All things odd and beautiful

The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet - Voyages of Discovery
October 29, 1999

Illustrations have long been important in natural history, both to document novelties seen during voyages of colonisation and exploration and to make natural history books desirable. Copperplates embellish Rumphius's magnificent D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer ( The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet ), which E. M. Beekman has translated from Dutch into English for the first time, and illustrations using a variety of media take pride of place in Tony Rice's Voyages of Discovery .

The latter largely features natural history art preserved at London's Natural History Museum. The voyages range from that of Hans Sloane to Jamaica in 1687-88 to the Challenger expedition that circumnavigated the globe in 1872 74. There are short biographies and a bibliography, and brief details of the voyages put some 310 well-reproduced and always interesting illustrations in context. Even the simple line drawings of Sloane's plants become almost mesmerising when juxtaposed with photographs of the original specimens, now over 300 years old, but still preserved in London. An illustration of a much-enlarged marine protochordate is almost phantasmagorical, while the selections of Ferdinand Bauer's work confirm his position as one of the finest natural history artists ever.

However, when looking at scanning-electron micrographs such as those with which the book ends, remember the detail achieved 150 years ago or more by the likes of Hugo von Mohl and Jean-Baptiste Payer. Perhaps our interests have changed, as much as our capabilities.

Voyages of Discovery would be more useful if magnifications or the sizes of the originals had been added. Ironically, the one magnification given, that of the remarkable false-colour image of the head of a small tortoiseshell butterfly, is surely incorrect. More names of the plants on which animals were posed could have been added, and the toddy factory depicted is in a coconut palm plantation, not that of the areca palm, from which toddy is made.

The Rariteitkamer is made up of three books, the first dealing with soft shellfish (crabs, starfish, marine worms), the second with hard shellfish (molluscs) and the third with "minerals, stones, and other rare things", the stones include hair balls and other concretions found in animals and plants, many of which were highly valued by the local people. The informative introduction (some of it taken from Beekman's The Poison Tree: Selected Writings of Rumphius on the Natural History of the Indies (1981), as are translations of a few chapters) includes a summary of the often bloody conquest by the Dutch of this part of the world; the result was, as Beekman notes, that "the eastern regions of the archipelago were pacified into progressive decline".

Rumphius, born Georg Eberhard Rumpf in Wolfersheim in eastern Hesse, led a life in the East Indies - mostly Ambon, where he lived for almost 50 years - marred by tragedy. His early life, however, has elements of farce, including a stint as a Venetian mercenary (as he seems to have thought), in which he was in fact part of a Dutch expedition to Brazil, although he ended up in Portugal. In Ambon, where he spent most of his later life, he rose quickly up the civil ranks of the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), but he went blind in 1670, an earthquake killed his wife and at least one child in 1674, and fire destroyed the entire European quarter of Kota Ambon, along with most of his manuscripts, collections and library, in 1687.

Rumphius took Pliny as his model, and his writings, which apparently date from after 1670, cover all branches of civil and natural history of the Ambon region. Rumphius remained active up to his death, and some projects remained unfinished. Nevertheless, the cognomen, Plinius, that he was given on his election to the Academiae Naturae Curiosorum in 1681, is fully justified. Beekman reminds us that the readership of the Rariteitkamer included officials of the VOC. The VOC prevented the publication of some of his work, and Beekman suggests that they censored his Amboinsche Kruid-boek (happily described as "a continent of a book").

Indeed, Rumphius had a reputation within the VOC as a person who was "in everything hostile and prejudicious to the Company's interests" - Governor Padtbrugge, who wrote this, would surely have occasion to know. One can only wonder how this might have affected the Rariteitkamer . Rumphius seems to have remained in close and largely cordial touch with the various elements of the population, and the people from Hitu even named a hill after him.

Beekman points out that, apart from the book on shells, the Raritietkamer was largely unknown (neither Darwin nor Wallace refers to it), despite all the original material there; this translation shows us what we have missed.The 170 chapters range from a few lines to a few pages long and are self-contained, and the translation, using very largely 17th-century vocabulary, is a delight to read, a pleasure increased by the copious and erudite endnotes.

Rumphius describes animals as living organisms, not as simply shells, and he also collates and evaluates information from local informants and a remarkably wide array of written sources. He holds our attention easily: edible earth was "the colour of mice with a yellow reflection, as firm as liver, and crunchy if one bites a piece off". His writing is synaesthetic, characteristically referring to several senses, including taste - there is much about cooking. And the names of shells are endlessly inventive: flyspeck, fleaspeck and gnatspeck were all scoops, while the mennonite was a toot!

He questioned the new philosophy - for example, he thought that images in figured stones were produced by design, not chance, and although he accepted that fosil shells had been alive, he attributed them to a Noachian deluge. However, he was by no means credulous. He kept a Chamites shell for several years to see if, as commonly believed, it would produce another shell (it didn't), weighing it to see in the event if the weight changed. In an account (translated here) of a large piece of ambergris received at Amsterdam, Nicolas Chevalier listed ideas about its formation, including that of Eduard Barbossai:

"It is not harder to comprehend that a Bird ****s amber, than that another Animal generates musk and civet." Here the interests of natural history and commerce happily coincided, and Rumphius was charged by the VOC to use the next vessel built at Ambon to search for sea currents carrying ambergris, although nothing seems to have come of this.

There are a few minor irritations. Although Beekman provides a list of the animals illustrated to help the reader deal with the captions provided by Rumphius's "editor", Simon Schynvoet, cross-references and names in the text would have helped more. Beekman insists that the illustrations are nearly all those of Rumphius (rather, those of his amanuenses), but Schynvoet's captions suggest that many were added in Holland. This surely contributed to the confusing labelling of the plates, with alphabetical and numerical series mixed together. It is less clear to me than it is to Beekman that Rumphius was deeply distressed by the sale of his cabinet to Cosimo III of Tuscany in 1682 - anyway, the cabinet would probably have been destroyed in the great fire of 1687. Finally, be warned that the index is somewhat idiosyncratic: thus Eduard Barbossai, mentioned above, appears there only as Duarte Barbosa, and a few footnotes lead nowhere.

Voyages of Discovery is a pleasant book, but the Rariteitkamer is of an altogether different calibre. Beekman's fine translation of Rumphius's work will enable it to take its rightful place in our libraries among the classics of natural history.

P. F. Stevens is professor of biology, University of Missouri at St Louis,United States, and curator, Missouri Botanical Garden.

The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet

Author - Georgius Everhardus Rumphius
ISBN - 0 300 07534 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 567
Translator - E. M. Beekman

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