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.

Call for Papers


Hybridisation in Natural History?
Materials and Texts Between Asia and Europe, 17th and 18th Centuries

deadline extended to October 30

February 21–24, 2018, University of Cologne
Institute of Dutch Language and Literature

Get the pdf-version of the CfP

Workshop Topic and Questions
Within the project Circulation in Spaces of Knowledge Between Asia and Europe, our focus lies on works of natural history connecting the Moluccas and the Netherlands during the process of European colonisation in the 17th and 18th centuries. We are especially interested in the different “ways of knowing and working” (Pickstone) that contributed to G. E. Rumphius’ books on the Ambonese flora and fauna. On the surface, the objects and texts of Rumphius’s natural history can easily be localised in a specific geographical place or a specific collective practice. When taking a closer look, a shell from the coast of Papua was purchased from a trader coming through the market in Kota Ambon, incorporating different ways of transporting, assembling, and ordering material in the process. A plant was cultivated only in gardens or plantations in Java, but formed part of the larger knowledge economy within the Dutch East India Company. Also, the plant could take on a double function as food and as medicine and consequently go through different cycles of commodification. The shell might have been transformed from animal into artefact on one of the Indonesian islands and subsequently into a curiosity in a Dutch cabinet. European and Moluccan knowledge interact in a hybrid natural history. A description of shells found while walking along the beach of Ambon was illustrated with copperplate prints depicting specimens from Dutch collections. For the textual representation of a shell, analogies and metaphors as well as the poetics of the rare, wonderful and marvellous were used. A narrative could be part of the depiction of a plant, thus combining local objects and local narratives with strategies of representation that originated in Europe. The production and reception of knowledge about natural history is situated in cultural contact between Asian and European actors and framed as a process of circulation with dynamics that constituted new spaces of knowledge between Europe and Asia. Invited speakers at this point include Susanne Friedrich (LMU), Siegfried Huigen (Wrocław), Eric Jorink (Huygens Institute, Amsterdam/Leiden, Sri Margana (Yogyakarta), Dániel Margóscy (Cambridge), Bert van de Roemer (UvA), and Claudia Swan (Northwestern).

During this workshop our aim is to look at the idea of hybridity as double function or combination of elements, and to discuss evidence for hybridisation as a process from which something new and different originates in the production of knowledge (Bhabha). Therefore we invite contributions from fields such as the history of knowledge, the history of science, poetics of knowledge, art history, and adjoining disciplines. Themes to be addressed include, but are not limited to:
• Observation and illustration of objects between individual cases and general models
• Packaging, transport, and shipment as influence on object categories
• Practices of collecting and exchanges of material between collectors
• Additions and arrangements of material by editors and printers
• The role of analogies and metaphors in describing and naming objects
• The poetics of the rare, wonderful and marvellous
• The role and interaction of auctoritas, empiricism and local knowledge
• The form and function of narratives in natural history writing

Presentations will be 20 minutes followed by another 20 minutes of discussion. For PhD-students at the beginning of their research, there will be a moderated poster session on the third day of the workshop, including a 5 min presentation of each poster and the opportunity to answer questions.

Organisation During the workshop, lunches will be provided and on the second night there will be a conference dinner. Additionally, we plan excursions to the Southeast Asia collection of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum and to an exhibition of Japanese woodcut prints at the Museum of East Asian Art in Cologne. We are applying for funds to reimburse hotel and travel costs for speakers/presenters.

Contact Please address your abstract of 400 words (presentation) or your project outline (poster) with a short CV by October 30 to Prof. Maria Leuker at leuker(at) Presenters will be informed about our decision by the end of November. Find more information about our project on our homepage: