 onwards, including a Latin translation, and it has been digitalized by its six volumes in the 2000s. They are available for download at For those not fluent in Dutch (or Latin) and Dutch colonial history, there is an English translation in print: G.E. Rumphius. 2011. The Ambonese Herbal. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by E.M. Beekman. New Haven/London: Yale University Press and National Tropical Garden. The following Rumphius-quotes in English are all pulled from this edition.

Of course, there are the poetics and politics of colonial botany to be considered, with Rumphius’ Dutch version being part of the literary canon in the Netherlands. The first entry of the first book takes the reader on board of a ship in the so-called Water-Indies: “It is only fitting to appoint the Palma Indica or Cocos Tree Captain of this Ambonese Herbal because, when you approach the Indian Isles from the Sea, you see this tree first, its crown rising above all others.” (p. 189, vol. one) In Dutch it reads: “Angesien de Palma Indica of Cocosboom gemeenlyk den geenen, die uyt zee de Indische Eylanden naderen, met zyn kruyn boven de andere uytsteekende, zoo mag hy met redden tot den Kapiteyn van dit Ambons Kruyd-boek gesteld worden.” And with the second sentence Rumphius establishes his research credentials: “Many have depicted it before me, but it has never been fully described.” (p. 189, vol. one) Again in Dutch: “Hy is wel dikwils, en van veele al lange voor my afgemaalt, dog nooyt ten vollen beschreven.”

That ‘description’ might well be the central challenge in researching this plant material. Its visuality is so prominent, but the (re-)construction and analysis is so much about its haptics. Which leads back to a twist in Rumphius’ story: As naturalist, he was renowned for identifying plants by their parts– with his hands, because he was blind for the last thirty years of his life.

Botanical Letters

Starting from G. Rumphius‘ Het Amboinsche Kruid-Boek, written on Ambon in the late 1600s and published in Amsterdam from 1741 onwards – how to research historical plants, analyze botanical material culture, and write about the coloniality of a botanical regime?

Ausgehend von G. Rumphius‘ Het Amboinsche Kruid-Boek (Amsterdam 1741 ff.), befasst sich das Blog mit Fragen der Wissensgeschichte von Pflanzen allgemein, mit der von tropischen Pflanzen ausgehenden materiellen Kultur, und mit der Verflechtung von Naturkunde, Handel und Herrschaft im molukkischen Raum des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts.