“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 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georg_Eberhard_Rumpf.jpg).

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).