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Georgius Everhardus Rumphius (1627-1702), soldier and naturalist, has many “firsts” to his name. His “firsts” are outlined in the introduction to The Ambonese Herbal. They include being the first to write about epiphytes, the first to describe how orchids reproduce from seed, and the first to write detailed descriptions of coral (Beekman, 2011). And, of course, he was the first to describe the plants of eastern Indonesia.

Rumphius’ Ambonese Herbal is a significant botanical work for more than the fact it contains the medicinal uses of 1,300 plants. His herbal is an important piece of botanical literature because it is a documented history of eastern Indonesia, its dialects, its culture, and its beliefs (Beekman, 2011). It is a snapshot of what life was like in a part of the world not easily accessible by the average person.

What also makes The Ambonese Herbal an impressive resource is the fact it was published in spite of several unfortunate events. Events such as Rumphius losing his eyesight. Up until he lost his eyesight to glaucoma in 1670, Rumphius was writing the herbal in Latin. After he lost his sight, he had to start over. He started over not because there was anything wrong with his work. He had to start over so he could continue his work. This meant dictating the herbal’s contents in the only language his assistants understood — Dutch. Switching to Dutch also meant his herbal could be read by a larger European audience (Beekman, 2011).

A draft of the herbal’s 12 books was completed by 1687 (Beekman, 2011). This draft included half of the herbal’s illustrations which Rumphius drew himself. An accomplishment to say the least!

Continued forward movement would not come easily for Rumphius, however. In 1674, his wife and daughter were killed in a major earthquake that struck the island of Ambon. A neighborhood fire in 1687 destroyed all of his original illustrations (his manuscript was saved). In 1692, the first six books of the herbal, including the redrawn illustrations, were lost at sea. Fortunately, the then governor-general of Batavia was a naturalist and one of Rumphius’ biggest supporters. Before the original manuscript was shipped to Amsterdam, he had Rumphius’ manuscript copied. Now that the governor-general’s copy was the only one in existence, he ordered that a second copy be made, as well as two sets of illustrations (Beekman, 2011).

Adding to Rumphius’ misfortunes was the theft of completed drawings stolen from his office in 1695 (Beekman, 2011).

In spite of these setbacks, the completed herbal and the appendix were safely in the hands of the Dutch East Indies Company by 1701. There was only one problem, though. The Dutch East Indies Company did not want to publish the herbal because they felt it contained proprietary information; they were especially concerned about Rumphius’ notes about cloves and nutmeg (Beekman, 2011). The Company eventually changed its mind about publishing the herbal, but with the condition that they be allowed to review passages that “could be judged detrimental to the Company” (Beekman, 2011). This change-of-heart came too late for Rumphius, however. He died three months earlier.

You would think the Dutch East Indies Company’s change-of-heart would clear the way for the herbal to be published for public consumption as Rumphius had planned. But this did not happen. It would be another 34 years before the Dutch East Indies Company would release the manuscript. The manuscript was eventually received by Johannes Burman, a Dutch botanist and expert in tropical biology. The year was 1736. A mere seventy-nine years after Rumphius began the field work for his herbal upon transferring to the civil service branch of the Dutch East Indies Company.

The herbal was printed twice before the current English translation. The first edition was printed in 1741 (view it here) and the second edition was printed in 1750.

For convenience sake, Rumphius’ original twelve books are grouped into six volumes in the English translation. These volumes are arranged as follows:

  • Volume 1 (Book 1): Trees Bearing Fruit That Are Husbanded by People
  • Volume 2 (Books 2-4): Aromatic Trees; Trees Producing Resin, Notable Flowers or Hurtful Milk; Trees That Provide Timber
  • Volume 3 (Books 4-7): Wild Trees in No Particular Order; Shrubs – Domesticated & Wild; Forest Ropes & Creeping Shrubs
  • Volume 4 (Books 8-9): Potherbs Used for Food, Medicine and Sport; Bindweeds, Twining Plants and Creeping Plants
  • Volume 5 (Books 10-12): Random Wild Plants; Remaining Wild Plants; Sea Trees and Stony Sea Growths Which Resemble Plants
  • Volume 6: Index of Common and Scientific Names

The Ambonese Herbal is an amazing reference. Get two sentences into any page and Rumphius’ life opens up before your eyes.

Beekman’s English translation of the herbal matches the original Dutch version as closely as possible. He does not use modern-day terminology to replace or change descriptions written in Rumphius’ 17th-century Dutch. On occasion he explains why he chose to use some of the English words that he uses. Sometimes his choice of words are based on the fact that the modern word we would use and recognize today did not exist during Rumphius’ time. A thorough explanation about the translation of The Ambonese Herbal is included in Beekman’s introduction.

In this new edition, Beekman speaks to readers through incredibly detailed annotations located in the margins of the text. Their placement in the margin (both on the sides and on the bottom of the page) are a huge help to readers. There are many footnotes in the English edition and flipping back and forth to the back of the book would have been troublesome.

Reading the herbal is truly an engaging experience and for this we need to thank E.M. Beekman. Unfortunately Dr. Beekman, like Rumphius, did not see his masterpiece as a finished product. Dr. Beekman passed away in 2008.

Dr. Beekman spent many years of his life bringing Rumphius and his achievements to a larger audience. He wanted to bring attention to the plant world, especially the plants in The Ambonese Herbal that have gone extinct or are about to go extinct (Beekman, 2011). In a world where the current focus on the molecular study of plants separates plants from their native habitat, Dr. Beekman felt it important to emphasize the value of the descriptive texts written by early naturalists. He says texts written by Rumphius and others make “readers see, sense, and taste the reality they were trying to communicate” (Beekman, 2011).

As he brings his introduction to The Ambonese Herbal to a close, Dr. Beekman leaves readers with the following quote by 19th-century physician, William Osler:

We miss more by not seeing, than by not knowing.

What do you think?



Literature Cited

    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. 2011. The Ambonese Herbal. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by E.M. Beekman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

These books and Rumphius’ Orchids, also translated by E.M. Beekman, are available at ArtPlantae Books by special order.



Related Topic

Botany Superstars Become Rare Specimens

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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.

NOTE:
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.



Literature Cited

    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”

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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.


The Naturalist

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.


Literature Cited

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

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In The Importance of Naturalists as Teachers & the Use of Natural History as a Teaching Tool, James J. Krupa discusses the demise of naturalists in academia. He expands upon a conversation started by biologists Reed F. Noss (1996) and Douglas J. Futuyma (1998) in the late 1990s about the concern that “keyboard” ecologists are replacing traditional field ecologists and that there is an urgent need to cultivate a new generation of naturalists (Krupa, 2000). In response to their concerns, Krupa (2000) proposes an approach teachers at all grade levels can use to use natural history as a teaching tool in their classrooms.

Krupa (2000) suggests teachers…

  • Bring their own field experiences into the classroom.
  • Create outdoor experiences on campus.
  • Go on a day trip not too far from campus.
  • Take students to a biological field station.
  • Plan a weekend field trip for their students.

If organismic biology was part of your upbringing in college (especially if you are of a certain age), Krupa’s suggestions will hardly be revolutionary. His suggestions will be very familiar and you probably have your own stories about memorable field trips and weekends spent at biological field stations. However at a time when outdoor experiences are being replaced by multimedia and Web-based classroom activities (Krupa, 2000), the seemingly obvious suggestions above are perhaps not so obvious at all.

In his own classroom, Krupa’s goal is to turn his students on to natural history by creating firsthand experiences either through his slides and personal stories or through live experiences in the field (Krupa, 2000). He wants students to feel nature before they read about it. He calls this first experience an “awareness exercise” (Krupa, 2000) that can only be achieved through observation. Krupa (2000) argues that his traditional approach allows for “spontaneity, discovery and awareness”, experiences that are not possible through the use of “pre-planned, question-oriented exercises” (Krupa, 2000).


Are you a naturalist?

Krupa (2000) defines a naturalist as someone with “extensive knowledge of the organism’s behavior, ecology, distribution, systematics and life history.”

Do you think of yourself as a naturalist when you draw or paint?

When you work…

    You study your subjects in great detail.

    You observe and document how they grow and how they move.

    You are mindful of each phase of your subject’s life cycle.

    You look up what you do not know about your subject.

    Then you tell your subject’s story through your work.

Are you a naturalist?

If you’ve never thought of yourself as one, why not?

One of the possible causes behind naturalists’ declining numbers is that the word itself stirs up negative imagery (Futuyma (1998) as stated in Krupa, 2000). Biologists don’t want the “naturalist” label assigned to them. How about you?

What are your first thoughts and emotions when you hear the word naturalist?

You do not need a physical classroom or be fully employed teaching the “how to” lessons of botanical art to teach people about plants or to create the “awareness exercise” Krupa (2000) speaks about. There are many ways to be a teacher.

How do you teach people about plants through your art?



Literature Cited

Futumya, Douglas J. 1998. Wherefore and whither the naturalist? The American Naturalist. 151(1): 1-6. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/an.1998.151.issue-1>

Krupa, James J. 2000. The importance of naturalists as teachers & the use of natural history as a teaching tool. The American Biology Teacher. 62(8): 553-558. http://www.nabt.org/websites/institution/index.php?p=451>

Noss, Reed F. 1996. The naturalists are dying off. Conservation Biology. 10(1): 1-3. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1523-1739.1996.10010001.x/abstract>

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In 1799, naturalist and scholar Alexander Von Humboldt embarked on a five-year expedition to explore the Americas. He was accompanied by Aimé Bonpland, a French botanist, and together they described the plants they observed during their journey. Their botanical findings have been described by H. Walter Lack in Alexander Von Humboldt: The Botanical Exploration of the Americas. This title was published in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Von Humboldt’s death.

The Library of Congress has posted a webcast of a lecture about Alexander Von Humboldt, also in commemoration of his death. This presentation is 80 minutes in length and is worth every viewing minute. Von Humboldt was an accomplished researcher. He has been described as “the last universal scholar” in the natural sciences, meaning he was the last person to have command over the information in his fields of study. View “Alexander Von Humboldt in the United States, 1859-2009″.

If you don’t have 80 minutes to watch a video and would prefer to read a summary about Von Humboldt, view the summary posted on the website of Humboldt State University here.


Alexander Von Humboldt: The Botanical Exploration of the Americas is available at ArtPlantae Books.

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