Georgius Everhardus Rumphius was born in 1627 in Hesse, Germany during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a conflict between the Holy Roman Empire and the Protestants. He was born at a time when formally recognized countries did not exist. There were only regions, towns and villages and one’s loyalty was to a specific village or region. If an individual strayed too far outside of their area, they were considered to be a foreigner. Plague and war almost destroyed the region of Wolfersheim, where Rumphius was born. The plague hit this region in 1628 and again in 1635. As Rumphis scholar E.M. Beekman explains, the hardships experienced by this region “reduced a population of about 5,000 down to thirty-eight adults, ten girls and six schoolboys” by 1648 (Beekman, 2011).
In 1652 Rumphus left Germany for the second, and last, time in his life. The first time, a young Rumphius was tricked into going to Brazil to fight for the Dutch (he thought he was going to Venice). This second time, though, he left on a five-year contract to work as a soldier for the Dutch East Indies Company to protect their interests in the “Spice Islands”, specifically their control over the trade of cloves, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon, “the four most lucrative spices in the world” (Beekman, 2011). During the six-month journey to the East Indies, Rumphius spent ten days at the Cape of Good Hope while his ship was being restocked after having spent 3.5 months out at sea. Rumphius’ writings suggest he began to take notice of plants during this brief visit to the Cape. Once his ship was filled with fresh food and supplies, Rumphius returned to sea. Three months later, he arrived in Batavia (now Jakarta) on the island of Java. The city of Batavia served as the headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Company. Rumphius arrived in July 1653. By early 1654, he was living on the island of Ambon, an island on which he would spend the rest of his life.
While he may have left Germany to escape war and poverty, Rumphius’ new home was also a place where much fighting occurred. From 1654-1657, Rumphius fought as a soldier in the Great Ambonese War, a war between militants and local government impacting the clove trade (Beekman, 2011). Rumphius’ military contract with the Dutch East Indies Company ended in 1657. At this time, he transferred into the company’s civil service branch.
Rumphius’ life as a naturalist began when he transitioned into the civil service branch of the Dutch East Indies Company. Records show he began writing about the flora and fauna of Ambon in 1657. It appears Rumphius’ interest was rooted in simply wanting to learn more about the world around him. There appears to have been no grand plan at this time. Rumphius was merely observing, writing and illustrating. Beekman (2011) states Rumphius wrote about the specimens collected by those who worked for him, as well as the specimens brought to him by the local people. It is speculated that Rumphius paid the locals for the specimens they collected. Rumphius, who became fluent in Malay, was respected by the local people and he got along with them very well.
The tropical setting in which Rumphius would spend the rest of his life was filled with wonderful curiosities.
Next week we will learn more about Rumphius, the naturalist.
George Everhardus Rumphius is the Feature Botanist for April. The accounts of Rumphius’ life featured in this column this month are from the books by E. M. Beekman. A scholar of Dutch colonial history, Beekman dedicated many years of his life bringing Rumphius’ story to a general audience. Beekman’s thorough documentation of Rumphius’ life and his contribution to botany are being reviewed in this column specifically because Rumphius, one of the greatest naturalists of the 17th century, continues to teach through his herbal to this day.
Rumphius, Georgius Everhardus. 2011. The Ambonese Herbal. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by E.M. Beekman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
All six volumes of The Ambonese Herbal are available at ArtPlantae Books.
Find out how you can view all six volumes this month.
Continue Rumphius’ story with…
Rumphius: A Naturalist for the People