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?