Return to C. Textile

Georg Everhard Rumphius

"[I] would rather be astounded by the unfathomable powers of nature, than to lapse into some kind of error because of too punctilious a scrutiny."

Rumphius, The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet (III.9)

Georg Everhard Rumpf (Latinized as Georgius Everhardus Rumphius) was born in Germany (likely in 1628), during the Thirty Years' War. The day after Christmas in 1652, he sailed, in a voyage that lasted six months, to Batavia (Jakarta) in the employ of the Dutch East Indies Company. There, on the island of Ambon (Amboina) in the Moluccas, where the Dutch had established their first trading post, he was to live for the rest of his life, advancing within a decade from foot soldier to military engineer to the comfortable life of a senior merchant, fluent in his native tongue as well as Dutch, Latin, and Malay. It was a position that allowed him to continue his study of the island's tropical plants, work that he had begun the year after his arrival and which, with instruments and books sent on Company ships, he would continue until his death.

Then, in 1670 Rumphius was struck blind; four years later, his common-law wife ("my prime Companion and help-meet in the gathering of herbs and plants," after whom he had named a rare orchid that she was the first to show him) and a daughter died in a devastating earthquake. In 1682, Rumphius was compelled to sell his precious cabinet of shells and other natural curiosities, which had been collected in and around Ambon almost from the time he had arrived there. To the new owner, the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo de Medici, he poignantly wrote that it was "a treasure which I gathered over many years with much cost and labor and which, in the future, it will be impossible to acquire again, especially since I am now old and blind." It was a loss that preyed on Rumphius' mind for the final two decades of his life.

Five years later, his books and collections and the color illustrations for his life's work, a Herbal of the plants of Ambon and the Indies, were lost in a fire. Rumphius was obliged to have everything redrawn. (The manuscript survived but it had to be completely redone when Rumphius lost his sight. There was no-one on the island to whom he could continue dictating in Latin, and he was obliged to start over again in Dutch.) Then, the Herbal itself was lost at sea, when the ship taking it to Holland was sunk with all hands by the French. Fortunately, a copy had been commissioned by the governor-general, which, with additions and corrections, finally arrived safely. In 1701, an Auctuarium or supplement was completed and, after a copy had been made, it too was dispatched to Holland, the governor of the island acknowledging in a letter that now "nothing more can be expected from the old Gentleman, since he is finished with living."

With the addition of the Auctuarium, Rumphius' book on the flora of the East Indies, a description of twelve hundred different species of plants, finally was complete. But, fearful that the Herbal would be detrimental to its monopoly in the trade of cloves and nutmeg, the Company did not allow it be published. When permission was given in 1702, the manuscript was released with the proviso that its publication incur no cost to the Company and any passages prejudicial to it be removed. With such prohibitions, there were no takers. Rumphius died that year, and nearly forty more would pass before the first books of the Ambonese Herbal were printed.

Although less important, Rumphius' best known work is The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, which presented some of the shells ("the true Curiosity Cabinet") that had been lost to him by their forced sale to the Duke. It, too, was not published during the author's lifetime but appeared three years later, in 1705. The only scholarly work, in fact, to appear during Rumphius' lifetime were a dozen or so short notices or observations in the official publication of the Academia Naturae Curiosorum, to which he was elected in 1681. Seba and Linnaeus also were to become members (as well as many other luminaries) in what was the first scientific organization of its kind, anticipating the Royal Society in London by almost a decade. It was the only substantive recognition Rumphius received while still alive.

Even in death, Rumphius was to be afflicted. During the British rule of the island, his burial plot and tomb were conveyed to a private individual, who desecrated the grave looking for imagined treasure. Failing that, he sold the stone from the marble and limestone tomb.

In the introduction to The Conchologist's First Book (1839), Edgar Allen Poe remarks that "the Conus Cedo Nulli has been sold for three hundred guineas." He then calls Rumphius "a fool" for having given "a thousand pounds sterling for one of the first discovered specimens of the Venus Dione (of Linnćus)." Twenty years earlier, William Turton had declared in A Conchological Dictionary of the British Islands (1819) that "Rumphius is said to have given nearly a thousand pounds for one of the first discovered specimens of the Venus Dione," as had John Warren (omitting "nearly") in The Conchologist (1834).

But one cannot imagine the calumny to be true. Rumphius complained about the "covetousness and pomp" of the rich for diamonds (III.39) and agreed with the native sentiment that "all Curiosities which one has not found oneself or that were not given as a gift, but were brought with money" lose their innate power. Nor does it seem credible that Rumphius, who was blind at the age of forty-two and been forced to sell his own collection, would have had the means (or the desire) to spend a thousand pounds ($131,000 in terms of contemporary purchasing power) to buy a shell from the West Indies when so many more rare and exotic specimens were to be found at home. A Venus dione (Linnaeus, 1758) does appear in The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet (Plate XLVIII, No. 4), together with several other rare shells. But, as the commentator explains, "we only obtained them after the foregoing had been printed."

The Conchologist's First Book, a "quaint and curious volume" (to cite a line from The Raven), was not written by Poe, even though his name appears on the title page. His authorship was intended "to aid its circulation"—and to circumvent the copyright of a longer textbook by his friend, Thomas Wyatt, whose publisher had refused to issue the book in a cheaper edition that could be sold at his lectures. For a fee of fifty dollars Poe wrote the preface and introduction, as well as editing, organizing, and abridging the text. He also says that he translated from the French a classification of the snails themselves "according to Cuvier," which had not been considered in Wyatt's original volume. (While at the University of Virginia in 1826, Poe actually had been examined in classical and modern languages by both James Madison and James Monroe.)

Although considerably rearranged, Wyatt's book had taken much of its content (a dozen pages, an "Explanation of the Parts of Shells," were copied verbatim, which led to a charge of plagiarism) from another text on the subject published just three years before by the British naturalist Thomas Brown, whose British copyright simply was ignored by the Americans. In a handwritten annotation to his own copy of the book, which is in the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection at Cornell University, Poe acknowledges that he had "very largely drawn" on Brown's work, but the sentiment never appeared in print.

This school textbook on sea shells was the only work by Poe to enjoy a second edition in his lifetime. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the rarest American first edition is by him as well. Tamerlane and Other Poems was published anonymously by Poe in 1827 in an edition of forty or fifty copies. Only twelve are known to exist (one of which was stolen from the University of Virginia and now thought to be lost). Two are in private hands. One is part of the Tane collection and was discovered in 1988 by a collector who purchased it for fifteen dollars and then sold it at auction for $198,000. The other, which had been notched to indicate that it was a remainder and not to be returned, sold in 2009 for $662,500.

The portrait of Rumphius, drawn from life by his son, is a detail from the frontispiece of D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer (1705). On the table is a Paper Nautilus (Argonauta argo), which also is illustrated above (Plate XVIII). The delicate paper-thin shell actually is an egg case about which Rumphius relates the following story:

"This whelk is found so rarely that it is priced very highly, even in the Indies. The Natives consider it a sign of good fortune if they find it, and keep it among their treasures, and they seldom display it except on holidays and times of public mirth, when the women bring it forth, when they perform the round dance, Lego Lego; when the lead dancer carries this shell raised up high in her right hand....I should mention a rare event here. A Sea Eagle (Haliaetos), being a bird that constantly hunts at sea, took such a Nautilus, while it was floating in the Sea, and bore it aloft, but while his business was with the fish, and since he did not care about it as a curiosity, he struck his claws mostly into the fish, wherefore the shell came to fall out of his claws and, by rare fortune, it fell on a small spot of sand between rocks in such a way, that nothing was broken off, except for a small corner of the foremost edge; and a fisherman who was wandering thereabouts, quickly picked it up and brought it to me" (II.3).

Rumphius presented the shell to the president of the Academia Naturae Curiosorum who, when he had become a member, was given the name Argonaut as appropriate to his professional life. The delicate shell seemed therefore a fitting gift. When Rumphius himself was elected to the Academy, he was bestowed with the name Plinius, after the Roman encyclopediast.

References: The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet: Georgius Everhardus Rumphius (1999) translated by E. M. Beekman; The Poison Tree: Selected Writings of Rumphius on the Natural History of the Indies (1981) translated by E. M. Beekman. (To better convey the impression of the original text, Beekman does not use any words in his translation of the Dutch that were not current prior to 1700.) The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth (2011) by Richard Conniff; The Conchologist's First Book: A System of Testaceous Malacology, Arranged Expressly for the Use of Schools (1840, 2nd ed.) by Edgar A. Poe; Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History (1995) by Stephen Jay Gould (Chapter 14: Poe's Greatest Hit); The Dutch Trading Companies As Knowledge Networks (2010) by Jan L. de Jong, Siegfried Huigen, and Elmer Kolfin.

See also da Costa and Precious Wentletrap.

 Return to Top of Page