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? …“


Going Dutch: On research, history, and memory in translation

For my current research on a Dutch text from the late 17th century Moluccas, I identify as a historian in an interdisciplinary project at the Institute of Dutch Language and Literature at the University of Cologne. Yesterday I was working in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in Den Haag, with two volumes of Rumphius’ Ambonese Herbal lying at my desk, when a middle-aged Dutch man approached me about my work. About Rumphius?! In Leiden, surely? The misunderstanding might have originated in me whispering in my mongrel Dutch. On the other hand, with a few conferences in the Netherlands behind my back, it seems to me that research at the interface of art history, colonialism, and early modern history of knowledge is transnationalised, while projects on the „hardware“ of the Dutch Golden Age and one of its canonised figures are imagined only within the confines of patriotism. Leiden, in shorthand, used to be the training ground for colonial officials. So I find myself switching languages and codes, and more often than not missing the default position for academic exchange at a given place and time.

Two weeks ago, the Cologne working group on global history discussed Sebastian Conrads’s take on „Global history for whom? The politics of global history“ (chapter 10 of his 2016 book „What Is Global History?“ – also a shoutout to PhD-candidates Alexander van Wickeren and Melina Teubner for concept and organisation!). Within this field, according to Conrad, English has become the „hegemonic language“, and Asia a „privileged subject of global history writing“. And the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), the Dutch East Indies (Nederlands-Indië), and today’s Indonesia are placed at the fringe, if not even overlooked. The translation of documents from paper to digital records, as for example on the website TANAP (Towards a New Age of Partnership in Dutch East India Company Archives and Reasearch,, accessed 22 February 2017), does not equal resources for translation into English. Sources from the 17th and 18th century were written in Dutch, or Malay using Arabic script, while current research is still published in Dutch and Bahasa Indonesia. In my case, the original Dutch-Latin print version of the Amboinsche Kruid-boek from the 1740s has been digitised (, accessed 22 February 2017), but not the English translation.

Webseite Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, 22 February 2017 (Screenshot eha)

A few hours later, most of us met again for a lecture in the framework of the Global South Studies Centre (GSSC). Marcel van der Linden from the Internationaal instituut voor sociale geschiedenis (iisg) in Amsterdam spoke about „Precarianization, household labour and slavery: a global-history perspective“. As I am looking into the representation of slavery in the texts of the Ambonese Herbal at the moment, his arguments on slavery and capitalism resonated, especially his short case study of Barbados. For van der Linden, the so-called sugar revolution on the Caribbean island made it the first fully commodified society around 1650, regarding both consumption and production, with labour discipline and time management under unfree conditions in the cane fields as precursors to factory norms and scientific management. I was wondering how Barbados compared to Banda Neira at the same time, especially in regard to the tight management of the spice trees themselves – a commodification of live plants perhaps? To pose the question proved rather difficult: How to be concise and understandable at the same time? How to explain the emptying of the land with the genocidal politics of governor-general Jan Pieterszoon Coen in 1621, the establishment of perken (plantations) with Dutch or European perkeniers and Asian slaves, and the ecopolitics of the yearly hongi-tochten (military campaigns drawing local ships and VOC troops) for the extirpatie (controlling by cutting) of nutmeg and clove trees without giving a small lecture myself?

Barbados, it seems, is a stand-in for the British empire, and basic knowledge about its regime in the Caribbean can be assumed. Banda Neira, on the other hand, is a speck on the world map few historians would find immediately. If research in global history is focused on today’s geopolitical powers, and conceptionalised in terms of landmass ruled, whole regions might become marginalised if not invisible. But if development turns out to be a less important analytical category than sustainability in times of climate change, the comparison of island worlds and the discussion of their interconnectedness might be crucial (as Amitav Gosh has sketched in his piece on „What Nutmeg Can Tell Us About Nafta“, New York Times, 30 December 2016,, accessed 22 February 2017).

After my question, Marcel van der Linden retold the history of Banda for the audience in Cologne. He began with describing the monument of Coen in his neighbourhood in Amsterdam and ended with a statement along the lines of „this was not a good part of our history“, thus introducing questions of commemorative culture and morality to the discussion. Ideally, we would have time and space to reflect on our respective academic and cultural settings at such a point.

The Post/Colonial Quality of Spice

In the May issue of Allerhande, the customer magazine distributed by the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, I found this advertisement by Verstegen. It showcases white pepper from Bangka, mace from Ambon and the Banda Islands, and nutmeg from Ambon, with the headline translating roughly as „quality begins at the source“. The short texts in the ad inform readers about the company’s quality management in 21st century Indonesia. They correspond strangely with sections from Rumphius’ Ambonese Herbal, in which he describes how the Dutch East India company (VOC) controlled spice production during the late 17th century. The ad even includes a Rumphius-like plate of the nutmeg plant and fruit. I have juxtaposed these quotes about plant materials becoming cultured spices in between the Indonesian archipelago and the Netherlands here, showing how little the representation of the produce has shifted.

Advertisement in customer magazine Allerhande, May 2016

Advertisement in customer magazine Allerhande, May 2016


Ad on „the warm taste of“ nutmeg:

In the small village of Hila, in Indonesia, Verstegen closely co-operates with a Dutch-Ambonese family that has established a business producing nutmeg here. That way we bring the best nutmeg to your kitchen. And we provide work opportunities and an honest price for the farmers. (my translation)


Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 28:

[…] but the most beautiful stands of Nutmeg Trees are found on Pulo-ay that is no more than 2000 paces long, flat and mostly planted with tall Nutmeg Trees, with some other fruit trees mixed in here and there; they are a delight to the eyes and a pleasure to stroll amongst, and they offer such a beautiful sight that the entire island seems to be one single garden, only surrounded by low hills and some underbrush at the shore, and the latter needs to be maintained in order to keep the sharp seawind from the Nutmeg grove. And though this island lacks fresh water, one will find many Burghers and Park [i.e. plantation] owners living on it, who obtain the requisite water from cisterns, so that Pulo-ay supplies easily a third of what is normally consumed in the world.


Ad on mace as „flower in the kitchen“:

Mace, also known as ‚fleur de muscade‘, which literally means flower of the nutmeg, is the aril of the nutmeg, the kernel of the nutmeg apple. It tastes warm, aromatic, and refines and combines a citrus-like sweetness with a mild bitterness. You can tell best quality mace by its orange colour. For decades, Verstegen has obtained this by ‚our‘ farmers on Ambon and the Banda islands in Indonesia.“ (my translation)


Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 29:

The cleaned Nutmegs are brought home where they presently pry the Mace of with a small knife, trying to leave it as much as possible in one piece; the slaves are well-trained to do this, and do this quite dexterously; this blood red mace is then dried for a few days in the sun, on top of certain squared brick places, that look like wide Altars, where the mace loses its its carmine color, turns a dark red, and finally yellow or orange […].


Ad on white pepper:

White pepper is the ripe berry of the pepper plant. It is more aromatic than black pepper, savory with a sweet aftertaste. The most beautiful Muntok white pepper comes from the island of Bangka [off the coast of Sumatra] in Indonesia. Here, Verstegen trains the farmers to select those berries that fulfill all the requirements. That way, only the best white pepper is filled in our jars: the Superior White Diamond. (my translation)


Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. IV, p. 317:

The people from Tsjeribon [Cirebon on Java] are unfairly accused of soaking white pepper in salt water out of malice, so that nobody can plant them again, but this usually happens to improve and conserve the spice […].


The advertisement presents the company’s involvement in today’s Indonesia as development-driven business co-operation. Rumphius recapped the origins of those relations in one sentence, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 3:

The Nutmeg groves are no longer owned by the old Inhabitants, since they were driven out because of their numerous massacres of the Dutch Nation, especially the massacre in May Anno 1609 of Admiral Pieter Willemsz. Verhoeven, whereafter the entire country was taken by force of arms by General Jan Pietersen Coen, and made into a Province of the United Netherlands, whereafter the Parks were divided among the Dutch and Mestiso citizenry, who have to maintain a large number of Slaves, usually 40 to 50 of them, while the large Parks can have as many as 80 to 100.


How much history does a consumer have to taste?

For the current debate on colonial violence and its legacy in the Netherlands, see those recent publications:

  • Vanvugt, Ewald. Roofstaat. Wat iedere Nederlander moet weten. Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar 2016.
  • Wekker, Gloria. White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2016.

Zwischen Acapulco und Ambon: Zirkulation von Pflanzenmaterial im 17. Jh.

Einleitung: Blickrichtung, Windrichtung

Nachdem die erste niederländische Flotte mit einer reichen Ladung von Gewürzen aus dem indonesischen Archipel zurückgekehrt war, gründeten Händler und Politiker im Jahr 1602 die Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) als erste Aktiengesellschaft der Welt. Die Anfangszeit der VOC ist mit dem Import von Nelken und Muskat aus den Molukken verbunden. Innerhalb dieser Inselgruppe lag der militärisch-ökonomische Stützpunkt mit dem Kasteel Victoria auf Ambon, von wo aus die jährlichen hongi-tochten zur Kontrolle der Plantagen und Unterwerfung der einheimischen Herrscher unter das niederländische Regime in See stachen. (Cf. Nagel 2011) Für die Festigung von Stützpunkten in den Amerikas war die Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie (WIC) zuständig, Zeit ihres Bestehens eine der wichtigsten Akteure im atlantischen Dreieck, die eine Drehscheibe für den Sklavenhandel auf Curaçao etablierte.

Diese Arbeitsteilung der Institutionen und infolgedessen auch die Aufteilung der überlieferten Archive lenken den Blick auf Zirkulationsprozesse zwischen der Metropole Amsterdam im Norden und den Bericht erstattenden Festigungen in Batavia bzw. Willemstad. Auch die Quellengenres wie naturkundliche Texte sind den unterschiedlichen geographischen Regionen zugeordnet, zum Beispiel Maria Sibylla Merians Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium dem südamerikanischen Festland, 1705 in Amsterdam erschienen. Im gleichen Jahr publizierte François Halma auch die Amboinsche Rariteitkamer von G.E. Rumpf am gleichen Ort, eine Studie der marinen Fauna in den Molukken. Merian war mit der Kolorierung der Illustrationen beauftragt. Regionen des heutigen globalen Südens war jedoch nicht nur über die Akteure der Gelehrtenrepublik im Norden miteinander verbunden, wie das zweite große Werk von Rumpf zeigt, das Amboinsche Kruid-boek. Rumpf war 1653 als Söldner im Dienst der VOC nach Ambon gekommen, stieg schnell zum Kaufmann auf, und konnte als Naturkundler auf die Ressourcen der Handelsgesellschaft zurückgreifen. Unter anderem finanzierte die VOC ihm eine Bibliothek sowie Schreiber und Zeichner. Rumpf hatte eine einheimische Frau geheiratet und lebte bis zu seinem Tod 1702 auf Ambon. (Cf. Beekman 1999 und 2011)

In der zu Lebzeiten unveröffentlichten Amboinsche Historie hatte sich Rumpf intensiv mit der Rolle der portugiesischen und spanischen Kaufleute und Kolonisten in Südostasien auseinandergesetzt, als den europäischen „Anderen“ und politisch-wirtschaftlichen Konkurrenten. In zahlreichen Einträgen des Kruid-boek verweist er auf die alltäglichen Effekte der Kolonialregimes im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert: Die Verbreitung von Pflanzen aus den Amerikas auf den molukkischen Inseln und deren Verwendung als Lebensmittel und Medizin. Der Hafen von Acapulco in Neu-Spanien war nicht nur Umschlagsort für ostasiatische Artefakte wie Seide und Porzellan auf dem Weg nach Europa (cf. Gasch-Tomás 2014), sondern diente in umgekehrter Richtung auch dem Transport von Ökofakten nach Manila. Über die Philippinen diffundierten unter anderem Tomate und Cashew in die Biotope der benachbarten indonesischen Inseln.

Diesem pflanzlichen Material zu folgen bietet also die Chance, von einem anderen Ort über Zirkulation als „site of knowledge formation“ (Raj 2013) zu schreiben. Dazu nutze ich im Projekt das Netzwerk als Instrument (cf. Latour 2010). Das Material ist meist in Text und Abbildung repräsentiert (u.a. Digitalisate der Originalausgaben, englische Übersetzung), manchmal als bearbeitetes Produkt in Apothekerschubladen erhalten (z.B. Museum Boerhaave, Leiden) oder als Pflanzenindividuum in einem Tropengewächshaus lebendig (z.B. Hortus Botanicus, Leiden). Ein Zwischending sind die zeitgenössischen Herbarien (z.B. Naturalis, Leiden). Im Folgenden skizziere ich anhand einiger Beispiele, wie im Quellenmaterial Karibik und Indonesien verbunden sind und wie sich daraus konzeptionelle Überlegungen für eine andere Art der „area studies“ ergeben.


Die Möglichkeit des Perspektivwechsels – Ausgangspunkt, Akteure, spaces – sollte nicht darüber hinwegtäuschen, dass sowohl die beschriebenen Prozesse als auch deren Überlieferung ein Produkt des kolonialen Regimes der VOC und des Buchmarkts in den Niederlanden sind. Rumpf’s Lemmata im Kruid-boek beruhen unter anderem auf einer Kenntnis des Lateinischen, sie beinhalten stets den Vergleich mit naturkundlichen Standardwerken aus der europäischen Gelehrtenrepublik (cf. Buijze 2006) und darauf aufbauend erst auch die Diskussion der Verbreitung von Nutzpflanzen zwischen Brasilien, der Karibik und Südostasien. Zu dieser Zirkulation beigetragen hat auch die Möglichkeit der Korrespondenz innerhalb der europäischen Gelehrtenrepublik, für Rumpf ermöglicht durch die Kreuzungspunkte in den Netzwerken der VOC und der kaiserlichen Academia Naturae Curiosorum in Schweinfurt. (Cf. Valentini 1714).

Ein Beispiel für diese Form der Zirkulation findet sich im Text über den „Wild Chili Shrub“ (Ambonese Herbal III chapter 73). Rumpf beschreibt, wie der Name den Transfer einer Pflanze von den Amerikas in die Molukken reflektiert und verweist auf die Standards unter zeitgenössischen Botanikern, die mit dem Austausch von Information über längere Zeiträume und lange Distanzen rangen.

In Latin Capsicum silvestre, in Malay Tschili utan, on Ambon Tschilli abbal, all from the resemblance of the fruits to chilis or Spanish peppers, even though it has nothing in common with it in terms of sharpness and powers, but I want to follow common opinion here, as Herbalists are wont to do, in order to be understood. (Ambonese Herbal III: 417)

Gleichzeitig sind Rumpf’s Manuskripte, Text wie Bild, in Arbeitsteilung entstanden: mit den Zeichnern und Schreibern im Workshop auf Ambon (cf. Leupe 1871), sowie in Interaktion und teils auch Kooperation mit lokalen Informantinnen und Informanten auf den molukkischen Inseln, von Fischern im unmittelbaren Verwaltungsbereich bis zu Adligen in Kriegsgefangenschaft. (Cf. Beekman 2011)

Im Papier als Trägermaterial sind Kultur und Natur, Schrift und Pflanze verbunden. Rumpf hat auch eine Transformation von Blatt zu Papier im Wortsinn beschrieben: Einheimische Schreiber nutzten Bananenblätter, die mit einer bestimmten Art von Muschel geglättet worden waren, als Schreibgrund. Gleichzeitig hat Rumpf die Kurzlebigkeit dieses Materials kommentiert, was sich auch als einen impliziten Kommentar über die Deutungshoheit verstehen lässt: „One can also write letters on them, but they won’t last long.“ (Ambonese Herbal IV:16)


Die Unterstützung der VOC für die Feldforschung von Rumpf war davon motiviert, Medikamente für die Söldner und Sklaven vor Ort zu identifizieren und neue commodities für den Export nach Europa zu finden. Deswegen, und weil Rumpf daran gelegen war, eine möglichst umfassende Studie zu verfassen, sind im Kruid-boek Informationen über die Verbreitung und alltägliche Verwendung von Blüten, Früchten und Samen durch die lokale Bevölkerung gespeichert.

Zum Beispiel hält er im Eintrag über den „Papaje Tree, Male and Female“ (Ambonese Herbal I chapter 44) fest:

People think that this Tree was brought here from the West Indies by the Castillians, wherefore it lacks a Native name as well. […] Both have a mixed shape, looking somewhat like the Indian palm, or Calappus tree, but also like our Fig Tree, and it has all kinds of additional characteristics that do not correspond to other trees. (Ambonese Herbal I: 414)

Nachdem er die Papaya über Interviews und Beobachtung, Sprache und Form, als nicht-einheimische Pflanze (Neophyt) kategorisiert hat, geht er noch auf die Verbreitungswege ein, die Naturkunde, und gleich im nächsten Satz auf den Gebrauch und Nutzen, die Ethnographie:

Place. Since, as I said, this is a foreign fruit, one will find it these days only where European nations live or used to live; and if one sees them in other places, they were brought there by means of kernels either by the Natives or by the birds. They are so abundant on Ternate that the people cannot bear to look at them anymore, calling them pig fodder, because they fatten their pigs on them […]. (Ambonese Herbal I:418)

Der letzte Satz verweist auf die Ambivalenz botanischer Zirkulation in kolonialen Regimes, die bewusst oder zufällig angestoßene Veränderung von Biotopen und damit auch Ressourcen, mit dem augenfälligsten Beispiel der Plantage als Monokultur.


Wie die Pflanzen verbanden auch die Plantagen und die damit einhergehende Verschleppung und Versklavung von Arbeitskräften die indonesischen mit den karibischen Inseln. Bereits in den 1620er Jahren hatte die VOC unter Jan Pieterszoon Coen die Bevölkerung der Banda-Inseln südlich von Ambon ermordet oder verschleppt und die als „Gärten“ bezeichneten Plantagen mit Muskatbäumen unter europäische Verwaltung gestellt. (Cf. van Rossum 2015, Baai 2014)

Als Rumpf’s Manuskript des Kruid-boek in den 1690er Jahren in Batavia kopiert wurde, stellte ein Maler in auf dem Frontispiz für das Auctuarium (BPL 1924, Bijzondere Collecties, UB Leiden) in der Position eines Herren über einen Sklaven dar. Weil Rumpf als Rumphius bis in die 2000er Jahre vor allem eine Figur der Wissenschaftsgeschichte war, ist diese Darstellung des potenten kolonialen Kaufmanns bereits mit der Publikation der Rariteitkamer 1705 von der des bescheidenen, kenntnisreichen Naturkundlers abgelöst worden. Das Frontispiz beruht auf einer Zeichnung von Rumpf’s Sohn Paul August, der seinen erblindeten Vater als Helden in seinem Arbeitszimmer mit allen Insignien einer europäischen Wunderkammer dargestellt hat.

Dieser Rumphius tastet einsam nach einer Pflanze, um sie zu bestimmen. In seinen Texten hat Rumpf jedoch weit über die botanische Taxonomie erfasst, durch wie viele Hände die Arbeit mit und an Pflanzen, unter anderem denjenigen aus den Amerikas, bestimmt war.

Resümee: Nachleben

Der tropische Wald, wie er auf dem Titelbild des Auctuariums repräsentiert ist, lebt als Biotop vor allem im Kruid-boek von Rumpf fort. Rumpf war auch einer der Naturforscher, der im Verband mit Akademiekollegen die Praktiken der Feldforschung etabliert hat. So hat seine Repräsentation einer bereits globalisierten Pflanzenwelt hat immer wieder Handlungen ausgelöst, zum Beispiel zu Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts den US-amerikanischen Botaniker E.D. Merrill in Manila zu einem erneuten Mapping der ambonesischen Fauna angeregt. (Cf. Robbins 1958) Jenseits solcher Dokumente aus der Wissenschaftsgeschichte bieten sich Rezepte und Kochbücher als weitere Quelle an, um die Zirkulation und Lokalisierung von Pflanzen zwischen Acapulco und Ambon, den Amerikas und Asien im Detail zu erforschen. (Cf. das Projekt „Shared Taste“ in Leiden, In der indonesischen Küche hat längst auch die mächtig scharfe Chili ihren Platz gefunden, während in umgekehrter Richtung die Kokosnuss über Manila nach Mexiko kam. (Cf. Harries 2012)


Sound, Touch, and Vision: The Translation of Ginseng from the Chinese to the Dutch

In the „stream of translation“ (Latour) flowing from the island of Ambon, where Rumphius‘ had collected the specimens for the Ambonese Herbal at the end of the seventeenth century, to the city of Amsterdam, where Johan Burman made one editorial decision after the other in the 1740s, the relation of text and image was steadily transformed.

One of the manuscripts kept in the Special Collections of the Leiden University Library (BPL 314) contains a warning for the printer and engraver. Rumphius highlighted questions of vocabulary, punctuation marks and clerical errors for the first, and instructed the second to adjust proportions or to choose from two illustrations of one plant.

In the case of ginseng, the editor made this choice instead of the engraver. Rumphius had made clear that his (mental) image of the plant’s leaves was mediated by a local informant and his paper model:

„A certain Chinese by the name of Suyku, showed me the shape of the [ginseng] leaves anno 1685. He said he was a Chinese Medicus and that he had seen it grow on a certain Lord’s estate, who ordered it brought there from distant places; and the same Suyku cut the plant shape out of paper for me, as best he could remember, and we used it for the accompanying illustration.“

In the manuscript, this coloured drawing is supplemented by a smaller sheet of paper with two pencil drawings of the ginseng plant copied from a Chinese Herbal. Rumphius elaborated on Suyku’s „tale“ as well as as excerpts from the Chinese Herbal that had been „related“ to him, an indication that he did not understand Chinese himself, but someone in his vicinity. It might have been that his wife, a local woman who went by the Christian name Susanna, belonged to the community of ethnic Chinese around Kasteel Victoria.

Ginseng in Rumphius' Kruidboek

Ginseng in Rumphius‘ Kruidboek

In the end, the editor Burman prized his own network node in Amsterdam over that of Rumphius in Ambon. In the plate for the print version, he included yet another image because, as he wrote in his commentary, „they [the copies from the Chinese Herbal] did not warrant such, and since they resembled mostly those by Cleyerus in the German Epheremides, where one will also find others depicted. The one I display in its stead here, was copied in China itself by the Honorable Mayor, N. Witsen, who was a very careful observer of foreign plants, and this is the true and genuine root [..].“

Unfortunately, neither the paper model, a cheap and volatile epistemic thing, nor the copper plate, a solid and expensive object at the time, have been taken from the stream of translation to find rest in one of today’s archives.

– Quotes on ginseng from the English translation by E.M. Beekman, vol. 5, p. 545 ff.
– Slide from my presentation „Between the Exact and the Economic. Material and Illustration the Rumphius‘ Rariteitkamer and Kruidboek, 1670s to 1740s“ at the Conference „Art and Science in the Early Modern Low Countries (1560-1730)“, Huygens ING/Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 17/18 September 2015


Native and foreign, global and local: Moving plant species across empires in the Ambonese Herbal

On the title page of an Ambonese Herbal manuscript, a tall ficus tree takes centre stage, while (presumably) Rumphius in intricate European clothing stands to the right of it, a hat on his head and a paper in his hands, observing a black local man working on the tree in the foreground. In the bottom section there is another illustration, a view of the fort Victoria on Ambon in 1690, seen from the water filled with tall ships flying the Dutch flag among smaller Asian vessels and a palm plantation in the background.

As an author, Rumphius had a strong sense of place, describing specific plant specimen throughout his books. The tree on the title has been identified as ficus virgata according to the Linnean system, but Rumphius had named it “The Domesticall Grossularia or the Berry Tree” (chap. 3, vol. 3 in the English translation by Beekman, like all the following quotations). In the section about the use of the tree he gives the following account:

“When we took the hostile Fort Laäla on little Ceram in 1654, we found a large Waringin tree of this species, it was draped in all sorts of ropes and cords, though most had been cut off because, as we came to understand, such rootlets were chewed, the sap swallowed, and also put on a wound, as an antidote to Macassarese dart poison […].” (p.16)

As the global and the local are connected by the stock figure of the native dressed in a loincloth on the title page, the text of the Ambonese Herbal does not escape botanical globalisation. Having written the history of Ambon for the VOC, Rumphius was well aware of the historical movements within the Portuguese and Spanish empires across continents. Because he wrote about what plants and practices he saw on the spot, he included many references about the circulation and appropriation of plants coming from the Caribbean or South America. Among those was “The Wild Chili Shrub” (chap. 73, vol. 3). Rumphius describes how the name reflects the transfer and reflects on the standards among contemporary botanists who were battling with exchanging information over time and space:

“In Latin Capsicum silvestre, in Malay Tschili utan, on Ambon Tschilli abbal, all from the resemblance of the fruits to chilis or Spanish peppers, even though it has nothing in common with it in terms of sharpness and powers, but I want to follow common opinion here, as Herbalists are wont to do, in order to be understood.” (p. 417).

The Ambonese Herbal also stores information and narratives that have been rewritten since the late 17th century. For example, Rumphius had named the peanut “The Japanese Chamaebalanus” (chap. 54, vol. 4) and explained to his future European readers:

Name. In Latin Chamaebalanus Japonica. In Dutch Japponse Aardakers. In Chinese Thou Thau, that is, Earth-beans, and so also in Malay, Katjang Tana or Katjang Jappon. It is not familiar to the Ambonese. Place. As the name indicates, it was first brought to these Indian countries from Japan, and is now cultivated rather often in Batavia. Otherwise, it grows in Sina, and it thrives in the Land of Macassar. Use. These Earth-fruits are used mostly with tea, presented with other salted and dry Dainties that go with Tea-water, to make you thirsty and make you want to drink that hot water. […] One will find the same plant in our West-Indies, it is described by Piso lib. 4 cap. 64 with the Brazilian name Mundubi. In Portuguese Amenduinas, that is little Almonds. The people from Peru call them Lerio Manobi, or as Nic. Monard. states Anchic. The Spaniards call them Ibimani […].” (p. 474)

Today, the Convention on biological diversity has defined “invasive alien species (IAS” as those “whose introduction and/or spread outside their natural past or present distribution threatens biological diversity.” (, 28 July 2015) In the late 1700s, when the global circulation of useful plants within and across the European empires had started, Rumphius took note of the issues caused by such invasions in his chapter on the “Papaje Tree, Male and Female” (chap. 44, vol 1):

“People think that this Tree was brought here from the West Indies by the Castillians, wherefore it lacks a Native name as well. […] Both have a mixed shape, looking somewhat like the Indian palm, or Calappus tree, but also like our Fig Tree, and it has all kinds of additional characteristics that do not correspond to other trees.” (p. 414)
Place. Since, as I said, this is a foreign fruit, one will find it these days only where European nations live or used to live; and if one sees them in other places, they were brought there by means of kernels either by the Natives or by the birds. They are so abundant on Ternate that the people cannot bear to look at them anymore, calling them pig fodder, because they fatten their pigs on them […].” (p. 418)

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 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.