“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.

“The Blind Seer” and his Hands: The Relation of Image and Knowledge in Botany

In one of the preliminary texts to the Amboinsche Kruidboek (Ambonese Herbal), its author Rumphius described his physical blindness as a consequence of prolonged exposure to the equatorial sun: “This walking in the heat of the Sun caused my sight to be struck to such an extent by a Suffusion or Cataracta Nigra, that I had lost most of it within three months.” (Preface “To the Reader”, English translation by E.M. Beekman, vol. I, p. 176)

This explanation has been picked up when Rumphius was revived as a national hero in the late nineteenth-century Netherlands. The narrative that was established by historians of science such as P.A. Leupe in his 1871 biography “Georgius Everhardus Rumphius. Ambonsch natuurkundige der 17de eeuw” and codified in the Rumphius Gedenkboek (Memorial Volume) published by the Koloniaal Museum in Haarlem in 1902, presents Rumphius as a tireless natural scholar defying both his own ill body and the metaphorical corrupt body of the Dutch East India Company. In 1944, G. Ballantijn published his biography “Rumphius. De blinde ziener van Ambon”, the blind seer of Ambon. Image and narrative are compounded by the 18th century engraving of a haggard Rumphius with dead eyes confined to his study classifying specimens by touching them (available in digitised form at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georg_Eberhard_Rumpf.jpg).

Not a historian of medicine, I am wondering if the blindness might have been a symptom of syphilis. As far as I have read at the moment, this possibility has not been discussed yet, either because it is too far off or because heroisation excludes a sexually transmitted disease and the uncomfortable follow-up question if the soldier-merchant Rumpf had been engaged in prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation in the context of colonial wars and administration on the Moluccas. This figuration of a more potent company scholar is depicted on the title page for the Auctuarium of the Herbal that was copied in Batavia in the 1690s (Bijzondere Collecties Leiden, BPL 1924, vol. II, digitized version available via the online catalogue).

Because Rumphius had constantly been in the field of botanical exploration for at least two decades, he had stored so many mental images in his mind and tacit knowledge in his hands that further “Erkenntnis” – perception, insight, knowledge – was probable even without eyesight. In 1740, the Herbal’s editor Johannes Burman noted in his preface “To the Benevolent Reader and True Practicioners of Botany”:

“[…] many a time I heard from trustworthy People who at the time lived in those Parts, that this great Man was so skilled in his work, that at the time all sorts of Plants that were unknown to other people, were sent to him from the remotest parts of the Indies, even though he was already robbed of his vision and of the light of the day. He could discover the leaves, fruits, or seeds from the smell, taste, shape, or other attributes, and assign them to their proper genus, which surely shows a most amazing knowledge and perspicacity.” (English translation by E.M. Beekman, vol. I, p. 183).