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"[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 late 1627), during the devastating Thirty Years' War. On the day after Christmas in 1652, he sailed on a six-months' voyage to Java as a soldier in the employ of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and eventually to the island of Ambon in the Moluccas (Spice Islands), where the Dutch had established a trading post. Arriving at the beginning of 1654, he was to live there for the rest of his life. By 1660, he had been promoted to "merchant" with an elegant house and a ship manned by forty rowers at his disposal. Such princely amenities allowed him (with the tacit support of the VOC) to begin in earnest his study of Ambon's plants (certainly by 1663, when he asked permission that books and instruments be sent on to him on company ships), as well as those of neighboring islands. Initially written in Latin to ensure its scientific respectability, The Ambonese Herbal (Herbarium Amboinense) would be his life's work, a compendium of more than twelve-hundred different species and almost seven-hundred illustrative plates.
But within a space of three months in 1670, Rumphius suddenly became virtually blind and was obliged to move to more modest accommodations in the island's principal city, where official reports for the government now occupied much of his time. Since there was no-one to whom he could dictate in Latin, he was obliged to begin his work over again in Dutch. During a celebration of Chinese New Year in 1674, a devastating earthquake collapsed a stone building, killing his youngest daughter and 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.
Then in 1682, to pile Pelion on Ossa, Rumphius was compelled to sell his precious cabinet of shells and other natural curiosities ("the rarest and strangest objects," including 360 species of shells), which had been collected in and around Ambon from the time he had arrived there, almost three decades earlier. To the insistent new owner, the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo de Medici, he poignantly wrote that it was "a treasure which I have brought together 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." The date, notes Beekman, was mentioned more often than any other in Rumphius' checkered life, and the loss no doubt preyed on his mind.
In 1687, a fire destroyed Rumphius' extensive library, writings, and collections, as well as his illustrations for the Herbal. The completed manuscript narrowly survived but the pictures had to be redrawn and, when more than sixty later were stolen, drawn yet again—a task made all the more difficult by the loss of the original botanical specimens, which had to be reacquired. In 1690, the first six books of the Herbal were finished, together with their colored illustrations, preparatory for shipment. But first, a copy was commissioned by the governor-general. This task was completed in 1692 (during which time Rumphius continued work on the final six books of the Herbal) and the first part sent to Amsterdam—only to have the ship sunk by the French with all hands. Finally, by 1697, the original six books that comprised the first part of the Herbal, as well as the remaining six books of the second part arrived safely. Rumphius also was able to complete an Auctuarium or supplement of additional plants. After a copy had been made, it too was dispatched to the Netherlands in 1702, a month before Rumphius died. As the governor of the island acknowledged in a letter, 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 finally was complete. But, fearful that the Herbarium would be detrimental to its monopoly in the trade of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, the VOC did not allow it be published. And when permission eventually was granted (three months after Rumphius' death), the manuscript was released with the proviso that its publication incur no cost to the Company and any passages prejudicial to it be removed (e.g., that excess quantities of nutmeg were burned or that slaves died in harvesting the spice). With such prohibitions, there were no takers, and the document languished in the archives for nearly forty years, until the first volume of the Herbarium Amboinense (with a parallel column in perfunctory Latin) was published in 1741, paid by subscription. Altogether, there would be twelve books (comprising two parts) published in six volumes, the final one in 1750. The Auctuarium was published five years later as a seventh volume, almost a century after Rumphius first began his work.
Even in death, Rumphius was to be afflicted. During British rule of the island, the governor sold the plot of ground in which Rumphius was buried to a private operator, who desecrated the grave looking for imagined treasure and then, failing that, sold the marble and limestone from the ruined tomb. A fellow member of the Academia respectfully had it restored but this monument, too, was destroyed by a bomb in World War II.
Although less important, Rumphius' best known work is The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet (D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer), which presented some of the shells ("the true Curiosity Cabinet") that had been lost to him by their forced sale to the Duke. Illustrated by sixty plates, it was finished by September 1699 (the date of the author's dedication) but not published until 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.
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 goes on to say that Rumphius has been called 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." Citing this "indispensable companion to very visitor of the sea-coast," the declaration was repeated verbatim in The Naturalist's Diary for August 1820—as it was by John Warren in The Conchologist (1834), who omitted "nearly."
But one cannot imagine the calumny to be true. Rumphius had 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 its contemporary purchasing power) to buy a shell from the West Indies when so many more exotic specimens were to be found nearer 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. The putative 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 reissue it 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 edited the text. He also 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 two 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 penciled 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 a slim paper-bound volume of only 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 of which are in private hands. One is a copy in the Tane collection that was discovered in 1988 by a collector who purchased it for fifteen dollars; it originally sold at auction for $198,000. Another, 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 in about 1696, is a detail from the frontispiece of The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet. On the table is a Paper Nautilus (Argonauta argo), which also is illustrated in 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 (which, to better convey the impression of the original text, does not have any words in the translation of the Dutch that were unknown in English when Rumphius himself wrote); The Ambonese Herbal: Georgius Everhardus Rumphius (2011) translated by E. M. Beekman (a monumental work in six volumes, with an exhaustive introduction; it, too, "does not contain any locutions that were current in the seventeenth century"); The Poison Tree: Selected Writings of Rumphius on the Natural History of the Indies (1981) translated by E. M. Beekman; 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 (1839) 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; "The Herbarium Amboinense, from Creator to Translator" (2014) by Henk van der Werff and Peter H. Raven, Allertonia, XIII, 47-55; An Interpretation of Rumphius's Herbarium Amboinense (1917) by E. D. Merrill.
See also da Costa and Precious Wentletrap.
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