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)