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)

Trade, Ecology, and Plants: Words from the 18th Century Dutch “Indian letters”

In the Nationaal Archief in The Hague there is a handwritten dictionary tucked away in the boxes with the private estate of a late 19th century history professor and archivist (1.13.04 – 1240 – Collectie Heeres). The “collection of words” from 1758 explains foreign terms used in the so-called Indian letters by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that had been borrowed from languages between Persian and Japanese.

Among the various entries relating to plants, there are terms that describe local ecology, hint at the VOC plantation economy and explain the production of nutmeg on the Moluccas (my translation):
“Nut eaters are birds such as doves that swallow the nuts and release them intact, from which nutmeg trees will grow, but the spice shall have no taste”
“‘Parken’ are places where the nutmeg trees stand that are planted regularly […]”
“‘Perkeniers’ are the owners of the parken”
“‘Parreparre’ is a mat on which the nuts are dried and limed”

The list also contains many entries about work under colonial rule, from harvesting cinnamon to the handling of elephants. It mirrors the linguistic flexibility around the Indian Ocean and South China Sea which Amitav Ghosh has revived in his Ibis trilogy. For example, the anonymous Dutch compilation explained “Lascarijns” as “domestic soldiers, also runners, messengers”, while “lascar” in 18th century English referred to “an East Indian sailor” (, viewed 17 June 2015).

This “collection of words” could be regarded as transnational heritage and would merit digitisation and open access to facilitate comparative research.

The Market Place today: From Botanical Water to Natural Capital

Sometimes research and fashion crisscross each other in interesting ways. Last summer it was obvious when looking at the windows of high-end department stores in Switzerland and Austria that the objects of the 18th century collector were absolutely en vogue. The trend trickled down to widely circulated interior magazines, and curiosities became popular at German and Belgian flea markets. From mounted animals to midcentury plant illustrations to Scottish gin named “the Botanist” – why that interest in the natural world? One answer could simply be: fashion, and the way it revives and recycles aesthetics from another era, what was rare once now becoming a unique selling point. On the other hand, the tangible quality of a curiosity collection provides a sense of grounding in elite culture, as digitalisation changes the humanities and books seem to be on a trajectory to re-turn into scarce expensive objects.

This spring, there were arguments made at the conference “Materia medica on the move” to again understand food as medicine in early modern terms, while a Dutch supermarket offers “cold pressed power shots”, for example with curcuma and lime, and a British herb and tea company “organic clean greens” in powder form, including ginger. In the health and food sector, producers and consumers alike profit once again from the bioprospecting of the 17th and 18th centuries. Different than before, there is an ambivalence about the circulation of neophytes – bad when it changes established ecosystems in Europe, for example, still good to shuffle those cocoa and coffee trees around to match demand.

This re-capitalisation of nature and its objects now ties in with the concept of sustainability on a global scale. To quote from the Guardian:
“Natural capital is everything nature provides us for free. It is what our economy is built on. […] Natural capital should, therefore, be at the heart of economics and economic policy. […] The natural assets that really matter are the renewables […] For the economy as a whole, national accounts need to provide for this capital maintenance as a first call on its revenue.” (, viewed 16 June 2015)
In this context, the historical objects of botany, especially the surviving herbaria, become re-valued as well. What does that imply for the research agenda in the history of botany?

Lontar: From Palm Leaf to Manuscript

Two weeks ago, in the small reading room for manuscripts from the special collections at Leiden University, a researcher explored scripture on narrow long brown leaves. Both these leaves from a palm tree (Palmyra, Borassus flabellifer) and the manuscript they constitute go by the name of lontar. The technique was characteristic of the literary cultures on Java and Bali especially:

“[…] the library in the sense of a collection of authoritative written texts cared for and consulted by specialists was well known in the precolonial Indies. Manuscripts written on lontar (processed palm leaves) had been produced in the region for many centuries. The fragile medium required careful stewardship. […] More than 19,000 Javanese lontar manuscripts survive today in libraries and museums.” (E. B. Fitzpatrick, The Public Library as Instrument of Colonialism. The Case of the Netherlands East-Indies, in: Libraries & the Cultural Record 43, 2008, here p. 276)

From 2011 onwards, lontars from Bali have been made accessible via “The Balinese Digital Library” hosted by the Internet Archive in San Francisco ( Lontar is also part of the cultural parcel that Indonesia will present to the general reading audience at the Frankfurt Book Fair in mid-October 2015.

In his late 17th-century Ambonese Herbal, G. E. Rumpf uses the term lontar for a kind of palm tree under the heading “Jager Tree, or the First Vinous Palm Tree” (in his Dutch original “Jager-Boom: of de eerste Wyngevende Palm-Boom”, in the Latin translation from the 1740s “Lontarus Domestica, Palma Vinaria Prima, Sive Jagarifera. Lontar”), which he then differentiates into “a domesticall and a wild Lontar”. After the products made of the domesticated tree such as beer and sugar (jaggery) he also describes the use of its leaves as carrier medium:

“The Javanese, Macassarese and other Malay, make paper from the young, whitish leaves of this tree, writing daily letters on it with a stylus, then they fold it along its natural fold lines, lace a thread through it so they can tie it together, just as other nations, where the Lontar does not grow, do with the Calappus tree. This way of writing on leaves was far more common in the olden days, because, with the arrival of and trade with foreigners other paper was introduced, and these tree leaves gradually went out of fashion and are no longer used, so that these days hardly anyone still writes letters on olas and leaves except in Malabar and its surrounding regions.” (English Translation E. Beekman, The Ambonese Herbal, Vol. I, p. 260)

300 years later, an anthropological film about life on the Indonesian island of Roti centered on this palm tree and was titled “The Water of Words: A Cultural Ecology of a Small Island in Eastern Indonesia”, the water referring to lontar gin (1983, by James J. Fox, Timothy Asch and Patsy Asch, Documentary Educational Resources).

Today, the post-colonial focus is placed on the preservation of lontar as a specific cultural heritage. Rumpf, with the eye of a VOC-merchant turned ethnographer and naturalist, highlighted a seemingly universal process of replacement by market forces at the start of a colonial regime in the late 1600s.

Leaves and Language

Working as a merchant-naturalist on the Moluccan islands in the late 17th century, and collecting information for the VOC in the Netherlands, G.E. Rumpf continually reflected upon the transportation of botanical knowledge from Asia to Europe and therefore about the transformation from plant to paper.

This transformation could be quite literal. For example he described in The Ambonese Herbal how dried banana leaves that had been smoothened with a certain type of shell could be used as paper. It was only suited for messages with a short shelf-life, though: “One can also write letters on them, but they won’t last long.” (p. 16, vol. 4, all quotes referring to the respective English translations)

As regards the process of putting words on paper, Rumpf described the use of the Writing Fern in a specific alphabetic context: “It has no use in Medicine, but the black stems that are quite old and have withered leaves, are used by the Moors in place of goose quills, to make writing pens, they are perfect for this purpose because they are so stiff, goose quills are a little to supple for their hands when they are shaping Arabian letters.” (p. 162, vol. 5)

Concerning illustrations, Rumpf organised a couple of lines into a chapter “Some Stones That Can Be Used for Painting” in The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, mentioning the colours green and white, but not explicitly referring to his own practice of picturing plants (p. 257). At one point, Rumpf grappled with the problem of picturing a wild plant; perhaps he would have liked to have this Petola Leaf included as book illustration later. Because he found it resisting the transformation from 3D to 2D, he pressed it onto a page of his manuscript instead: “I was unable to depict it with either pen or brush because the lineaments on the leaves were too ingenious, wherefore I pasted the entire plant here on a piece of paper, all the more so, because when dried it will preserve its colors better.” (p. 176, vol. 5)

These reflections are part of his efforts to match the developing empirical formats in botany and to make his findings legible for an educated European audience. Dániel Margócsy has put this problem of standardisation across space, and time as well, into a programmatic question: “In the period before the widespread acceptance of Linnaeus’s binomial system, how do you establish a common system of communication that could ensure your private identifications of plants are understood by your correspondents all around Europe?” (“‘Refer to folio and number’: Encyclopedias, the Exchange of Curiosities, and Practices of Identification before Linnaeus” in Journal of the History of Ideas 71 (2010), 63)

In contrast to these difficulties with plants as agents in communication stands Rumpf’s description of a local reading of plants. For the Malay and Moluccans on Ambon, leaves and flowers were part of a precise and, it seems, efficient semiotic system, which he called “the Malay Grammar” (p. 55, vol. 5) or with a colonialist tint “the Hieroglyphic Grammar”: “The Reader is requested not to laugh too much at such trifles, since here, in the Indies, it is often very useful to understand this Hieroglyphic Grammar, in order not to be cheated.” (p. 212, vol. 4; also editor’s footnote)

“Delawan“ and “Hollandsch papier“: Materials for Practising Botany

In the introductory texts to The Ambonese Herbal, Rumphius alluded to the practicalities of book production, writing of a “clean copy”, the manuscript “dressed up in new clothes”, and “the figures, which the first six books are still lacking, but which can easily be bound together at the end of the work” (The Author, to the Book; Preface “To the Reader”; Dedication “The Lords Directors of the United East India Company, in The Ambonese Herbal, translated by E.M. Beekman, New Haven/London 2011, Vol. I, p. 173–181). While he also described his choice of language and the use of scribes, he does not make a note of the paper itself as carrier of information within the spaces of the VOC.

In the introduction to “Document Raj. Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India” (Chicago/London 2012), Bhavati Raman focuses on the “textual habits produced by the force of colonial rule” (p. 4) and the “micropractices of writing” (p. 2), also touching on the practices around the palm leaf. The volume on “Mediating Netherlandish Art and Material Culture in Asia” (edited by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and Michael North, Amsterdam 2014) includes papers on paintings and referrals to prints, but does not have entries on canvas and paper in its index. The material culture of botany, as practiced by Rumphius, occupies the space in between the exercise of colonial rule by using pen and paper and by trading forms of art. The availability of paper was central to the production, transport and preservation of botanical texts as well as botanical objects such as plant parts.

In regard to writing on paper, the introduction to “Ridjali. Historie van Hitu. Een Ambonese geschiedenis uit de zeventiende eeuw” (edited by Hans Straver, Chris van Fraassen and Jan van der Putten, Utrecht 2004) is helpful in referring to the History of Ambon by Rumphius, his practice of duplication/copy, and the materials involved, that is foliovellen and Hollandsch papier. Analysing the paper of one of the surviving manuscripts of Ridjali’s history, Z.J. Manusama has shown that the watermark points to paper production in the 17th century and the countermark to an order placed by the VOC (p. 18).

In regard to using paper for packaging, Rumphius included two descriptions of indigenous practice in the Kruid-boek. In the entry about the “Paper-Giving Fig Tree”, he elaborated: “Sakka Javana is a tree that is not much different from the Ambonese one, its leaves are slightly smaller, and they make a kind of paper from its bark, that is a dirty white and coarse, like our packing paper, called Daluwan in Malay and Javanese; along the entire East coast of Celebes, especially around Tambucco, and on the West side of Cajeli Bay, one will find two kinds of trees that are used to make paper cloth, and differ little, or not at all, from the Javanese Deluwan.” (The Ambonese Herbal, translated by E.M. Beekman, New Haven/London 2011, Vol. III, p. 37/38) In the entry about “The Linen Shrub”, he noted: “These Budjas [paper cloths] also make very good packing paper, for which one otherwise uses Deluwan, which is the coarse tree-paper, for wrapping all kinds of seed, because it is better to keep them in this than in our paper, and it is also easier to fold and bend.” (The Ambonese Herbal, translated by E.M. Beekman, New Haven/London 2011, Vol. III, p. 379)

Specific orders of vellum and paper for map-making, calendars etc. can be found in the VOC-archives in the Nationaal Archief, The Hague, as well as a map recycled as cover for a ship journal. I am interested in learning more about the transport and handling of these materials. How were they packaged and stored (that is waterproofed) on the ships bound for Asia? Was the Dutch paper commissioned by the VOC something like a prized commodity for its merchants in the East Indies? Did the VOC establish new lines of production for paper? And did the quality of local materials influence the writing and packaging of botanical goods to be shipped back to the Netherlands?

Botanical Letters

Starting from G. Rumphius’ Het Amboinsche Kruid-Boek, written on Ambon in the late 1600s and published in Amsterdam from 1741 onwards – how to research historical plants, analyze botanical material culture, and write about the coloniality of a botanical regime?

Ausgehend von G. Rumphius’ Het Amboinsche Kruid-Boek (Amsterdam 1741 ff.), befasst sich das Blog mit Fragen der Wissensgeschichte von Pflanzen allgemein, mit der von tropischen Pflanzen ausgehenden materiellen Kultur, und mit der Verflechtung von Naturkunde, Handel und Herrschaft im molukkischen Raum des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts.

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