Between Asia and Europe: Grappling with the Arts of the Contact Zone

Standing in front of an 18th century collector’s cabinet in a European museum today, the historical objects seem just a material turn away from my historian’s choreography in the exhibition space, trying to come as close to the source behind its glass encasing. By 2017, this is not only the preoccupation of quaint figures in the history of science. Questions of museology, anthropology and aesthetics have been combined in research about encounters with non-European objects in European collections. Within the field of art history, for example, a Max Planck Research Group at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz makes use of the concept of the contact zone as it has evolved from Mary Louise Pratt’s research on literature in the 1990s. (See Eva-Maria Troelenberg. Objects in the Contact Zone. The Cross-Cultural Lives of Things. 2017. Via, visited 10 February 2017). Pratt had defined contact zones as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery”. (M.L. Pratt. Arts of the Contact Zone. Ways of Reading. An Anthology for Writers. Eds. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford 2004, pp. 326–348.)

Researching Rumphius as a pars pro toto for a body of work that has been transported from Ambon to Amsterdam, the question of “who is in contact with the material?” can only be answered with an ambivalent “that depends”. On the one hand, I am working with the representations of botanical material in the texts, starting with the plants and following and analysing the actors connected to them. On the other hand, I handle the materials that carried information and constituted botanical knowledge themselves, profiling ensembles of objects in different social spaces. So there is a historical contact zone with asymmetrical relations of power described in the texts, and a historian’s contact zone experienced in libraries and archives. And there is a hybrid between the two, a historical human actor encountering the texts in the social space of an 18th century library, for example the editor of the Ambonese Herbal. Can this space be described as a colonial contact zone as well? Here’s a small case study on the representation of work with plants and botanical work:

It seems to me that the project of Rumphius, the natural historian, had to be justified in terms of economy for his superiors in the Dutch East India Company, and that is probably the reason why the sections on “use” within the entries in the Herbal contain many descriptions of work and workers in a specific locale, among them the plantation. Repeatedly, the author mentions slaves, and this corresponds with the common and also casual references to slaves in VOC sources such as the Plakkaaten and the Generale Missiven van de Gouverneurs-Generaal en Raden aan Heren XVII. (See J.A. van der Chijs. Nederlands-Indisch Plakkaatboek, 1602–1811. Batavia, ‘s Hage 1881ff. and the digitised versions of the Missiven at, visited 11 May 2017) These texts within the Herbal differ from Rumpf’s representation of knowledge production through his epistolary exchanges with other German-speaking natural historians, which were published in Frankfurt am Main in 1714.

In Rumpf’s letters the focus shifted almost completely from the manual labour to the intellectual efforts of communication as the main way of working for the natural historian himself. The German scholar Michael Bernhard Valentini included eight of these so-called missives in a compilation of texts on the natural history of East India, first published in 1704. (M.B. Valentini. Ost-Indianische Send-Schreiben. Frankfurt am Main 1714.) Valentini was a doctor (archiatrus) at the court in Darmstadt, professor at the university of Gießen, and member of the German Academia Naturae Curiosorum in Schweinfurt. He had access to the missives circulated by other members of the academy, such as Rumpf, and translated texts from the Dutch. Valentini’s book also included an early German version of Rumpf’s research on nutmeg and plantation work on Banda, and it is a passage on the harvest that might have alerted a European reader to the work of enslaved persons. In German it reads: “Zu diesem Werck sind die Sklaven also abgerichtet / daß es sehr behend damit zugehet.” (Valentini p. 84, my translation: “Hence the slaves are drilled for this work so that it proceeds very deftly.”) In the course of the missives, Rumpf mostly referred to locals in the Indian Ocean World by ethnicity and language, but not their occupation. He wrote to Andreas Cleyer on 18 August 1682 of his hope to recruit the inhabitants of Ambon as his informants, but mentioned their unwillingness, as they were not used to many foreigners. (p. 52) On 6 May 1684, Rumpf again referenced “the common man” of Ambon to Herbert de Jager in a neutral tone, but also the “babblers of Ternate” (p. 28f). Three years later, on 20 August 1687, he informed Wilhelm ten Rhyne that his research was slowed down by the lack of capable and efficient assistants. (p. 50)

These missives point to different movements and localisations than the passages on “use” in the Ambonese Herbal, and thus to differing contact zones in the texts: When situated on Ambon, as exemplified by the book’s “thick descriptions”, the collective use of force and bodily work to extract goods for the VOC comes to the foreground. When circulating between Asia and Germany, as in the letters, Rumphius accentuated his individual intellectual effort of gathering correct information and contributing to a body of knowledge. The entries in the Herbal belong to the colonial contact zone of the Moluccas, and the letters to the academic contact zone of libraries in the middle of Europe – and vice versa?

The content of the Herbal was produced in Asia, but the book as object was produced in the Netherlands. If the book is at least a hybrid, then a scholar who was working with the Latin version of the Herbal could be conceptualised as taking an active part in the colonial contact zone. On the other hand, the asymmetrical relation of power prevents contact – i.e. the scholar handling the book and with it the discourse about work and slavery, is not complemented by a counterpart that actively grapples with him, for example a person of colour from colonised lands in the position of academic colleague. The problem then hinges on the conceptualisation of the agency of objects in the contact zone – are these equal to human actors? – and needs to be further explored in that direction.

Material from ‚place‘ to ’space‘: On analogue and digital sources


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? …“