When Rumphius arrived in Ambon in 1654, he walked into a world very different from his home in Hesse, Germany.
It is safe to say many things piqued his curiosity. Today we look take a look at Rumphius, the naturalist.
Before we get too far ahead in this story, we need to remember that Rumphius did not travel to Indonesia to write about its natural history. He went to the east Indies in 1652 on a five-year contract to work as a soldier for the Dutch East Indies Company to protect their interests in the spice trade. He had his hands full and could not dedicate himself to documenting the many interesting things he observed.
It is estimated that Rumphius began to collect botanical and zoological specimens in 1657 (Beekman, 2011). No longer a soldier and now working in the civil service branch of the Dutch East Indies Company, Rumphius worked on personal projects in his spare time (Beekman, 2011). His focused work on the herbal is thought to have begun three years later in 1660 (Beekman, 2011).
The curious naturalist that he was, Rumphius observed and described insects, mammals, birds, marine life, and plants. At one time he was in possession of a large cabinet of curiosities containing specimens collected over many years. Unfortunately, he had to sell his collection to the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1682 (Beekman, 2011). He did not sell his collection to make money, but to make his employer look good. The Dutch East Indies Company used Rumphius’ collection to cater to the Grand Duke whom the Company saw as a potential business opportunity.
Rumphius lived the latter years of his life as a “naturalist for the people.” In an open letter he writes to readers in the preface of The Ambonese Herbal, Rumphius refers to himself as a “lover of natural science” who offers his talents “to the common good” (Beekman, 2011). Rumphius was determined to introduce Europe to the plants and animals of the east Indies. He tells readers that if his work brings them pleasure, then it would be worth all the trouble and expense he endured to bring it to them.
Rumphius is considered to be one of the greatest naturalists of the 17th century. This is because of his observation skills, his first-hand accounts and his detailed written descriptions about what he saw while living in the “Water Indies” (Beekman, 2011). It is also becuase his significant works were created by one man.
During his lifetime, Rumphius wrote a small collection of scholarly articles. He also wrote a book about the history and politics of Ambon and his observations from the field (the Dutch East Indies Company did not make this book public). Rumphius’ most significant works were The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet (D’Amboinsche Rariteitkamer) and The Ambonese Herbal (Het Amboinsche Kruidboek).
The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet describes the marine life of the east Indies. It contain Rumphius’ descriptions of arthropods, shells and much more. A general description of its contents is included in the book’s very long original title. Here is the English translation taken from Beekman (1999):
The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, Containing a Description of all sorts of both soft as well as hard Shellfish, to wit rare Crabs, Crayfish, and suchlike Sea Creatures, as well as all sorts of Cockles and Shells, which one will find in the Ambonese Sea: Together with some Minerals, Stones, and kinds of Soil, that are found on the Ambonese and on some of the adjacent Islands. Divided into three Books, And supplied with the requisite Prints, drawn from life. Described by GEORGIUS EVERHARDUS RUMPHIUS, from Hanau, Merchant and Counselor on Amboina, also member of the Academiae Curiosorum Naturae, founded in the Holy Roman Empire, under the name PLINIUS INDICUS.”
This collection of three books was first published in 1705 (three years after Rumphius’ death) and includes the only known portrait of Rumphius drawn from life. It was drawn by his son sometime between October 1695 – July 1696 (Beekman, 1999). Translated, edited and annotated by Dutch scholar, E.M. Beekman (1939-2008), the English translation includes the original sixty plates paired with the modern scientific names of the species illustrated on each plate. Beekman (2003) describes this book as Rumphius’ most popular work because of the shell illustrations it contains. As for Rumphius’ greatest achievement? Beekman (2003) says it is The Ambonese Herbal.
Contained in the original twelve books of the herbal are descriptions of the trees, shrubs, herbs, wild plants and sea trees (coral) of eastern Indonesia.
We’ll take a closer look at the herbal next week.
Adopt a first-edition copy of The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet
Vassar College has a first-edition copy of The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet in their collection. This book is featured in Vassar’s Adopt-a-Book program. Through this program, the conservators in Vassar’s Archives and Special Collections Department seek donor support for the conservation of fragile and damaged items. To see images from this historic work and to learn more about the conservation effort surrounding Rumphius’ book, see the webpage for The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet on the Adopt-a-Book website.
Wondering if there are botanical works in this program? Yes, there are. See here.
I contacted the Special Collections department and asked about the donation amount. I learned that they are seeking a donation that covers the entire conservation amount. So if you were thinking of making a smaller donation (like I was), this is not possible because they are not set up to receive small amounts that do not add up to the amount required for conservation.
Rumphius, Georgius Everhardus. 1999. The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by E.M. Beekman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Rumphius, Georgius Everhardus. 2003. Rumphius’ Orchids. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by E.M. Beekman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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…
Inside “The Ambonese Herbal”