Rediscovering Rumphius

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

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.

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