“The reader of the trace”: Colonial materials and mediality

In the framework of the research project on Rumphius at the University of Cologne, I handled botanical and conchological materials that had been transferred or translated from the late 17th century Moluccas to the archives, libraries, and museums of the 21st century Netherlands. These include Rumphius’ manuscripts and printed books as objects in their own right, as well as illustrations and specimens. Also, I analysed historical material represented in Rumphius’ Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet and Ambonese Herbal. In the Herbal, there are many passages on individual plants at a specific place and time, for example “Here in Amboina grows a Jambus Tree in front of Victoria Castle that often bears fruit twice a year […].“ (Ambonese Herbal, 2011, I:32) These little biographies are a result of direct interaction between organism/object, different from the passages across both books where information and  knowledge from third parties is incorporated and passed on to the reader – often from non-European locals forced into the colonial media infrastructure of natural history. I still grapple with the question how I can analyse the material origin, underlying interactions between plants and gardeners, for example, and practices in a non-essentialist and non-binary manner. 

I found a concept to think with in Sybille Krämer’s Medium, Messenger, Transmission. An Approach to Media Philosophy (English translation 2015), in the chapter on “Reading Traces”: 

“The formation of traces is always due to a disruption of order, which is then integrated into a new narrative order by reconstructing the trace-forming event as a story. And the story that corresponds to this reading – and thus the ‘semantic’ of the trace – is dependent on the interests of the reader, who is searching for a way to resolve something uncertain or unknown with the help of this practical and theoretical activity. Reading traces thus means ‘making things talk’, yet things are mute. They only become eloquent – and thus become traces – through the stories told by readers. And there are always many possible stories; traces are thus polysemic.” (p. 177)

“The reader of the trace acts as an addressee of something whose unintentional sender must first be reconstructed.” (p. 177)

In Rumphius’ case, I can see two different approaches to the reconstruction. One within the bounds of natural history, where the unintentional sender might be an object such as a stone or a shell, or an organism such as a cone snail or a shrub. The other one, committed to a decolonial history of knowledge, where the unintentional sender might be an enslaved person working for or a local woman married to the natural historian in question. Both might intersect when oral/acoustic forms of communication are changed into the visual forms of text and image.

Bananas: From Local Food to Global Research

In the second Garden Broadcast at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, the designer Johanna Seelemann talked about the Banana Passport for a single fruit, a joint project with Björn Steinar Blumenstein (more here). While the banana has become an everyday food item, the fruit undergoes a complicated global journey from the tree to the supermarket shelves, and the passport illustrates this process mostly hidden from our perception.

Before, when I spoke about plants between Asia and Europe in the colonial context of the 17th and 18th centuries, moderator Tamar Shafrir had asked me about plants that underwent a transformation when transplanted from one garden into another one, from one socio-cultural context into another. The banana would be just that: Part of the kitchen gardens in the Moluccas, as observed by Rumphius in the Ambonese Herbal, but a rare species in a hothouse in the Netherlands.

When Rumphius and his workshop were assembling the manuscript of the Ambonese Herbal in the late 17th century, he placed five chapters on the domesticated banana plant in Book VIII that is focused on plants used for food and medicine. He remarked that the banana was so widespread and had so many sub-species different in size and taste that it is difficult to describe all of them, as it would be with apples and pears in Europe (chapter 1). The plants were cultivated in the mountain gardens of the Ambonese as well as around the houses, and banana mush was the first solid food given to babies (chapter 3).

In the 1730s, the Anglo-Dutch merchant and banker George Clifford made Carl Linnaeus the custodian of the plants in his collection at de Hartekamp estate in Heemstede. Linnaeus, turned botanist after the completion of his doctorate in medicine, worked together with the gardener Dietrich Nietzel on the best conditions for a banana plant in the hothouse. After a specific plant was able to flower and to fruit, it became the subject of a biography – in 1736 Linnaeus published a small book about the Musa Cliffortiana with two copperplate engravings, one of the potted plant and another detailed one of the flowers and fruits. The book is available in a digitized version on the website of the Linnean Collections, and the second image is available in the Picture Library of The Royal Society. Also, the book has been reprinted in 2007 with a translation from the Latin into English by Stephen Freer and an introduction by Staffan Müller-Wille.

A letter from The Linnean Correspondence shows that the Musa Cliffortiana not only lived on because of its transformation into print, but also as a growing organism. On 28 April 1746, the botanist Johann Philipp Breyne in Danzig wrote to Carl Linnaeus about his own Musa as “granddaughter” of the plant in de Hartekamp. The Letter L0679 has been summarized in English and reads as follows:

Most important, however, is the Musa, which has enriched him with flowers and fruits. In 1740 he received a young Musa from George Clifford, their common patron, together with an elegant Camphorifera tree. Breyne thinks his Musa is a granddaughter of the Musa Linnaeus celebrated in 1736, i.e. in the Musa Cliffortiana. It was flourishing in a small hothouse for a couple of years, but with no flowers and fruits. In September last year all of a sudden, it became eighteen feet high. It has a very robust stem with many flowers and fruits thanks to the newly built hothouse. Sixty tasty fruits ripened successively from the end of January until the end of March. This was the first time the Musa had flowers and fruits in these northern parts. Of course it attracted a lot of curious spectators.

Today, in the global North, the banana might be a houseplant still admired for the shape and color of its leaves, and the fruit is ubiquitous on breakfast tables. But some of the garden spaces in the South have turned into plantations and monocultures, with the cloned “Cavendish”, as Johanna mentioned, threatened by a fungus around the world.

Materia medica in the Water Indies: Categories and Boundaries in Rumphius’ Ambonese Herbal

Presentation at the conference “Materia medica on the move II”
Amsterdam, 4-6 October 2017

Introduction: The Materials of the Ambonese Herbal

As we are focusing on materials on the move during this conference, I would like to start with the Ambonese Herbal as a moving object in different spaces. The different parts of the Dutch manuscript for the Amboinsche Kruid-boek went from the hands of G.E. Rumphius in Kota Ambon via the governor-generals in Batavia to the Heren VII of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, Dutch East India Company) in the Oostindisch Huis in Amsterdam during the 1690s. For almost five decades, the twelve books and the so-called Auctuarium lay still in the archives of the company until the botanist Joannes Burmannus was licensed to edit the work in the 1730s. He provided commentary and translated the Dutch text into Latin. Based on a subscription model, three publishers pooled resources and printed the first bilingual volume in 1741. The last volume of this edition reached the book market in 1750. (Beekman Introduction, p. 93–103)

Back to the original manuscript and the botanical materials represented in text and image: The soldier turned merchant turned natural scholar G.E. Rumphius had assembled the manuscript in the second half of the 17th century on the Moluccan island of Ambon, which was the centre of one of the VOC governments in what is now Indonesia. For his research in natural history, Rumphius was able to draw on the company’s resources, not least among them books sent from Amsterdam for his library. (Buijze) Also, he had access to a kitchen/medicinal garden, as well as illustrators and writers at his command. Because he lived and worked on Ambon from the 1650s until his death in 1702, the Ambonese Herbal was a long-term study of plants on the Moluccas and the surrounding islands. His botanical writing included experiments and recipes for medicine because of the material that he was able to amass in the “Water Indies” for almost five decades: he collected specimens, experienced manifold practices, and heard stories over a period of almost five decades. (Foreword Rumphius) So the Herbal can be read as a repository of information on illnesses and medicines as well. Additionally, the completion of the manuscript relied on non-visual practices of collecting and researching as well as contributions by co-workers: Rumphius had turned completely blind by 1670. (Beekman Introduction, p. 67f.; Foreword Burman, Ambonese Herbal vol. 1, p. 183)

While he had to leave his post as merchant (koopman) and chief (opperhoofd) in Hila on the Hitu peninsula, Rumphius kept administrative functions at Victoria castle/Kota Ambon. (Loderichs, p. 459) In this place, and with the company recruiting the men who wrote and sketched for him, botanical research was naturally intertwined with the business ventures and military exhibitions across the archipelago, within Asia, and between Southeast Asia and the Netherlands. Each of the books of the Ambonese Herbal is dedicated to a certain group of plants, and the individual entries are structured by the subdivisions of description, name, place, and use. Many entries record how botanical material was on the move within and beyond the Indonesian archipelago, on ships between the islands of course, but also between different communities in one place such as Kota Ambon, and how it was transformed into materia medica.

Questions and Method: From Plants to Bodies

The commercial and military context of these interactions raises questions about Rumphius’ “ways of knowing and ways of working” (Pickstone, p. 236), especially about the categories and boundaries he employed to order and represent materia medica on paper. At first glance, the materials were taken out of circulation and fixed along the lines of the emerging botanical taxonomy. But the last part of the texts on “use” often included detailed properties of a medicine, i.e. the tangible effects of its application or ingestion on the human body. As Chris Shilling states, “our bodies also inform the metaphors we use to imagine, understand, and classify the world around us” (Shilling). I am interested in the connection between botanical knowledge and the workings of the colonial regime, in the sense that Pratik Chakrabarti has formulated for the Caribbean: “[…] the need to understand marginalization and violence in the hybrid, networked, and ‘connected’ world and that exploitation is inherent to propinquity.” (Chakrabarti, p. 11) However, I am just starting to write from this angle and therefore looking forward to the discussion about this first case study. Until now, my focus was on the way that Rumphius’ material in general changed hands, places, and forms, so for the materia medica in particular I was looking for fitting examples and a model of analysis.

For this presentation, I will use entries on the ginger family (Zingiberacae) and on Cannabis sativa from Book VIII “Containing Potherbs Used for Food, Medicine, and Sport”, all plants whose derivatives are contextualised in different ways today. As the book’s title suggests already, the uses of these plants were manifold and hybrid, depending on their journey and the intended purpose of a specific preparation made from roots, leaves, or seeds. As medicine, they moved on the border between simplicia and composita, or between anti-depressant and recreational drug. I will use John Pickstone’s schema to parse these entries. While Rumphius was “sorting kinds” (Pickstone, p. 236), he alluded to humorism as well as to the doctrine of signatures, i.e. to established categories of European natural history. When “crafting from kinds”, I will argue, he first categorised the materia medica he encountered in the Moluccas on ethnic and religious grounds, thus aligning his scholarly findings with social boundaries to evaluate, recommend and, where applicable, commodify medicine for collectives.

A word on words: Rumphius uses descriptors such as “our Water-Indies”, “our nation” and “in the Fatherland”, but the idea of a “motherland” seems to me a later imperialist invention. In Beekman’s English translation, “Indies” refers to the company-controlled areas in today’s Indonesia, “Indian” depending on context on the people in the Indonesian archipelago or those in South Asia, and “Moors” refers mostly to Muslims, and thus often to traders of Arabian, Persian or Indian background. And another note on the side: In the captions of the printed original Amboinsche Kruid-boek, editor Burman usually kept a Malay word along with the Latin translation of the plants’ names, which will show up on later slides. (reference to concept of “epistemic violence” by Londa Schiebinger)

Categories: Sorting Kinds as Scholar and Merchant

The Ambonese Herbal was conceptualised with a learned European audience in mind. Rumphius started out writing in Latin, but then switched to Dutch after he lost his sight because potential readers in the VOC were not grammar school-educated like himself. (Loderichs, p. 459f.) When ordering and identifying plant material in the subsections about description, name, and place, Rumphius took to “sorting kinds” within the framework established in Herbals printed and circulated in Europe, among them works from Plinius’ Naturalis historia to the Hortus Malabaricus by Van Rheede tot Draakestein. He referred to earlier representations of material (more text than illustrations) to compare leaves, flowers, and seeds, to add his own observations from agriculture to etymology, and to argue for corrections or re-ordering of taxonomical categories. For example, in the entry on tobacco he stated that “One cannot write much more about Tabaco, since complete books have been published about this plant; I will only add some reflections and experiments which I came upon in the Indies.” (AH vol. 4, p. 149) In regard to movement between places, Rumphius’ approach could be sweepingly global because he had access to information circulated within the company. For example, he wrote about the “Large Ginger” (nl. De groote Gember, lat. Zingiber majus, Malay Alea in the Kruid-boek; Zingiber officinale according to Merrill) that “Travel Accounts report that Ginger grows in Africa, Madagascar, and Brazil” (AH vol. 4, p. 54) – all regions in which Dutch merchants were involved in the slave trade. (Rossum, p. 36f.)

In regard to his own observations and findings, especially in the subsection on the “Virtues and Use” of plants that were popular and abundant in the Moluccas, Rumphius took his time to describe and interpret the specifics. In these sections, his “sorting kinds” was aligned to commercial categories, extending to production methods and markets. The first sentence on the use of the ginger-like “Bangle” (nl. De Bangle, lat. Bangleum, Malay Bangle; Zingiber Cassumunar) is typical for the entries in the book on Potherbs: “This root is counted among the medicinal spices, and it is never used as a food.” (AH vol. 4, p. 48) But these classifications were stable only for a local group of people that Rumphius constructed as stable object of observation. In the colonial situation that the Dutchmen of the VOC found themselves in, bodily sensations changed and categories with them, as the entry on Curcuma (nl. De groote en kleine Curcuma, lat. Curcuma, Malay Cuning seu Cunjet; Curcuma longa) shows:

Curcuma is used in the Indies both as food and as Medicine, for the Indians, especially the Javanese, Malay and Balinese, are so used to it, that they mix Curcuma in all their sauces and sops, especially what is called Karri. It is for our Nation slightly disgusting at first, because in our opinion, it has a salve-like smell, but one gradually gets used to that. (AH vol. 4, p. 62)

Still, even in the networked world of the VOC, there existed impediments to the movement of materia medica in the literal sense. Rumphius noted the problems with the commodification and shipment of the “Large Ginger” for European markets:

This [difficulty to dry the root] is why even today so little dried Ginger is shipped from the East Indies to Europe, except for some that the Portuguese bring to their Country; but the preserved kind is shipped in large quantities, prepared by the Chinese, but the green Ginger is used so much more throughout the East Indies, to wit, the white one as food, and the red as Medicine. (AH vol. 4, p. 52)

Boundaries: Crafting Kinds for Drugs

Against the backdrop of the VOC as a company heavily invested in securing production of valuable commodities such as cloves and nutmeg by military means, and developing into a major player in the intra-regional trade in Asia (Nagel), it is not surprising that Rumphius turned to the medicinal value of plants for local populations and the company men in the Moluccas – “[t]he botanical sciences served the colonial enterprise and were, in turn, structured by it.” (Schiebinger, p. 11) In the entry on the “Small Ginger” (nl. De klyne Gember, lat. Zingiber minus, Malay Alea Padi; Zingiber officinale var. minor), Rumphius made a distinction of medicine along a distinction of bodies according to humorism:

Here you have in general how the Indians use the small Ginger, though I would not want people to follow them in everything, especially in Dysentery and fevers, unless it is a very small amount, for they have on their side some specific evidence which, according to our teaching, should not be made into a firm rule, for the two illnesses mentioned the most by the Natives are usually caused, according to the Native, by cold and intemperance, wherefore, Ginger can be of use there, and for our Nation for its irregular way of eating and drinking, and inflammation of the blood, where it is again not advisable to use Ginger. (AH vol. 4, p. 55f.)

In the entry of the “Large Ginger” he also referred back to European medicinal/pharmaceutical practices to make the process of making medicine understandable and relatable:

The Native Maistresses [nl. Mesteressen, lat. curatricibus] commonly use the same Ginger for all sorts of tonics which they administer internally, but only in small quantities, in order to whet the powers of other Medicaments, just as one adds Ginger to certain purgatives in Europe, to correct them. (AH vol. 4, p. 52)

Here the figure of the local woman as knowledgeable and potential partner to the European merchant or soldier bridges the gap between different ways of knowing and working and hints at the exchange that Rumphius experienced in his own household. He had children with a local woman and here and there refers to his family’s contribution to his work in the Ambonese Herbal. (Beekman Introduction, p. 63ff.)

At the same time, the house is different to the field – in the sense of the fieldwork of the natural scholar, in the sense of the commoners and slaves working the fields or plantations, and in the sense of the battlefield. When (implicitly) “crafting kinds” of drugs – from the plant material, for the medicine he encountered – it was for groups of people with specific tasks or characteristics that came to define the colonial regime. Now I will quote longer passages, again from the entry on the “Large Ginger”, to illustrate this point (all AH, vol. 4, p. 53).

The Inhabitants of Manado eat a small claw of their red Ginger with some other food, on an empty stomach in the morning, then they drink some Saguer, and thus fortified go off to their forest plots. (about workers)

Our close Neighbours, the wild Alphurese of Ceram, are so hardened by nature that they can bear to have the sap of red Ginger squeezed directly into their eyes which, they maintain, clears up their vision, and toughens them for combat […]. (about fighters)

The aforementioned preserve and Atsjar are particularly healthy on Sea Journeys, because the coarse food and the sea air will cause one to get a foul stomach, a stinking breath, and in this Country during the cold rainy months it is very healthy to eat a small claw of this preserve to ward off the heavy and infected air […]. (about sailors and soldiers)

In addition to these practical questions of health and power, crafting drugs also contributed to crafting kinds of people according to the value system and social boundaries of the VOC. In the entry on the “Soncory Plant” (nl. De Soncory Plant, lat. Soncorus, Malay Tsjonckor; Kaempferia galanga), Rumphius introduced questions of morality to the use of materia medica in the colonial context: “On the other hand it can be harmful, whether taken internally, or rubbed on the body, it is so damaging to pregnant women, that it will cause a miscarriage, an art that is as common to the Chinese and other Heathens, as it is wicked to Christians.” (AH vol. 4, p. 74)

In this train of thought, he dedicated large parts of the entry on “Indian Hemp” (nl. De Indische Hennip, lat. Cannabis Indica, Malay Ginji; Cannabis sativa) to the use of Cannabis between, in modern wording, medicine for psychosomatic symptoms and recreational drug. Rumphius attributed the drug use to – for him in this text – distinct groups of people, all different from the Dutch he identified with:

The Moors throughout the Indies use these leaves and seeds a great deal because, according to them, it relieves their minds of great fears dread, and anxieties, and brings delights and makes for diverting dreams, as the Ancients said their Nepenthes did. (AH vol. 4, p. 125)

The Malay call this dizzy drunkenness Hayal, saying that it is an attribute or habit befitting their Kings, who otherwise would not be able to bear the burdens and cares of government if they could not at times get Hayal from this or similar Drugs. (AH vol. 4, p. 126)

By pointing out the bodily effects of the drug, he stressed the loss of control among the users:

I have seen those who smoke it with Tobacco become totally enraged and only want to fight and hit. Others, with moister and more melancholy humours, began to cry, grimace, howbeit they threatened as well. (AH vol. 4, p. 125)

This observation extended to sexual performance as well, explicitly used to deride Muslim men. When turning to the preparation of other forms of medicine from Hemp, Rumphius still used religious and ethnic descriptors and repeatedly pointed out the connection to sexual practices. Again, I quote longer passages:

The Moors from Hitu took the root of the male or flower-bearing plant (which in European herbals are not readily distinguished) from my garden, and gave it to eat to those who were held in the grip of Gonorrhea, and they also gave the green leaves of the female plant, cooked in water with Nutmeg, to folks who felt a great oppression and stabs in their chests, as if they had Pleuritis. […] The leaves of the male plant, pulverized and taken internally, stop looseness of the bowels, improves a weak stomach, cures the native illness called Pitao, as explained by Commelin, and tempers the bile. (AH vol. 4, p. 126)

When the smoke of this powder is used instead of Tobacco, it makes one drunk, but if mixed with Tobacco, and applied to the lower parts, it will cure a Hernia. Eating the leaves will retard the natural seed when lying with a woman, which is why it is much sought after by the Moors […]. The flowers have similar virtues, and when mixed with other stimulating items and baked into cookies, fortify the genitals. The male was held to be more powerful in every aspect than the female plant. (AH vol. 4, p. 127)

In this chapter, Rumphius came close to the later literary techniques of othering and orientalising in crafting kinds of drugs and people. And yet, in contrast to the various chapters on the ginger family, Rumphius did not give unambiguous advice about hemp. The part on the preparation of medicine could be read as condemnation – or as instruction.

Conclusion: Ways of Working and Ways of Knowing

This brief analysis into Rumphius’ practice of “sorting kinds” has shown that his way of knowing cannot be separated from his way of working within a colonial regime. The focus on materia medica moving within the VOC shifts questions the reading of the history of botany in the way that Pratik Chakrabarti has suggested – “as narratives of intellectual attainment, colonial enrichment”, as in my case here, and beyond “also as tragic displacements and dislocation?” (Chakrabarti, p. 15), in my future focus on enslaved people represented in the Herbal.

The examples from Rumphius’ colonial practice of “crafting kinds” point to the security and bio-politics of later imperial governments. In her latest book about the connections between the colonial past and the colonial present, Ann Laura Stoler briefly mentions the “expeditions that collected flora, fauna, and ethnographic exoticisms across the seas” and that “these, too, were critical in shaping the qualified knowledge used to make colonial projects work”. (Stoler, p. 11) The circulation and impact of the Ambonese Herbal as the result of an intensive long-term study outside of European academic spaces, and therefore as source on the construction of taxonomic categories as well social boundaries, remains to be analysed.


The Ambonese Herbal. Georgious Everhardus Rumphius. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by E.M. Beekman. New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2011, vol. 4.

Beekman, E.M. Introduction. The Ambonese Herbal. Georgious Everhardus Rumphius. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by E.M. Beekman. New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2011, vol. 1.

Buijze, W. Rumphius’ Bibliotheek op Ambon 1654–1702. Een biografisch lexicon van wetenschappelijke contacten destijds in Azië en vanuit Azië met Europa. (S.l.) 2004.

Chakrabarti, Pratik. Materials and Medicine. Trade, Conquests and Therapeutics in the Eighteenth Century. Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press 2010.

Loderichs, Mark. Naar dat iemand schrander is in het bespiegelen. Rumphius als wetenschapper en schrijver. Rumphius’ wonderwereld. Zeventiende-eeuwse natuurbeschrijvingen uit Ambon. Gekozen, geannoteerd en van een nawoord voorzien door Mark Loderichs. Zutphen: Walburg Pers 2004.

Merrill, E.D. An Interpretation of Rumphius’s Herbarium Amboinense. Manila: Bureau of Printing 1917.

Nagel, Jürgen. Abenteuer Fernhandel. Die Ostindienkompanien. 2nd ed. Darmstadt/Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern 2011.

Pickstone, John V. A Brief Introduction to Ways of Knowing and Ways of Working. Hist. Sci. xlix (2011), 235–245.

Rossum, Matthias van. Kleurrijke tragiek. De geschiedenis van slavernij in Azië onder de VOC. Hilversum: Verloren 2015 (Zeven Provinciën Reeks, 35).

Rumphius, G.E. Het Amboinsche Kruid-boek. Amsterdam e.a.: François Changuion e.a. 1741ff.

Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire. Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlanctic World. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press 2004.

Shilling, Chris. The Body A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Duress. Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham/London: Duke University Press 2016.

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

Present in the Ruins of Empire. A Visual Essay from Lisbon and Sintra

“Ruins are not just found; they are made. They become repositories of public knowledge and new concentrations of public declaration.”

“One task of a renewed (post)colonial studies would be to sharpen our senses and sense of how to track the tangibilities of empire as effective histories of the present.”


from Ann Laura Stoler. Duress. Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham/London 2016, p. 364 and p. 378.

by Esther Helena Arens, Lisbon (Belém, Jardim Botânico Tropical, Museu de Marinha, Museu Nacional de História e da Ciência) and Sintra (Palácio Nacional da Pena), December 2017.

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 http://www.khi.fi.it/67831/troelenberg_objects, 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 http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vocgeneralemissiven, 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.

Southern Perspectives? With Merian to Suriname and Back

As a historian of early modern history, I do research, but not field work. I converse with archivists and librarians as guides to the material, but not with eye witnesses or activists. In writing, I am also bound to certain academic genres and formats. If I experience the phenomenon someone has called “felt presence” in texts and objects, I can speculate, but the material is rarely eligible for re-construction and analysis in my publications. At the Merian conference 2017 in Amsterdam in June, with its focus on “intersections”, two artists from the fields of literature and visual arts presented work about and with locals and covered terrain that neither the academy nor popular science, with its traditional focus on colonial exploration and adventure narratives, usually tread on.

The poet Cindy Snow from Massachusetts, US presented poems from a series in progress that is based on intensive examination of Merian’s illustrations. Snow read a memorable poem imagined from the perspective of a fictional Arawak woman working for Maria Sybilla Merian during her stay in Suriname. An “informant” in the lingo of the history of science and knowledge, the Arawak person became an individual woman with the specific experience of abortion that made her avoid the peacock bush, hardly able to provide the sample she was repeatedly asked and reprimanded for.

The Dutch visual artist Joos van de Plas has based her ongoing revisitation of Merian’s work on her own research in Suriname, and her artist’s laboratory with caterpillars, pupae and butterflies. Van de Plas spoke of her “lifelong fascination with the process of metamorphosis, both in the literal and the metaphorical sense”. In the photographs accompanying her talk and artwork, black and brown people collect samples in the field, sketch, and interpret their findings in the office or lab. It was a mosaic of photographs with Surinamese locals in the position of researchers and experts, yet they did not speak at the conference. Also, the artist showed a film of her trip to a plantation mentioned by Merian, guided by a local man knowledgeable about the history of the place. It is deep in the woods today, and he had excavated a few objects from the Dutch past in a kind of post-colonial archaeology. His was the only Surinamese voice to be heard during the conference.

Many materials relevant for the history of science today were collected in the global South in the 17th and 18th centuries and have since been preserved in the spaces of arts and science within Europe. Research is rarely re-oriented and conceptualised including a Surinamese perspective, for example, or the perspective of women of colour, sometimes for lack of written records and unfamiliarity with other source material. So, in this context, it was refreshing to at least hear about different practices and alternate stories stemming from the historic objects and to reflect on different cultures of knowledge.

Where to go from here? Art provides a chance for the re-imagination of academic endeavours as shared history. Reflections on visibility and representation should be the first step towards future project and workshop designs developed together with researchers from Suriname, for example, or connecting historians of science with heritage specialists and activists in public history.

(First published 10 August, amended 23 August 2017)

Program of the Maria Sibylla Merian Conference 2017 
About the work of poet Cindy Snow 
Website of artist Joos van de Plas

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, http://www.tanap.net, 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 (http://gdz.sub.uni-goettingen.de/dms/load/toc/?PPN=PPN369544501&IDDOC=235099, 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, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/30/opinion/sunday/clove-trees-the-color-of-ash.html?_r=0, 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.