From the Rare Book Room: Rumphius’ Herbarium Amboinense

Source: Botanicus

Source: Botanicus

While employed as a merchant for the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, Georg Rumphius (Rumpf) compiled a comprehensive catalogue of the plants of the Spice Islands. His work, Herbarium Amboinense or Het Amboinsche Kruidboek, covered well over a thousand species and took more than 30 years to complete. It remains a text of great botanical and historical significance. It is also a testament to Rumphius’ dedication.

Rumphius began his study of the Spice Islands flora in 1657. He persevered with the work through a succession of personal tragedies. In 1670, he lost his sight to glaucoma. Four years later, his wife and a daughter died in an earthquake. Then, in 1687, when his manuscript was close to completion, a fire destroyed his books, collections and illustrations. Rumphius and his assistants started again, finishing the first six parts of the work in 1690.

But the originals were lost at sea on the way to the Netherlands. Fortunately, before the originals had been dispatched, the Governor had ordered that copies be made and retained in Batavia. Replacements, which included revisions by Rumphius, were sent in 1694. Further parts of Herbarium Amboinense arrived in Amsterdam over the next few years, with the last (Actuarium) sent from Batavia in May, 1702. Having completed his life’s work, Rumphius died a few weeks later on 15 June.

At first, the VOC refused to publish the manuscript because it contained information that the company considered economically and politically sensitive. Although they lifted the ban in 1704, almost 40 years passed before Herbarium Amboinense went to press. It was eventually published in 1741 with a Latin translation by Johannes Burman.

Few copies are available in libraries, but Herbarium Amboinense — and many other rare and historical texts — are accessible online at Botanicus, an initiative of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.


Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie = Dutch East India Company

Spice Islands = Maluku Islands

Batavia = Jakarta