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.

“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).


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)