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The Herbal of Rumphius

A 17th-century Dutch naturalist established the botanical foundations of the flora of Indonesia

Lynn Margulis, Peter H. Raven

Never Before in English

Rumphius’s 7-volume 7,000-page Ambon herbal, mainly of land plants, with each entry accompanied by a name in Latin, 17th-century Dutch, Malay, Chinese and, most importantly, local vernacular, is virtually unknown to botanists and other scientists of the “civilized world” today. Never before the recent extraordinary translation and commentary by the late Eric Montague Beekman has the work been available in English. Modern science has much to learn from Rumphius’s magnum opus. His verbal descriptions of etchings still open for us moderns the practical use of the 1,200 entries.

E.%20M.%20Click to Enlarge ImagePlant stuffs were employed in many ways: fence posts, lunt, kindling, food and feed, hallucinogens, dyes, clothing, fiber, cordage, ampules, ebullients, twine, housing and furniture, other building materials and so forth. Healing and medicinals included treatment for venereal disease and abortants to terminate pregnancy.

Our respect soars for the wisdom and skills of the indigenous peoples of present-day Indonesia as we encounter the accumulation of botanical knowledge already chronicled by Rumphius during his half-century in Ambon. We note that, nearly alone in his scholarly pursuits, he organized his description in a modern way. Plant entries are ordered into groups mainly by their reproductive structures (flowers, fruits, seeds or lack of them). Today botanists use these criteria to recognize botanical inclusive taxa. Plant “phyla,” “orders” and especially “families” such as Graminae or grasses, Leguminoseae (peas and beans with their two-seamed pods), Liliaceae (such as onion and garlic), Rosaceae (pears, apples, plums, roses, almonds …) provide the bases for groupings.

Surprisingly close to his material, Rumphius used the flower-fruit classification scheme still so appropriate. Indeed, he continued a version of the “binomial nomenclature” (Genus species) naming-of-organism scheme whose origin is universally attributed to Carl von Linné (Carolus Linnaeus), the Swede from Uppsala. Although somewhat looser in format and less strictly limited to only two terms (Genus species, then the scientist credited with the plant discovery), many binomial or trinomial-style names were used in the 17th century by Rumphius (and even some predecessors). Beekman makes clear that the great life-form naming tradition adopted by the Latin-literate world of science preceded the 18th century. The immensely detailed Ambon work, long after Rumphius’s death but prior to its publication, was “borrowed“ for botanical taxonomy and nomenclature by the ambitious Swede. Linnaeus especially used Rumphius’s tropical botany notes. Indeed, during the lengthy delays and spurts of Rumphius’s publication (in Amsterdam 50 years after his death), Linnaeus, the “moth-eaten student,” lived in the house of Johannes Burman, who enjoyed access to the immense herbal manuscript. Apparently Linnaeus, who described 10,000 plants in his Systema Naturae, “borrowed” from the great Ambonese-Dutch scholar with impunity!

By comparing extant modern Ambon plant cover to that described in Rumphius’s opus, estimates can be made of the pace of decimation, habitat destruction and extinction in the past 400 years near the old haunt. In the proximity of his compound the botanically depauperate surroundings may be compared with the immense plant diversity on the less-settled slopes above. Such observations support Beekman’s claim that Rumphius’s prodigious gift to modern science is of great value, as it is to human history as well.

Rumphius founded far more than ethnobotany. The details he accumulated inform history, philosophy, ecology, several other botanical fields, medicine, natural-product chemistry and the botanical origins of many modern industrial processes. He provides potential practical guides to the discovery of medicinals new, not to people but to pharmacological and chemical companies. With Beekman’s informed translation, the whole natural world of the Spice Islands is newly opened up.

Unlike those handling this vast subject today, Rumphius was a holistic thinker who made an extraordinary attempt, ultimately successful, to impart practical alleviation of physico-spiritual ailments and quotidian knowledge to ordinary families. He became an advisor to the women healers who ultimately sought him as a source of knowledge. The Dutch-Indonesian Malay culture in which he practiced became more Asian and less European through his work. Surgery or other invasion of the body he rejected as ineffective barbarism, as did his adopted countrymen. Unlike the surgeons of Le Havre, Amsterdam and Antwerp, the holistic thinker Rumphius deeply respected the life of the spirit. The penetration of the skin to breach the continuity of the whole mind-body was philosophical anathema. Plant leaves, flowers, bark or root extracts were applied to the skin as poultices or drunk as infusions. Practical details for sexual soothing, modes of abortion and even infanticide, infant and nipple sunscreen and other skin protection, stomach calming, antidiarrhetics, treatment of scabs and wounds and the like were communicated to both sufferers and healers frankly, swiftly and effectively. Efficacy was the goal: No esoteric privileged class gained by exploitation of the ill.

We must accept that, for at least the tropics, Rumphius deserves much of the fame now accorded to Linnaeus. Yet without multiple acts of wisdom and dedication, the wealth of Rumphius could have been lost to all. The entire original manuscript en route from Ambon to the Dutch publisher was lost at sea, the victim of a French squadron, when Rumphius was in his sixties. Fortunately, Joannes Camphuys, Governor General of the Company, had paid for a private copy of the first six books of the herbal for his own delectation, which, by this happenstance, became the only surviving text; the dramatic story of the entire herbal tells us very clearly how important to the future of culture are generous acts of public service.

Blinded, probably by cataracts, separated permanently for half a century from his place and people of origin until he died at the age of 72 in 1702, and with the inestimable aid of his common-law wife Susanna, this indefatigable Dutch genius showed the rest of the world such a rich tropical natural history that he founded several academic fields (for example, economic botany, tropical forest taxonomy and ethnographic documentation) before they reached the status of “field of study!”

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