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)

A Kruid-boek from the Water-Indies, or writing nature and culture on the Moluccas

A budding interest in the material culture of knowledge circulation between the Netherlands, Indonesia, and German brought me, first, to a case study on tobacco, and second, to the works of 17th century German-Dutch-Moluccan merchant and naturalist G.E. Rumphius. Third, it propelled my new research project into the hybrid space of plants in history. A whole catalogue of questions on colonial botany has grown on me since: about plants and books and ships, about concepts such as epistemic things (Hans-Jörg Rheinberger) and ensembles of things (Hans Peter Hahn), and about migration and the coloniality of bioprospecting (Londa Schiebinger). Hence this blog for presentation, discussion, and networking.

Rumphius’ Het Amboinsche Kruid-boek is a mine of information – on plants and botany as well as their use and representations, both in Asia and in Europe. Written and illustrated in the late 1700s on Ambon, the book was published in Amsterdam from 1741 onwards, including a Latin translation, and it has been digitalized by its six volumes in the 2000s. They are available for download at For those not fluent in Dutch (or Latin) and Dutch colonial history, there is an English translation in print: G.E. Rumphius. 2011. The Ambonese Herbal. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by E.M. Beekman. New Haven/London: Yale University Press and National Tropical Garden. The following Rumphius-quotes in English are all pulled from this edition.

Of course, there are the poetics and politics of colonial botany to be considered, with Rumphius’ Dutch version being part of the literary canon in the Netherlands. The first entry of the first book takes the reader on board of a ship in the so-called Water-Indies: “It is only fitting to appoint the Palma Indica or Cocos Tree Captain of this Ambonese Herbal because, when you approach the Indian Isles from the Sea, you see this tree first, its crown rising above all others.” (p. 189, vol. one) In Dutch it reads: “Angesien de Palma Indica of Cocosboom gemeenlyk den geenen, die uyt zee de Indische Eylanden naderen, met zyn kruyn boven de andere uytsteekende, zoo mag hy met redden tot den Kapiteyn van dit Ambons Kruyd-boek gesteld worden.” And with the second sentence Rumphius establishes his research credentials: “Many have depicted it before me, but it has never been fully described.” (p. 189, vol. one) Again in Dutch: “Hy is wel dikwils, en van veele al lange voor my afgemaalt, dog nooyt ten vollen beschreven.”

That ‘description’ might well be the central challenge in researching this plant material. Its visuality is so prominent, but the (re-)construction and analysis is so much about its haptics. Which leads back to a twist in Rumphius’ story: As naturalist, he was renowned for identifying plants by their parts– with his hands, because he was blind for the last thirty years of his life.