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

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, 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, 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.

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,, 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 (, 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,, 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.

The Post/Colonial Quality of Spice

In the May issue of Allerhande, the customer magazine distributed by the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, I found this advertisement by Verstegen. It showcases white pepper from Bangka, mace from Ambon and the Banda Islands, and nutmeg from Ambon, with the headline translating roughly as “quality begins at the source”. The short texts in the ad inform readers about the company’s quality management in 21st century Indonesia. They correspond strangely with sections from Rumphius’ Ambonese Herbal, in which he describes how the Dutch East India company (VOC) controlled spice production during the late 17th century. The ad even includes a Rumphius-like plate of the nutmeg plant and fruit. I have juxtaposed these quotes about plant materials becoming cultured spices in between the Indonesian archipelago and the Netherlands here, showing how little the representation of the produce has shifted.

Advertisement in customer magazine Allerhande, May 2016
Advertisement in customer magazine Allerhande, May 2016


Ad on “the warm taste of” nutmeg:

In the small village of Hila, in Indonesia, Verstegen closely co-operates with a Dutch-Ambonese family that has established a business producing nutmeg here. That way we bring the best nutmeg to your kitchen. And we provide work opportunities and an honest price for the farmers. (my translation)


Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 28:

[…] but the most beautiful stands of Nutmeg Trees are found on Pulo-ay that is no more than 2000 paces long, flat and mostly planted with tall Nutmeg Trees, with some other fruit trees mixed in here and there; they are a delight to the eyes and a pleasure to stroll amongst, and they offer such a beautiful sight that the entire island seems to be one single garden, only surrounded by low hills and some underbrush at the shore, and the latter needs to be maintained in order to keep the sharp seawind from the Nutmeg grove. And though this island lacks fresh water, one will find many Burghers and Park [i.e. plantation] owners living on it, who obtain the requisite water from cisterns, so that Pulo-ay supplies easily a third of what is normally consumed in the world.


Ad on mace as “flower in the kitchen”:

Mace, also known as ‘fleur de muscade’, which literally means flower of the nutmeg, is the aril of the nutmeg, the kernel of the nutmeg apple. It tastes warm, aromatic, and refines and combines a citrus-like sweetness with a mild bitterness. You can tell best quality mace by its orange colour. For decades, Verstegen has obtained this by ‘our’ farmers on Ambon and the Banda islands in Indonesia.” (my translation)


Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 29:

The cleaned Nutmegs are brought home where they presently pry the Mace of with a small knife, trying to leave it as much as possible in one piece; the slaves are well-trained to do this, and do this quite dexterously; this blood red mace is then dried for a few days in the sun, on top of certain squared brick places, that look like wide Altars, where the mace loses its its carmine color, turns a dark red, and finally yellow or orange […].


Ad on white pepper:

White pepper is the ripe berry of the pepper plant. It is more aromatic than black pepper, savory with a sweet aftertaste. The most beautiful Muntok white pepper comes from the island of Bangka [off the coast of Sumatra] in Indonesia. Here, Verstegen trains the farmers to select those berries that fulfill all the requirements. That way, only the best white pepper is filled in our jars: the Superior White Diamond. (my translation)


Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. IV, p. 317:

The people from Tsjeribon [Cirebon on Java] are unfairly accused of soaking white pepper in salt water out of malice, so that nobody can plant them again, but this usually happens to improve and conserve the spice […].


The advertisement presents the company’s involvement in today’s Indonesia as development-driven business co-operation. Rumphius recapped the origins of those relations in one sentence, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 3:

The Nutmeg groves are no longer owned by the old Inhabitants, since they were driven out because of their numerous massacres of the Dutch Nation, especially the massacre in May Anno 1609 of Admiral Pieter Willemsz. Verhoeven, whereafter the entire country was taken by force of arms by General Jan Pietersen Coen, and made into a Province of the United Netherlands, whereafter the Parks were divided among the Dutch and Mestiso citizenry, who have to maintain a large number of Slaves, usually 40 to 50 of them, while the large Parks can have as many as 80 to 100.


How much history does a consumer have to taste?

For the current debate on colonial violence and its legacy in the Netherlands, see those recent publications:

  • Vanvugt, Ewald. Roofstaat. Wat iedere Nederlander moet weten. Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar 2016.
  • Wekker, Gloria. White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2016.

Zwischen Acapulco und Ambon: Zirkulation von Pflanzenmaterial im 17. Jh.

Einleitung: Blickrichtung, Windrichtung

Nachdem die erste niederländische Flotte mit einer reichen Ladung von Gewürzen aus dem indonesischen Archipel zurückgekehrt war, gründeten Händler und Politiker im Jahr 1602 die Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) als erste Aktiengesellschaft der Welt. Die Anfangszeit der VOC ist mit dem Import von Nelken und Muskat aus den Molukken verbunden. Innerhalb dieser Inselgruppe lag der militärisch-ökonomische Stützpunkt mit dem Kasteel Victoria auf Ambon, von wo aus die jährlichen hongi-tochten zur Kontrolle der Plantagen und Unterwerfung der einheimischen Herrscher unter das niederländische Regime in See stachen. (Cf. Nagel 2011) Für die Festigung von Stützpunkten in den Amerikas war die Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie (WIC) zuständig, Zeit ihres Bestehens eine der wichtigsten Akteure im atlantischen Dreieck, die eine Drehscheibe für den Sklavenhandel auf Curaçao etablierte.

Diese Arbeitsteilung der Institutionen und infolgedessen auch die Aufteilung der überlieferten Archive lenken den Blick auf Zirkulationsprozesse zwischen der Metropole Amsterdam im Norden und den Bericht erstattenden Festigungen in Batavia bzw. Willemstad. Auch die Quellengenres wie naturkundliche Texte sind den unterschiedlichen geographischen Regionen zugeordnet, zum Beispiel Maria Sibylla Merians Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium dem südamerikanischen Festland, 1705 in Amsterdam erschienen. Im gleichen Jahr publizierte François Halma auch die Amboinsche Rariteitkamer von G.E. Rumpf am gleichen Ort, eine Studie der marinen Fauna in den Molukken. Merian war mit der Kolorierung der Illustrationen beauftragt. Regionen des heutigen globalen Südens war jedoch nicht nur über die Akteure der Gelehrtenrepublik im Norden miteinander verbunden, wie das zweite große Werk von Rumpf zeigt, das Amboinsche Kruid-boek. Rumpf war 1653 als Söldner im Dienst der VOC nach Ambon gekommen, stieg schnell zum Kaufmann auf, und konnte als Naturkundler auf die Ressourcen der Handelsgesellschaft zurückgreifen. Unter anderem finanzierte die VOC ihm eine Bibliothek sowie Schreiber und Zeichner. Rumpf hatte eine einheimische Frau geheiratet und lebte bis zu seinem Tod 1702 auf Ambon. (Cf. Beekman 1999 und 2011)

In der zu Lebzeiten unveröffentlichten Amboinsche Historie hatte sich Rumpf intensiv mit der Rolle der portugiesischen und spanischen Kaufleute und Kolonisten in Südostasien auseinandergesetzt, als den europäischen „Anderen“ und politisch-wirtschaftlichen Konkurrenten. In zahlreichen Einträgen des Kruid-boek verweist er auf die alltäglichen Effekte der Kolonialregimes im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert: Die Verbreitung von Pflanzen aus den Amerikas auf den molukkischen Inseln und deren Verwendung als Lebensmittel und Medizin. Der Hafen von Acapulco in Neu-Spanien war nicht nur Umschlagsort für ostasiatische Artefakte wie Seide und Porzellan auf dem Weg nach Europa (cf. Gasch-Tomás 2014), sondern diente in umgekehrter Richtung auch dem Transport von Ökofakten nach Manila. Über die Philippinen diffundierten unter anderem Tomate und Cashew in die Biotope der benachbarten indonesischen Inseln.

Diesem pflanzlichen Material zu folgen bietet also die Chance, von einem anderen Ort über Zirkulation als „site of knowledge formation“ (Raj 2013) zu schreiben. Dazu nutze ich im Projekt das Netzwerk als Instrument (cf. Latour 2010). Das Material ist meist in Text und Abbildung repräsentiert (u.a. Digitalisate der Originalausgaben, englische Übersetzung), manchmal als bearbeitetes Produkt in Apothekerschubladen erhalten (z.B. Museum Boerhaave, Leiden) oder als Pflanzenindividuum in einem Tropengewächshaus lebendig (z.B. Hortus Botanicus, Leiden). Ein Zwischending sind die zeitgenössischen Herbarien (z.B. Naturalis, Leiden). Im Folgenden skizziere ich anhand einiger Beispiele, wie im Quellenmaterial Karibik und Indonesien verbunden sind und wie sich daraus konzeptionelle Überlegungen für eine andere Art der „area studies“ ergeben.


Die Möglichkeit des Perspektivwechsels – Ausgangspunkt, Akteure, spaces – sollte nicht darüber hinwegtäuschen, dass sowohl die beschriebenen Prozesse als auch deren Überlieferung ein Produkt des kolonialen Regimes der VOC und des Buchmarkts in den Niederlanden sind. Rumpf’s Lemmata im Kruid-boek beruhen unter anderem auf einer Kenntnis des Lateinischen, sie beinhalten stets den Vergleich mit naturkundlichen Standardwerken aus der europäischen Gelehrtenrepublik (cf. Buijze 2006) und darauf aufbauend erst auch die Diskussion der Verbreitung von Nutzpflanzen zwischen Brasilien, der Karibik und Südostasien. Zu dieser Zirkulation beigetragen hat auch die Möglichkeit der Korrespondenz innerhalb der europäischen Gelehrtenrepublik, für Rumpf ermöglicht durch die Kreuzungspunkte in den Netzwerken der VOC und der kaiserlichen Academia Naturae Curiosorum in Schweinfurt. (Cf. Valentini 1714).

Ein Beispiel für diese Form der Zirkulation findet sich im Text über den „Wild Chili Shrub“ (Ambonese Herbal III chapter 73). Rumpf beschreibt, wie der Name den Transfer einer Pflanze von den Amerikas in die Molukken reflektiert und verweist auf die Standards unter zeitgenössischen Botanikern, die mit dem Austausch von Information über längere Zeiträume und lange Distanzen rangen.

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. (Ambonese Herbal III: 417)

Gleichzeitig sind Rumpf’s Manuskripte, Text wie Bild, in Arbeitsteilung entstanden: mit den Zeichnern und Schreibern im Workshop auf Ambon (cf. Leupe 1871), sowie in Interaktion und teils auch Kooperation mit lokalen Informantinnen und Informanten auf den molukkischen Inseln, von Fischern im unmittelbaren Verwaltungsbereich bis zu Adligen in Kriegsgefangenschaft. (Cf. Beekman 2011)

Im Papier als Trägermaterial sind Kultur und Natur, Schrift und Pflanze verbunden. Rumpf hat auch eine Transformation von Blatt zu Papier im Wortsinn beschrieben: Einheimische Schreiber nutzten Bananenblätter, die mit einer bestimmten Art von Muschel geglättet worden waren, als Schreibgrund. Gleichzeitig hat Rumpf die Kurzlebigkeit dieses Materials kommentiert, was sich auch als einen impliziten Kommentar über die Deutungshoheit verstehen lässt: „One can also write letters on them, but they won’t last long.“ (Ambonese Herbal IV:16)


Die Unterstützung der VOC für die Feldforschung von Rumpf war davon motiviert, Medikamente für die Söldner und Sklaven vor Ort zu identifizieren und neue commodities für den Export nach Europa zu finden. Deswegen, und weil Rumpf daran gelegen war, eine möglichst umfassende Studie zu verfassen, sind im Kruid-boek Informationen über die Verbreitung und alltägliche Verwendung von Blüten, Früchten und Samen durch die lokale Bevölkerung gespeichert.

Zum Beispiel hält er im Eintrag über den „Papaje Tree, Male and Female“ (Ambonese Herbal I chapter 44) fest:

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. (Ambonese Herbal I: 414)

Nachdem er die Papaya über Interviews und Beobachtung, Sprache und Form, als nicht-einheimische Pflanze (Neophyt) kategorisiert hat, geht er noch auf die Verbreitungswege ein, die Naturkunde, und gleich im nächsten Satz auf den Gebrauch und Nutzen, die Ethnographie:

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 […]. (Ambonese Herbal I:418)

Der letzte Satz verweist auf die Ambivalenz botanischer Zirkulation in kolonialen Regimes, die bewusst oder zufällig angestoßene Veränderung von Biotopen und damit auch Ressourcen, mit dem augenfälligsten Beispiel der Plantage als Monokultur.


Wie die Pflanzen verbanden auch die Plantagen und die damit einhergehende Verschleppung und Versklavung von Arbeitskräften die indonesischen mit den karibischen Inseln. Bereits in den 1620er Jahren hatte die VOC unter Jan Pieterszoon Coen die Bevölkerung der Banda-Inseln südlich von Ambon ermordet oder verschleppt und die als „Gärten“ bezeichneten Plantagen mit Muskatbäumen unter europäische Verwaltung gestellt. (Cf. van Rossum 2015, Baai 2014)

Als Rumpf’s Manuskript des Kruid-boek in den 1690er Jahren in Batavia kopiert wurde, stellte ein Maler in auf dem Frontispiz für das Auctuarium (BPL 1924, Bijzondere Collecties, UB Leiden) in der Position eines Herren über einen Sklaven dar. Weil Rumpf als Rumphius bis in die 2000er Jahre vor allem eine Figur der Wissenschaftsgeschichte war, ist diese Darstellung des potenten kolonialen Kaufmanns bereits mit der Publikation der Rariteitkamer 1705 von der des bescheidenen, kenntnisreichen Naturkundlers abgelöst worden. Das Frontispiz beruht auf einer Zeichnung von Rumpf’s Sohn Paul August, der seinen erblindeten Vater als Helden in seinem Arbeitszimmer mit allen Insignien einer europäischen Wunderkammer dargestellt hat.

Dieser Rumphius tastet einsam nach einer Pflanze, um sie zu bestimmen. In seinen Texten hat Rumpf jedoch weit über die botanische Taxonomie erfasst, durch wie viele Hände die Arbeit mit und an Pflanzen, unter anderem denjenigen aus den Amerikas, bestimmt war.

Resümee: Nachleben

Der tropische Wald, wie er auf dem Titelbild des Auctuariums repräsentiert ist, lebt als Biotop vor allem im Kruid-boek von Rumpf fort. Rumpf war auch einer der Naturforscher, der im Verband mit Akademiekollegen die Praktiken der Feldforschung etabliert hat. So hat seine Repräsentation einer bereits globalisierten Pflanzenwelt hat immer wieder Handlungen ausgelöst, zum Beispiel zu Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts den US-amerikanischen Botaniker E.D. Merrill in Manila zu einem erneuten Mapping der ambonesischen Fauna angeregt. (Cf. Robbins 1958) Jenseits solcher Dokumente aus der Wissenschaftsgeschichte bieten sich Rezepte und Kochbücher als weitere Quelle an, um die Zirkulation und Lokalisierung von Pflanzen zwischen Acapulco und Ambon, den Amerikas und Asien im Detail zu erforschen. (Cf. das Projekt „Shared Taste“ in Leiden, In der indonesischen Küche hat längst auch die mächtig scharfe Chili ihren Platz gefunden, während in umgekehrter Richtung die Kokosnuss über Manila nach Mexiko kam. (Cf. Harries 2012)


Sound, Touch, and Vision: The Translation of Ginseng from the Chinese to the Dutch

In the “stream of translation” (Latour) flowing from the island of Ambon, where Rumphius’ had collected the specimens for the Ambonese Herbal at the end of the seventeenth century, to the city of Amsterdam, where Johan Burman made one editorial decision after the other in the 1740s, the relation of text and image was steadily transformed.

One of the manuscripts kept in the Special Collections of the Leiden University Library (BPL 314) contains a warning for the printer and engraver. Rumphius highlighted questions of vocabulary, punctuation marks and clerical errors for the first, and instructed the second to adjust proportions or to choose from two illustrations of one plant.

In the case of ginseng, the editor made this choice instead of the engraver. Rumphius had made clear that his (mental) image of the plant’s leaves was mediated by a local informant and his paper model:

“A certain Chinese by the name of Suyku, showed me the shape of the [ginseng] leaves anno 1685. He said he was a Chinese Medicus and that he had seen it grow on a certain Lord’s estate, who ordered it brought there from distant places; and the same Suyku cut the plant shape out of paper for me, as best he could remember, and we used it for the accompanying illustration.”

In the manuscript, this coloured drawing is supplemented by a smaller sheet of paper with two pencil drawings of the ginseng plant copied from a Chinese Herbal. Rumphius elaborated on Suyku’s “tale” as well as as excerpts from the Chinese Herbal that had been “related” to him, an indication that he did not understand Chinese himself, but someone in his vicinity. It might have been that his wife, a local woman who went by the Christian name Susanna, belonged to the community of ethnic Chinese around Kasteel Victoria.

Ginseng in Rumphius' Kruidboek
Ginseng in Rumphius’ Kruidboek

In the end, the editor Burman prized his own network node in Amsterdam over that of Rumphius in Ambon. In the plate for the print version, he included yet another image because, as he wrote in his commentary, “they [the copies from the Chinese Herbal] did not warrant such, and since they resembled mostly those by Cleyerus in the German Epheremides, where one will also find others depicted. The one I display in its stead here, was copied in China itself by the Honorable Mayor, N. Witsen, who was a very careful observer of foreign plants, and this is the true and genuine root [..].”

Unfortunately, neither the paper model, a cheap and volatile epistemic thing, nor the copper plate, a solid and expensive object at the time, have been taken from the stream of translation to find rest in one of today’s archives.

– Quotes on ginseng from the English translation by E.M. Beekman, vol. 5, p. 545 ff.
– Slide from my presentation “Between the Exact and the Economic. Material and Illustration the Rumphius’ Rariteitkamer and Kruidboek, 1670s to 1740s” at the Conference “Art and Science in the Early Modern Low Countries (1560-1730)”, Huygens ING/Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 17/18 September 2015


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