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.


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