In the year 1698 a blind German merchant sat in a whitewashed cottage on a tropicisle in the southern sea, dictating intricate descriptions of crabs, sea-snails, “metals, stones and other rare things” to an amanuensis. Four years later, as its author lay dying alone on his island, the manuscript was making its way toward publication in the bustling city of Amsterdam at what must have seemed a snail’s pace. Three years later, in 1705, The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet finally came into being. Although reprinted twice early in the eighteenth century, it has been unavailable ever since. Now, after an interval of more than 250 years, Yale University Press has seen fit to reprint the work, making it available for the first time in English. Why should anyone bother reading, let alone reprinting or purchasing, such a book? Simply, perhaps, because it is glorious.
Georg Rumphius lived most of his adult life on the spice island of Amboina (now Ambon) in the Indonesian archipelago. It’s a place where one naturally turns to the sea, for its blue waters are all-encompassing, and full of extraordinary life. The wonderful detail and deep insights contained in Rumphius’s descriptions of sea creatures should not surprise us, for other naturalists have also been inspired by Ambon. The co-founder of the theory of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, visited the place in 1857 and described its harbor as
one of the most astonishing and beautiful sights I have ever beheld. The bottom was absolutely hidden by a continuous series of corals, sponges, actiniae, and other marine productions, of magnificent dimensions, varied forms, and brilliant colours. The depth varied from about twenty to fifty feet, and the bottom was very uneven, rocks and chasms, and little hills and valleys, offering a variety of stations for the growth of these animal forests. In and out among them moved numbers of blue and red and yellow fishes, spotted and banded and striped in the most striking manner, while great orange or rosy transparent medusae floated along near the surface. It was a sight to gaze at for hours, and no description can do justice to its surpassing beauty and interest. For once, the reality exceeded the most glowing accounts I had ever read of the wonders of a coral sea. There is perhaps no spot in the world richer in marine productions, corals, shells and fishes, than the harbour of Amboyna.
For thirteen years Rumphius lived on the beautiful Hitu coast of this enchanted isle, at its westernmost point, where nature is all around. There he lived, as one visitor observed, “like a Prince, and with greater repose than many a King,” following his profession as a merchant and his passion as a student of nature. Then, in April 1670, a catastrophe struck. At the age of forty-two, over just a few weeks, the great man was blinded by glaucoma. It was, in his own words, a “terrible misfortune [that]…suddenly took away from me the entire world …