The Herbal of Rumphius
A 17th-century Dutch naturalist established the botanical foundations of the flora of Indonesia
From 1653 until his death in 1702—most of his adult life—Georgius Everhardus Rumphius lived on Ambon in eastern Indonesia, where he described its plants. At the time, Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (the Dutch East India Company) was the largest private business enterprise in the world; it reflected the mercantile power of the far-flung Dutch Republic and controlled much of the trade between Europe, the “Spice Islands” and many ports of Asia. The Company headquarters at Ambon—one of the Molucca islands that are today part of Indonesia—became a bustling outpost of the “civilized world.” The contrast between the marum-grassy dunes, incessant booming waves, overcast skies, cold and damp cobbled streets of Amsterdam and the verdant, lush, mountainous backdrop of sunny warm Ambon was extraordinary. The paucity of useful species of flowering plants in the gloomy north contrasted with the prodigious green landscapes of Indonesia. The goal of Rumphius was not to bring himself fame or fortune but to communicate the wisdom of the place, to describe for the literate world the plethora of plants and their uses.
The colorful ways of natives, the abundance of fish and lack of meat, the soft tones of the many indigenous languages, the wafting odors of the sporulating molds and camellias, the ships, rafts and boats festooned with salty ropes and seaweeds, the beautiful diversity of sea shells—remains of myriad behaviors of life at the edges of the sea—all interested Rumphius. He was impressed and described the ways in which the ancient modes of life depended entirely on local habitat. The vegetation, diverse and overwhelming, that served nearly all the needs of the people is described in his great work, the “herbal.”
Beyond plants for food—grain and feed, fruit and nut—were plants to heal and to send the spirit soaring. Plants formed the basis of transport, of buildings, of parasols and of clothing. Orchids and bean pods, camellia teas and other stimulating and soothing infusions were the stuff of barter, of inebriation, of soothing infants and intestinal cleansing, of wound-healing, of dying cloth and of preparing fiber.
A former Hessian mercenary soldier, Rumphius saw clearly and early in his half-century stay that Ambonese habits were keyed closely to the tropical forest and seashore. Most of the people’s living and livelihood were bound to plants and algae. He collected copious notes on everything, especially the category that we call plant science: plant geography, floristics and ethnobotany. Rumphius recorded names and descriptions of more than 1,200 plants, of which nearly all are represented in his herbal.
“Natural History,” wrote Harvard psychologist William James more than 200 years later on an unspoiled continent unknown to Rumphius and his adopted compatriots, is the “simple duplication by the mind of a ready-made and given reality.” Such accurate and precise documentation of South East Asian “natural reality” and communication of it to ordinary people who might benefit from knowledge of the ages impelled the gargantuan force of Rumphius’s genius.