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.“ (http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/jun/09/nature-free-put-heart-economic-compensate, 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?

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 http://www.botanicus.org/bibliography/b12081899. 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.