Workshop report: Hybridisation in Natural History?

Katrin Blombach

Between February 21 and 24, 2018, our interdisciplinary workshop Hybridisation in Natural History? Materials and Texts Between Asia and Europe, 17th and 18th Centuries took place to discuss the production and reception of knowledge about natural history in cultural contact between Asian and European actors with speakers from all over the world. The four themed panels of the workshop each focussed on a different aspect: ‘texts’, ‘materials’, ‘on the move’ and ‘animals’, and included talks from senior scholars as well as PhD candidates, among them historians, art historians and literary scholars.

The international workshop was designed to conclude the DFG funded research project Circulation in Spaces of Knowledge Between Asia and Europe about the works of G.E. Rumphius (1627-1702) at the Institute of Dutch Language and Literature at the University of Cologne. Main aims of the workshop were not only to give the organizers the opportunity to discuss the final phase and results of their research but also to provide insights into other disciplinary fields of study. After welcoming the guests and speakers to the library of the Morphomata Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Cologne, project leader and organizer MARIA-THERESIA LEUKER (University of Cologne) gave a short introduction to the research project which she has been working on in collaboration with Esther Helena Arens and Charlotte Kießling. This project focuses on works of natural history connecting the Moluccas and the Netherlands during the process of European colonisation during the 17th and 18th centuries. The theoretical starting point of the workshop was the idea of hybridity as double function or combination of elements. Its aim was to discuss evidence for hybridisation as a process from which something new and different originates in the production of knowledge (Homi K. Bhabha).

Charlotte Kießling’s talk in the first panel

The theme of literary hybridity was continued as CHARLOTTE KIESSLING (University of Cologne) talked about auctoritas, empiricism and local knowledge in Rumphius’s Curiosity Cabinet. Based on Bakhtin’s definition of the hybrid as the intermingling of different social languages in an utterance she asked if the intermingling of the voices of European authors, eyewitnesses as well as local informants in Rumphius’s Curiosity Cabinet lead to the disruption of the authoritative colonial discourse. She argued that this is not the case, because the voices are mediated by the voice of Rumphius and he, for example, devaluates local knowledge as superstition. Rumphius dictates how the voices included in the text should be understood and how the knowledge should be interpreted. Kießling concluded that the Curiosity Cabinet is not a text of a monolithic, mono-voiced colonial discourse and that the reader can choose not to listen to Rumphius’s assessments and to listen to the ‘other’ – the locals’ – voices. The term ‘local’ was a point of discussion considering that the ‘locals’ themselves can be seen as a mixed population.

Empirical knowledge also played an important role in the talk of art historian BERT VAN DE ROEMER (University of Amsterdam) who tried to challenge the image of Rumphius as a ‘hero of science’ whose nomenclature paved the way for Linnaean taxonomy, by illustrating how Rumphius combines detailed systematic empiricism with explanations based on astrological views of nature. Van de Roemer argued that the description of the thunderstones for instance, according to Rumphius formed by the powerful forces during a thunderstorm, shows Rumphius’s belief in the astrological influence on the natural world as well as in the purposefulness of natural processes when it comes to the use of the thunderstones as weaponry. For van de Roemer, the combination of systematic nomenclature and taxonomy with the Neoplatonic tradition challenges the image of Rumphius’s ‘modernity’.

Bert van de Roemer

Similarly, KATHLEEN BURKE (University of Toronto) in her talk about cloves and the politics of bodies shed light on the use of cosmological knowledge and humoral theory alongside empirical knowledge and the Protestant worldview in Rumphius’s work exemplified in the description of the clove tree in the Ambonese Herbal. She pointed out that the application of the temperamental differences between Europeans who use cloves and the locals who don’t, as well as the emphasis on the role of God serve to justify not only the exploitation of cloves but also the superiority of European over Asian bodies. In this way, Burke suggested, Rumphius uses a hybrid approach to justify the Dutch monopoly in the Asian colonies.

In the second panel, historian ESTHER HELENA ARENS (University of Cologne) in her talk about the Ambonese Herbal shifted the focus to the materiality of collecting objects and information on the natural history of Ambon. Using the state of hybridity and the process of hybridisation as analytical categories, she presented her research results on the production process of Rumphius’s book. She drew attention to the spatial mobilisation of the objects and information from the Indies to the Netherlands for which the infrastructure of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) plays a major role. Arens showcased the hybridisation of Asian and Latin nomenclature, as well as the hybridisation between the manuscript and the printed books. The editing and provenance of the manuscript was object of the following discussion about the act of organising the illustrations in the book versus the relatively unorganised manuscript pages. Furthermore, attention shifted to the (in)visibility of the draughtsmen who were responsible for the illustrations considering Rumphius, due to his blindness, had to rely on draughtsmen chosen by the VOC.

The topic of mobility echoed through into the third panel that was opened by SUSANNE FRIEDRICH (LMU Munich) who talked about the transfer of knowledge and the ‘space of flows’ created by the VOC. She drew attention to the specially organised network of transportation and communication of the VOC and emphasised the status of the merchants as well as of knowledge and information as commodities. Friedrich introduced the merchants of the VOC as agents gaining all information that might be useful for trade, considering (pieces of) knowledge as actual belongings of the trading company. According to Rumphius and his work as parts of this trade network (with close, not always legal or safe connections between Europe and Asia), she raised the issue of his personal hybridity as a naturalist and a merchant at the same time. After the talk the participants further discussed the aspects of mobility of information and objects, adding the trade of living animals by ship and problematizing the verification of communicated information.

Susanne Friedrich

ELENA LISITSYNA (University of Moscow) then presented her historical postgraduate research on the production of knowledge about Caspian petroleum in the works of Prussian physician J.J. Lerche (1708-1780). Having the educational background of a physician and a Doctor of Medicine, Lerche accompanied military troops and was able to make observations about landscapes as well as collect minerals and other naturalia. Owing to this as well as his opportunity to communicate both with Russian and European scientific institutions to create the knowledge about the ‘other’, Lisitsyna considered him a hybrid figure. Lisitsyna showed how especially the use of petroleum for both medical and fuel purposes was of great interest to Lerche, who through his texts made the transfer of information about this material possible. The versatile use of petroleum was emphasised in the discussion by Huigen who mentioned the Asian use of petroleum for worship and local practices. A discussion about the language of Lerche’s publications revealed further interesting research material, amongst other things concerning the reception by both Russian and European audiences.

In the following presentation, JUDYTA KUZNIK (University of Wroclaw) talked about the description of Japan in the 19th century by members of the Dutch trade mission. By the example of the works of Philipp Franz von Siebold, she introduced the artificial island of Dejima, a Dutch trading post in Japan, as a space of circulation of knowledge according to Kapil Raj. The trade of information and knowledge between the Europeans and the Asians went both ways, as the Japanese kept an interest in learning European technology while, simultaneously the Dutch were able to collect knowledge about Japan. Emphasising that the island and the movements of the Dutch were strictly regulated and controlled by the Japanese, she argued that the locals’ perspectives evidently shaped the Dutch view of Japan. In the following discussion it was revealed that Siebold in particular had a powerful position himself, having a good reputation and the respect of the Japanese population. The participants also agreed on the special superior status of Japan with a cultural tradition comparable to that of the Romans and Greeks, adding that the period of Siebold might demonstrate a transition from when Asia was a region to look down upon, to a greater respect for Asian cultures.

In the fourth panel DIDI VAN TRIJP (University of Leiden) presented her research on observation and authority in the Historia Piscium (1686), a path-breaking book on the natural history of fish. The volume features a variety of sources and materials, incorporating a large network of correspondence, various sources of drawings, as well as observations by the authors John Ray and Francis Willughby who went to fish markets and travelled Europe to collect information about marine fauna and flora. Similar to the book knowledge they relied on in creating the volume, Van Trijp argued that for Ray and Willughby the fish market became a space where knowledge was created. Furthermore, she pointed out that the authors had to rely on their informants who were either characterised as ‘normal’ or ‘wise’ while the naturalist authors themselves were portrayed as the experts. In the following discussion the researchers focussed on the illustrations of fish stating that water does not seem to be represented which does not contribute to the vividness of the drawings as well as the fact that the source material was not just copied but referenced to.

In his presentation on the description of nature in Oud en Nieuw-Oost Indiën (1724-1726) by Francois Valentyn SIEGFRIED HUIGEN (University of Wroclaw/Stellenbosch University) looked at the production and networks of knowledge in Valentyn’s monumental work, in which he also incorporated parts of Rumphius’s texts. Huigen analysed Valentyn as a virtuoso or amateur (‘liefhebber’) and questioned how this affected his work as a naturalist. He argued that for ‘liefhebbers’ detail was burdensome and a reduction in material and rhetoric was favoured as opposed to naturalists who welcomed detail. Huigen emphasized that unlike Rumphius, Valentyn did not make use of astrological modes of interpretation to describe the objects. Also, no traces of physico-theology can be found in Oud en Nieuw-Oost Indiën, although Valentyn was a minister. In the discussion the question rose if it is appropriate to regard ‘liefhebbers’ and naturalists as two different groups of people.

In the last talk, DÁNIEL MARGÓCSY (University of Cambridge) presented his research on the circulation of knowledge between East Asia and Europe and the relation between myth and knowledge. Based on a case study about the representation of the satyr, he argued that the identification of this Greek mythological creature with orang-utans and prehistoric humans could be explained by the role of myths in the development of science. Although myths were also seen as a corruption of knowledge, they served as guidance for research. Naturalists therefore had to be able to distinguish between information that was reliable and that which was not. Based on a case study about the representation of the satyr, he argued that the identification of this Greek mythological creature with orang-utans and prehistoric humans could be explained by the role of myths in guiding the development of science. The participants discussed the storage of knowledge in stories, anecdotes and myths and how these make their way into science.

The final discussion

In the final discussion the scholars challenged the analytic concept of hybridity as Van de Roemer pointed out that it always involves the assumption of two entities that merge into something new, which could lead to a forced historical picture. The terms ‘pluralism’ and ‘bricolage’ were discussed as substitute concepts for ‘hybridisation’. While the term ‘bricolage’ suggests less of a stabilisation and centralization, just as ‘pluralism’, it has no colonial marking and suggests a contact on eye level. With regard to Rumphius’s works that were produced within a colonial situation, ‘hybridisation’ still proves to be a fruitful and productive concept.

In addition to the panel talks and discussions, the workshop also included excursions, starting with the university library of Cologne where participants were introduced to books of the special collection on Botany and Zoology and vividly discussed their digitalization and preservation. In the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, the museum of ethnography in Cologne, the guided tour shed light on the practices of collecting and representing objects in the context of museums. Finally, to conclude the workshop, the participants were invited to a visit of the Museum of Applied Arts in Cologne where they learned about European and Asian ornaments.

The participants visiting the collections on botany and zoology at Cologne University Library

Rariorum plantarum historia by Carolius Clusius from the collection of botany

Workshop participants in the university Library of Cologne

We thank all the participants for their contributions!

Visit the workshop page here.



Workshop Programme

Maria-Theresia Leuker, Cologne: Welcome and Introduction

Panel 1 – Texts

Chair Maria-Theresia Leuker, Cologne

Charlotte Kießling, Cologne: Auctoritas, Empiricism and Local Knowledge. Rumphius as Mediator of Knowledge.

Bert van der Roemer, UvA Amsterdam: Shifting Between Classification and Explanation: Divergent Approaches of Nature in Rumphius’ D’Amboinsche Rariteitkamer.

Kathleen Burke, Toronto: Rumphius, the Clove Tree, and the Politics of Knowledge.

Panel 2 – Materials

Chair Stefan Grohé, Cologne

Esther Helena Arens, Cologne: Hybrid Leaves, Hybrid Pages? The Ambonese Herbal between Ambon and Amsterdam.

Panel 3 – On the Move

Chair Stefanie Gänger, Cologne

Susanne Friedrich, LMU Munich: Modelling the ‘Space of Flows’. VOC and Knowledge Transfer around 1700.

Elena Lisitsyna, Moscow/Cologne: The Production of Knowledge about Caspian Petroleum by J.J. Lerche (1708–1780).

Judyta Kuznik, Wrocław: Nineteenth-Centrury Dejima as Space of Circulation.

Panel 4 – Animals

Chair Esther Helena Arens, Cologne

Didi van Trijp, Leiden: Fresh Fish. Observation and Authority in the Historia piscium (1686).

Siegfried Huigen, Wrocław/Stellenbosch: Describing Nature in Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indiën (1724–1726) by François Valentyn.

Dániel Margócsy, Cambridge: A Natural History of the Satyr. Orangutans, Devils and the Circulation of Knowledge between East Asia and Europe.

International Workshop Hybridisation in Natural History?

On the 21th to 24th of February 2018, we are organizing the international workshop Hybridisation in Natural History? Materials and Texts Between Asia and Europe, 17thand 18th Centuries at the University of Cologne.

Visit the workshop homepage.

Material sammeln: Zum Verhältnis von Handhabung, Beobachtung und Experiment in Rumphius’ Forschung

Esther Helena Arens

Am 5. August 1753 bedankte sich Carl Linnaeus beim Mäzen Carl Gustaf Tessin für den Erhalt der sechs Bände des Herbarium Amboinense. Linneaus hatte die Bücher bereits gelesen und betonte, dass Rumphius Orte, Attribute und die Natur besser beschrieben habe als irgendjemand anders.[1] „Orte und Attribute“, diese Kombination zeigt das Interesse des Taxonomen. Linnaeus griff auf Bilder und Berichte anderer Naturforscher zurück, hier auf diejenigen von Rumphius über die Flora der Molukken, um Familien und Gattungen zu bilden und Arten voneinander zu unterscheiden. Material sammeln bedeutete in Linnaues’ akademischem Raum in Uppsala also, Gedrucktes zu handhaben und zu vergleichen und dann eine Reihe von Beobachtungen für die binäre Nomenklatur zusammenzufassen.[2]

Diese Verfahrensweise findet sich auch in den prä-linnaeischen Texten von Rumphius, die teils auf naturkundliche, teils auf agrarkundliche Kriterien bezogen sind. Im Amboinsche Kruid-boek (übersetzt Ambonese Herbal) findet sich zum Beispiel bei vielen Arten die Unterscheidung der untersuchten pflanzlichen Objekte in kultiviert–wild (im ersten Buch zum Beispiel Palmen oder der Mango-Baum), die auf der wiederholten Beobachtung und Handhabung von Blättern, Blüten und Früchten beruhten. Gleichzeitig hatte Rumphius bei Pflanzen und Tieren immer wieder Material vorgefunden, das er nur als Einzelfall festhalten konnte. Oftmals handelt es sich dabei um Fälle, die man heute zur Verhaltensbiologie und Ökologie zuordnen würde.

Ein Beispiel dafür ist das Kapitel „Of the Cancer Crumenattus. Cattatut. Purse Crab“, deutsch Palmendieb, in der Amboinsche Rariteitkamer, im Folgenden in der Übersetzung als Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet benutzt. Hier hielt Rumphius folgende Beobachtung fest:

This Crab has an enormous strength in its pincers […]. It can easily crack a Canary-Nut [ind. kenari, lat. Canarium indicum L.] with its pincers, while we usually have a hard enough time knocking it open with a stone. I was once in an Orangbay [orembaai nach Beekmans Fußnote, ein molukkisches Boot], where we had hung a Purse Crab on the mast, and under it happened to be a middle-sized Goat, and the Crab got the goat by the ear, and lifted it so high, that it was already off to the ground, before we could come to its aid, but the pincer had to be smashed into pieces, before the Goat got loose. (ACC, S. 27)

Auf den ersten Blick erscheint dies wie Seemannsgarn, das nicht zur wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnis beitragen kann. Allerdings gehört der Palmendieb zu den wenig erforschten Tierarten, obwohl die Krebse das größte Landtier mit einem Exoskelett sind, und Rumphius’ Beobachtung war nicht untersucht worden. Eine gerade publizierte Feldstudie des Biologen Mark E. Laidre (Dartmouth College) könnte dies ändern.[3] Laidre verbrachte drei Monate von Januar bis März 2016 auf dem Chagos Archipel im Indischen Ozean. Dort beobachtete er explizites Jagdverhalten der Krebse, die bislang nur als Aasfresser bekannt waren. Er filmte, wie ein Palmendieb auf einen Baum kletterte, einem schlafenden Vogel mit seinen Scheren einen Flügel brach, um dem daraufhin heruntergefallenen Vogel am Boden den zweiten Flügel zu brechen und mit anderen herbeigelockten Krebsen dessen Fleisch zu fressen. Der Zoologe Shin-ichiro Oka (Okinawa Churashima Foundation Research Center) hat 2016 nachgewiesen, dass die Scheren des Palmendiebs mit einer Kraft von bis zu 3.300 Newtons zugreifen und damit vergleichbar mit der Druckkraft (bite force) eines Löwen sind.[4]

Zurück zu Rumphius: Er forschte neben seiner Tätigkeit als Kaufmann, und dies auch im Raum der Naturlehre vor der Etablierung eines Protokolls bzw. Standards für Feldstudien in den (proto-) naturwissenschaftlichen Disziplinen.[5] Falls er Notizbücher geführt hat, die einem field book vergleichbar wären, sind diese nicht als physische Einzelstücke überliefert. Außerdem hatte er 1670 sein Augenlicht verloren[6] und konnte in den letzten dreißig Jahren seines Lebens keine visuellen Informationen mehr aufnehmen. Verweise auf geplante Feldstudien und Experimente, die in der ersten Person beschrieben sind, stammen höchstwahrscheinlich aus der Zeit vor der Erblindung. Schon die Manuskripte beruhen auf der Arbeit vieler anderer Hände, und noch mehr die gedruckten Bücher – vor allem von Schreibern, Illustratoren, Kupferstechern, Druckern. Deswegen lässt sich sein Material in den meisten Fällen nicht datieren und in eine chronologische Reihenfolge bringen, trotz der teils vorhandenen archivalischen Überlieferung von Material aus Ambon. Zudem war die Praxis der Naturforschung auf Ambon abhängig von einzelnen Akteuren und nicht institutionalisiert. Vor Ort hatte Rumphius weder Kollegen noch Nachfolger, die seine Arbeit weitergeführt oder verifiziert haben könnte. Deshalb haben die Einzelfälle so eine prominente Position.

Vor dem Hintergrund der Ressourcen, die Rumphius nach 1670 zur Verfügung standen, lautetet meine These zur Fauna in der Rariteitkamer, dass die textuelle Repräsentation von Handhabung und Beobachtung einzelner Fälle wie beim Palmendieb als Platzhalter für Beobachtungsreihen oder kontrollierte Experimente mit dem Untersuchungsmaterial stehen. Was die Tiere angeht, gehören die Routinen, die Rumphius vorher für das Sammeln von Material im wörtlichen wie im übertragenen Sinn für sich etabliert hatte, zu den prä-Darwinschen Formen biologischen Arbeitens:

Harriet Ritvo (1997) in The platypus and the mermaid, and other jigments of the classifying imagination has advanced a more culturally located view of the creation of European biological categories, outlining the variety of principles used in classification before Charles Darwin settled on genealogy. Many such principles – locomotion, diet, physiology – survive in present-day taxonomical practice.[7]

Hinsichtlich der Pflanzen war Rumphius nicht auf den Sehsinn angewiesen, weil ihm die Untersuchungsobjekte auf Ambon unmittelbar zur Verfügung standen und er in die Hand nehmen konnte. Im Vorwort zum Kruid-boek mit dem Titel „To the Benevolent Reader and True Practicioners of Botany“ hat der Bearbeiter und Herausgeber Johannes Burman festgehalten, welchen Stellenwert dabei der Tastsinn für die weitere Handhabung des Materials innehatten: Rumphius „could discover the leaves, fruits or seeds from the smell, taste, shape, or other attributes, and assign them their proper genus, which surely shows a most amazing knowledge and perspicacity.” (AH, Bd. 1, S. 183)

[1] Schwedisches Original und englische Zusammenfassung. Link: • Carl Linnaeus to Carl Gustaf Tessin, 5 August 1753 n.s. Dated 1753 d. 5 August. Besucht am 28. November 2017.

[2] Vgl. zu den Verfahren vorher Margócsy, Dániel. „Refer to Folio and Number“: Encyclopedias, the Exchange of Curiosities, and Practices of Identification before Linnaeus. Journal of the History of Ideas 71 (2010), S. 63–89.

[3] Laidre, Mark E. Ruler of the Atoll. The World’s Largest Land Invertebrate. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 15,9 (2017), S. 527f.

[4] Giant coconut crab sneaks up on a sleeping bird and kills it. New Scientist online, 9. November 2017,, besucht am 30.11.2017.

[5] Vgl. dazu Wiesenfeldt, Gerhard. Was demonstriert ein Experiment? Überlegungen zum Verhältnis von Erkenntnisgewinn und Wissensvermittlung in der Frühen Neuzeit. Spektakuläre Experimente. Praktiken der Evidenzproduktion im 17. Jahrhundert (Theatrum scientiarum, 3). Hg. von Jan Lazardzig, Ludger Schwarte und Helmar Schramm. Berlin: De Gruyter 2006, S. 260–278.

[6] Vgl. Beekman, E. M. „Introduction.“ The Ambonese Herbal. Georgius Everhardius Rumphius Translated, annotated and with an introduction by Eric Montague Beekman. New Haven: Yale UP 2011, Bd. 1 S. 69.

[7] Helmreich, Stefan. How Scientists Think; About ‚Natives’, for Example. A Problem of Taxonomy among Biologists of Alien Species in Hawaii. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11 (2005), S. 107–128, hier S. 109.