Rediscovering Rumphius

Over the course of their careers, most book editors get accustomed to writers ardently proposing ambitious pet projects, and the editors become adept at rapid evasive maneuvers. Thus, roughly 15 years ago, when a University of Massachusetts comparative literature professor named Eric Beekman cold-called an editor to pitch the project of a lifetime, he had everything going against him. He wanted to translate the works of an obscure 17th-century Dutch naturalist named Rumphius, who had spent his career in the utter back of beyond—a 10- by 32-mile island called Ambon in the Banda Sea in what is now eastern Indonesia—and had been largely forgotten in the 300 years since.  

Yale University Press

It sounded “too obscure, not relevant,” and likely to result in large, unwieldy and inordinately expensive publications, says Jean Thomson Black ’75, executive editor for science and medicine at Yale University Press. But Beekman “was just very good at selling this,” and Black, who started out as a plant ecologist, was “a vulnerable target because of my background. I love old natural history sorts of treatments, and he talked about opening this amazing world of natural history that wasn’t available to readers in English.”  

In the years since, the partnership between Beekman and Black has produced two Rumphius books, The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, published in 1999, and Rumphius’ Orchids in 2003. Rumphius’ masterpiece, The Ambonese Herbal, will appear for the first time in English early in 2011, jointly published by Yale University Press and the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), a conservation group based in Florida and Hawaii. It will, as expected, be large and expensive, a six-volume boxed set with 811 illustrations costing $450. (Production costs of $300,000 were largely paid by NTBG and its benefactors.) But it is already proving more relevant than anyone expected. When NTBG honors Rumphius and Beekman in February at a symposium on ethnobotany, the speakers will include a researcher whose “data mining” of Beekman’s translation has already produced a potential plant-derived treatment for MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.    

Jean Black
Harold Shapiro
Jean Black '75

“But I don’t think that’s the real significance of this,” says Michael Dove, Margaret K. Musser Professor of Social Ecology at F&ES. “The real significance is that this was written during the great age of global commodity trade in plants, when the role of plant knowledge in science was central. It was also a moment in which Eastern and Western knowledge could engage with one another in a way that would not be possible as the colonial dogma of Western supremacy took hold. And here we have one of the great works of the period made available by Beekman—and, good heavens, credit is due to Jean Black, too, for pulling this off. This is a really important publication that will be read 100 years from now.”

Pliny of the Indies

Georg Eberhard Rumpf was born in central Germany in 1627 to a Dutch mother and a father who served as an engineer and contractor to various impecunious aristocrats. Europe then was a bloody battleground for the Thirty Years War, and young Rumphius, as his name got Latinized, soon became a soldier and Hessian mercenary, serving for three years in Portugal. But in 1652 he managed to obtain a position with the Dutch East India Company, possibly through his mother’s family, and left Europe forever. “He fled from chaos, from a ruined country that had been pillaged, raped and murdered into exhaustion,” writes Beekman. “He escaped from fraudulent authority, hypocritical religion and social inequality, a state of affairs which did not warrant allegiance to anything human.”

After an ocean voyage to the East Indies lasting six months, Rumphius found himself in an improbably dazzling Dutch city, laid out on a neat rectangular grid at the mouth of the Ciliwung River, with step-gabled houses built of white coral that fronted canals lined with palm trees. Batavia, now Jakarta, was the Dutch East India Company’s trading capital—and also a quasimilitary outpost for a global enterprise that could deploy 40 warships and an army of 10,000 men in pursuit of its commercial interests. For all its apparent orderliness, Batavia was also a breeding ground for mosquitoes and a tropical death trap for Europeans. But Rumphius somehow flourished in this new world, particularly when he took up his station as a merchant in Ambon, another 1,500 miles to the east. The more relaxed customs of the island culture clearly appealed to him after his brutal experience of European civilization.  

His official duties took up much of his time in his adopted home, where he helped run the company’s lucrative trade in cloves, nutmeg, mace and other spices. But Rumphius devoted every free moment to the search for new species, and the letters he sent back to Europe about his discoveries earned him a reputation as “the Pliny of the Indies,” after the great Roman naturalist. In Ambon he also formed a common-law marriage with an island woman named Susanna. She helped him gather the plants and animals that became, along with their children, his caritates, or loved ones, according to Beekman. He lost his heart, in particular, to the ornate seashells of what he happily called “the water Indies,” and they became the basis for his Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet. The plant specimens he collected and sketched gradually formed The Ambonese Herbal. Together these books, covering Ambon and its neighboring islands, would become the first natural history of the East Indies—and among the earliest scientific descriptions of any tropical habitat.  

Yale University Press
Eric Beekman

“Rumphius was the first to write of epiphytes, how orchids propagate by seed, or how ficus trees reproduce themselves,” Beekman writes. “He was the first to present detailed descriptions of corals. … Even if he was not, chronologically speaking, the first to mention a plant, his reports are more comprehensive, detailed and precise, and contain more information than those of his contemporaries or many others who came after him.”

They also tend to be far more entertaining. Other shell collectors back in Europe prized Pinna shells, for instance, mainly for their beautiful shape, roughly corresponding to a wide-vaned quill pen. But Rumphius noticed how they behaved. He reported that these “pen shells” tended to live in quiet bays at a depth of four or five feet, standing upright with their narrow ends planted in the muddy bottom. He also noted that an ice-colored little shrimp, about an inch and a half in length, lived within the shell and stood guard. In the event of danger, “the shrimp pinches the Pinna in order to force it to close its shell,” he wrote. He was describing mutualism—one species swapping shelter for another species’ early-warning system—centuries before a biological term for the phenomenon even existed.  

That determination to see things originally, with his own eyes, combined with his palpable delight in what he saw, helped turn Rumphius into one of the great naturalists of his—or any other—time. His writing often dwelled on the usefulness of different species, a utilitarian focus calculated to appeal both to his employers and to other European naturalists. But “he reserved his most poetic texts,” Beekman writes, for such “useless” items as jellyfish. A Physalia, or Portuguese man-of-war, for instance, was “of a transparent color, as if it were a crystal bottle filled with” green and blue fluid. “The little sails are as white as crystal, and the upper seams show some purple or violet, beautiful to see, as if the entire Animal were a precious jewel.” A seaside tree (Calophyllum inophyllum) similarly came to life under his pen: “The tree resembles a landlubber looking for someone he is in love with out in the sea, because it invariably stands rooted at the edge of the forest, not daring to advance by as much as one step onto the naked beach, and hovers above the same at such an angle as if it desires to fall forward at any moment.”

His work was also unusual for the day because Rumphius carefully sought out and included local knowledge about the natural world. Other visitors to the Indies thought they knew what they were looking at by extrapolating from European examples. But instead of staring themselves blind “on the external shape and resemblance with our European plants,” Rumphius advised, they should “ask the Natives first about a plant’s nature.” With every species he described, he included not just Latin and Dutch names, but also names in both Ambonese languages (one for each peninsula), as well as in Macassarese and often Chinese. His descriptions also included local lore and even “fabulous stories,” like one royal family’s proud assertion that their ancestors had emerged into the world from a split bamboo trunk.   

That store of ethnological information is likely to lead to renewed interest in Rumphius now, according to Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a supporter of Beekman’s work. The intervening centuries, says Raven, have seen the loss of much of the local knowledge about plants, the interactions between people and plants and even the plant species themselves. That makes reading Rumphius like “going back in a space capsule” to a lost world.  

At times the author’s intimate connection to the culture opens a particularly poignant window on the lives of people then. Thus an orchid with leaflets joined like hands in prayer served lovers as a courtship device and a means of begging forgiveness. Men sent the stiffest leaflets “showing thereby more desire,” Rumphius noted. Women sent leaves that were a bit more languid to suggest “that their beseeching and begging” was “more of a pretense than with the men.” Don’t laugh at such trifles, he added, since “it is often very useful to understand this Hieroglyphic Grammar” in the Indies.

Medicinal uses of plants were of particular interest, and Rumphius described stomach remedies, impotence and abortion drugs, plants to make schoolchildren smarter and acne treatments, among others. (The last of these would now require some small print about side effects: the root of Alpinia galanga, crushed in vinegar and smeared on as an ointment, “will get rid of spots and other freckles on one’s skin, but it will also remove the skin.”) Including medical and other beliefs about plants “does not mean that I believe in them in any way,” Rumphius wrote. But these stories often “contain some kernel of truth” and, instead of “ignorant mockery,” deserve further investigation of the “many secrets of nature that are unknown to Europeans, and seem unbelievable.”  

He was of course correct. In 2003, a few years after Beekman had begun his translation of The Ambonese Herbal, an ethnobotanical investigator named Eric Buenz became interested in the project by way of “a beer and the National Tropical Botanical Garden.” That is, staffers there told him during an after-work visit to a bar what Beekman was up to. Buenz, then at the Mayo Clinic, was testing the idea of speeding up the search for medicinal plants by hunting down leads from the vast literature of ancient herbal and medicinal texts. He needed a demonstration that this kind of data mining could quickly yield useful results. Working from Beekman’s manuscript of the first volume of the Herbal, Buenz and his team soon set out to investigate the medicinal potential of nine species described by Rumphius but not mentioned in the modern medical literature.  

One, the Maldivian coconut, had the reputation in Indonesia then as “the most powerful medicinal plant ever,” says Buenz. “If you found one on the shore and didn’t give it to the king, you could face death. We found that it was not medicinally active at all.” He laughs. “We might as well have been testing grass clippings.” But Rumphius had also described the seed kernel of the atun tree, Atuna racemosa, as a remedy for diarrhea. Tests demonstrated that it was highly effective against MRSA, the intransigent bacterial infection that has lately plagued hospitals and schools. Buenz now works at a Minnesota startup called BioSciential, aiming to bring an over-the-counter ointment derived 
from A. racemosa—“basically an all-natural Neosporin”—to market.   

Though too late for Rumphius or Beekman, bearing that kind of fruit would represent a triumph over the monstrous difficulties faced by both men. About the time Beekman began translating the Herbal, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Rumphius kept him going, says his wife, Faith Foss. The two had “some characteristics in common,” she says, including “determination, a little pugnacity,” a knack for the poetic turn of phrase, a certain earthy humor and a way of revealing their feelings between the lines. The translator’s own life in some ways also echoed that of Rumphius. As a child in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, Beekman had been separated from his family and reduced to stealing and begging. In the mid-1950s he had escaped from his abusive, alcoholic father, who was working as a mining engineer in Indonesia, and then fled halfway around the world to the United States. Throughout his work on the Herbal, Beekman was undergoing a long series of treatments to hold off the progress of the cancer, and yet Foss remembers her husband always coming downstairs from his study to share his delight in some choice Rumphius phrase, exclaiming, “The man is a poet!” She felt, she says, as if she were living with both men.

Beekman would be quick to say that his own tribulations pale beside those of his subject. Rumphius started out with the obvious disadvantage of being at the opposite end of the Earth from the centers of scientific discourse. He managed to obtain permission from the Heeren XVII, the governing board of the Dutch East India Company, to have scientific books sent out on company ships. But then in 1670, at the age of 42, Rumphius was struck blind, probably from glaucoma. He carried on with his work, depending on family and staff to read to him and take dictation.

A few years later an earthquake hit Ambon, and both his wife, Susanna, and a daughter died beneath a collapsed wall. A witness recorded the terrible spectacle of the blind man sobbing beside their bodies. Rumphius named a white orchid Flos susannae “in memory of her who during her life was my first mate and helpmeet when searching for herbs and plants, and who showed me this flower also.” (Happily, her name has survived in modern taxonomy as Pecteilis susannae.)

This was by no means the end of his misfortunes. In 1687 a fire ripped through the island, destroying his library and all the original drawings Rumphius and his assistants had made over more than 30 years. He was at least able to save his text. Undaunted, he commissioned new drawings and continued to work for another five years, finally sending the first half of his Herbal off to Amsterdam on a ship with the inauspicious name Waterland, which sank with its entire cargo. But by extraordinary good luck (not something with which Rumphius was otherwise familiar), the governor-general in Batavia, also a naturalist, had commissioned a copy before sending the Herbal onward. So Rumphius was able to complete his manuscript and ship it to Amsterdam intact in 1696.

Even then he did not get the triumphant reception he surely deserved. The Heeren XVII wielded absolute power over company employees, and it refused to allow publication, probably because this encyclopedia of the flora of the East Indies seemed as if it might be too useful to rival European powers. The Herbal would remain in the company archives for another 45 years, before a consortium of publishers finally brought it into print beginning in 1741.  

But the real tragedy of Rumphius’ life lay elsewhere, according to Beekman, and it resulted from the Dutch mania for collecting shells. In the late 1660s, Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, was touring the cultural centers of Europe, including the Netherlands, where he admired the tropical shells in the curiosity cabinets of the leading collectors. Many of those collectors were also powerful figures in the Dutch East India Company. The shared interest in collecting shells and other precious objects was a tool for cementing relationships otherwise based only on commerce, according to Beekman. “Capitalism subsidized curiosity in a reciprocal relationship that enhanced and dignified both.” So when Cosimo set out to develop a shell collection of his own, these collectors were only too happy to help, and Rumphius became their hapless victim.  

In 1682 Rumphius sold Cosimo the best part of his shell collection, 360 specimens gathered over a period of 28 years, “what for him must have been souvenirs in the most literal sense: memorials of the life” snuffed out by blindness and the loss of his wife and daughter. “Giving things away was not the problem,” Beekman continues. “What vexed Rumphius was the compulsion, backed by some kind of high-pressure method, to relinquish part of his life to a stranger for money.” It was “a clash of Western capitalistic imperatives and a stubborn Indonesian metaphysic.” The note Rumphius sent to Cosimo, along with his shells, began in the required social etiquette of good wishes and then slid inexorably into anger and regret: “May the Lord … favor the passage of these objects and may they arrive safely. … so that no damage will be done to a treasure which I gathered over many years with much cost and labor and which, in the future, it will be impossible to acquire again, especially since I am now old and blind.”  

Rumphius had come to subscribe to the Indonesian ethic that objects could have special power only if one has found them oneself or received them as gifts, not when “bought with money.” He disdained the “covetousness and pomp” common among the wealthy collectors who proudly showed off their curiosity cabinets back in Europe. Not only had he been left bereft of his caritates, but in the Indonesian scheme of things, the shells themselves had been deprived of their power by being sold.  

The experience, at least, “showed him a way to get his words in print,” says Beekman. He would appeal directly to the European collecting appetite and present his caritates as specimens in The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet. It was a Faustian bargain, and it worked. Despite the slow and secretive practices of the Dutch East India Company, the book moved relatively quickly into print, appearing in 1705.  

But in Ambon, Rumphius had died three years earlier, at the age of 74, his great works still unpublished.

Shortly before his own death in 2008, Beekman sent off a couple of typewritten notes. One was to Jean Black at Yale, regretting some mistakes he had been unable to correct. “No longer have any strength. Endgame. Hospice time. Soon I’ll be posthumous.”

The other was to one of the large 
circle of financial and intellectual supporters who had made his work on The Ambonese Herbal possible. “Would that Rumphius were alive,” he wrote, “to know that some 300 years after his death, his magnum opus will finally be available in English. Each one of us, in our own fashion, has done our part. Long after we are gone (and I am not too sure that I will see it in print, bound, in a slip case, bedazzling people. …) this Ambonese Herbal will live on.”

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Rediscovering Rumphius
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Rumphius named Pecteilis susannae after his wife, who died in an earthquake.

“What vexed Rumphius was the compulsion, backed by some kind of high-pressure method, to relinquish part of his life to a stranger for money.”
Eric Beekman