Rediscovering Rumphius

A 17th-Century Masterpiece, The Ambonese Herbal, to Appear for the First Time in English

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.  

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