Burman the Botanist, Digitisation, and Circulation

In the 1730s, in Amsterdam, the desk of Jan Burman was one of the busier nodal points in the network of botanists stretching out from the Netherlands along the routes of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and across Europe. A practising physician and a botanist with the latinised name Joannes Burmannus, he worked on his own Thesaurus Zeylanicus (Amsterdam 1737) while maintaining correspondences for example with Carolus Linnaeus. In the course of the decade, he managed to get access to the manuscript of Rumphius’ Amboinsche Kruid-boek guarded by the VOC and to edit it for publication. At the same time, he worked on the Dutch commentary for Johann Wilhelm Weinmann’s Phytantoza iconographia with its 1.025 colour illustration (Regensburg 1737-1745, digitised version of the Latin commentary here*). The commentary was published under the title Taalryk register der plaat-ofte figuur-beschryvingen der bloemdragende gewassen (Amsterdam 1739-1748).

A couple of months ago I had the chance to work with both Burman’s commentary and the coloured plates at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB) in The Hague. Afterwards, it came in handy to compare my notes and images with the digitised versions. The KB cooperated with Google Books to put an ebook of the Dutch commentary online, which limits complete access to those with a Google account and does not necessarily cater for academic research interests in full. Then I came across a survey by book historian, Shakespearean, and digital media scholar Sarah Werner (@wynkenhimself). In a blogpost she explains her project of an “Early Printed Text Digitization Wishlist” and from my work on natural histories I contributed a request for the Taalryk register because it highlighted some of the problems of digitisation and research on material culture that I have come across. Within a few days someone from the hive mind directed me toward a version of the Taalryk register at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. After reading in the letters between Burman and Linnaeus about the exchange of first print runs, this felt like a 21st century-equivalent of scholarly correspondence.

The Taalryk register is tagged “taxonomic literature” in the KB online catalogue. The Dutch edition of Weinmann’s illustrations – that is Duidelyke vertoning, eeniger duizend in alle vier waereld’s delen wassende bomen, stammen … en uitwassen &c. – combines a Dutch title page with descriptions in Latin and German on the coloured plates (5 volumes accessible in the Special Collections of the KB). The plates might have been produced in Germany and bound into the separate volumes in Amsterdam. The Dutch register then makes the information accessible for a general public in the Netherlands. Upon closer inspection it is also an important source on the cooperation and circulation in botany. For example in the first volume, the dedication to Willem Carel Henrik Friso, “Prince van Oranje en Nassau” (Munich scan 5 to 8), the list of subscribers (Munich scan 13/14), and the preface (voorrede) by D. Albrecht Haller (printed p. 1-32) show the interest in updating botanical knowledge among the elite from physicians to merchants. Burman revised the original text and included information from Rumphius’ Amboinsche Kruid-boek (Amsterdam et al. 1741-1750) as soon as the book matching an entry in Weinmann was published (cf. the entry on Galanga in Weinmann, vol. 3, p. 1-3). Perhaps the bilingual structure of Weinmann’s work encouraged Burman to follow a similar path as editor of the Kruid-boek. Rumphius’ manuscript had been written in Dutch, but the book was finally printed in Dutch and Latin, each page divided into two columns with Latin on the left and Dutch on the right side (cf. the digitised version at the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen). The surviving copy of the advertisement is in Latin only (cf. the digitised version in Geheugen van Nederland). These material questions I have explored further for publication in the framework of the Rumphius-project in Cologne.

*All websites accessed 15 January 2018