Georgius Everhardus Rumphius

April 2013
PHOTO: Cover page of Florula Columbiensis

Georgius Everhardus Rumphius, or Georg Everhard Rumpf, is my personal patron saint for persistence, self-reliance, and intellectual and physical toughness. His life and experiences were so demanding, I can't imagine anyone else who would have survived his ordeals. Shangaied before this term was invented, Rumphius was in turn a youthful mercenary, teacher, construction supervisor, sailor, warrior, merchant, author, and scientist. He lost his wife and daughter to an earthquake, lost his vision to his personal expeditions for fauna and flora, and never returned to his native Germany.

Rumphius's most significant work, Herbarium Amboinense, was published decades after the author's death, thanks to bad luck and an embargo on his botanical findings by his employer. The Lenhardt Library is fortunate to have this most significant work in its collection, with its highly prized engravings and unique ethnobotanical descriptions. We are fortunate to know much about Rumphius thanks to the research and translations of E.M. Beekman, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts. Professor Beekman's efforts have introduced Rumphius to new generations of scholars and students. His editions of Rumphius, published by Yale University Press, demonstrate the taxonomic brilliance of this solitary scholar.

Born in November of 1627, Rumphius was fortunate to have parents who encouraged him to pursue his studies in a wide variety of areas, ranging from the humanities to the sciences. Around the age of 18, he was recruited as a solider for the Doge of Venice; instead Rumphius discovered that he had been shanghaied, en route to Brazil. A shipwreck saved him from this fate, and he spent the next three years, until 1649, in Portugal. He returned home to work as a teacher and contractor near Frankfurt for a few years before joining the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East Indies Company, in 1652. He left Europe for what is now known as Indonesia at the age of 25, never to return.

PHOTO

 

Title page of Herbarium Amboinenese.

Settling in as a solider, Rumphius proved his value to the VOC with his intelligence, independence, and creativity. Thanks to his knowledge of military defenses from his father, language skills, and undoubtedly diplomatic traits, Rumphius was promoted to a new role as merchant in the important spice trading post of Ambon Island in the Banda Sea. Ambon was a treasure trove of plants and animals, new to Europeans like Rumphius. Rumphius recognized the importance of this natural diversity, and began his lifelong quest to collect and understand the fauna and flora of this special locale. He especially understood the value of local, native knowledge about local plants, collecting details that eventually became part of Herbarium Amboinense.

At some point Rumphius married and had at least a daughter and son, and perhaps other children. His wife Susanna assisted him in his natural history explorations in the forests and beaches of Ambon. We know that he greatly appreciated her efforts for he named an orchid after her, Flos susannae. As Professor Beekman points out in his descriptions of Rumphius's career in Ambon, Rumphius was able to complete his duties for VOC to the satisfaction of his masters, finding free time to explore and write.

Circumstances began to conspire against Rumphius in his efforts to understand the rich fauna and flora of his tropical paradise, a Pacific Eden to his mind. Working in the glare of intense sun during the day and writing and drawing at night with paltry candles, his eyesight began to fail. By 1670, Rumphius was blind, probably from glaucoma. His wife and children probably assisted Rumphius in his scientific notes and collecting, but then another tragedy struck. A powerful earthquake struck Ambon on February 17, 1674; a wall crushed and killed his wife and daughter.

Less resilient individuals might have balked at continuing their work with these personal losses. Rumphius continued to compile his notes about the fauna and flora of this fascinating portion of Indonesia. By 1680, his manuscript was ready for publication. His record of the medicinal value of the local flora was unique. It is not surprising that one of the officials of the VOC asked for a copy of the manuscript to be made before it was shipped to the Netherlands for publication. This copy was incredibly significant, because Rumphius's manuscript was lost at sea, the transporting ship sunk by a French vessel (the Dutch and English were at war with the French at the time).

Thanks to the solitary copy of Rumphius's manuscript, he was able to reconstruct his work and send it along to the Netherlands just nine months before his death in 1702.

The herbal describes more than a thousand plants with medicinal value. It was considered too sensitive for publication by the VOC when it eventually it arrived in the Netherlands. The manuscript was embargoed, while VOC bureaucrats evaluated their options. Decades passed. Finally, Johannes Burman (1707-80), a student of Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) at Leiden, and colleague of Linnaeus, recognized the value of Rumphius's work.  After decades of research, and a long hibernation in the vaults of the VOC, Herbarium Amboinense was published in Amsterdam, beginning in 1741 and completed in 1755.

Rumphius was the first great scholar of the flora of the tropical Pacific. His research on the flora of an area of Indonesia provides insights not only into these unique plant communities but also as a first record of their use by native communities. To me, Rumphius is a model for perseverance and dedication in the face of multiple tragedies.

 

Edward J. Valauskas, Curator of Rare Books
April 2013