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.