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?
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.
Botany Superstars Become Rare Specimens