In the year 1698 a blind German merchant sat in a whitewashed cottage on a tropical isle 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 and all its creatures.” Just four years later a second, even greater catastrophe would strike, for an earthquake in the town of Ambon, where he then lived, killed his wife and youngest daughter.

From that time on, Rumphius had only his work, and his pursuit of it was to be dogged with misfortune. Before his blindness Rumphius had begun composing his great Herbal in Latin, a language he spoke fluently. At 1,661 folio pages and with 695 plates, this was a masterwork. Yet following his blindness, he had to throw away what he had completed and begin again—this time in Dutch—for there was no one in Ambon to whom he could dictate Latin, and no one who could read what he had already written.

Further misfortunes were to follow. In 1687, Rumphius’s original drawings for the Herbal were consumed by fire. By 1690 the first six books had been redone and were sent for printing, but they never made it to Amsterdam, for the ship carrying them was attacked and sunk by the French fleet. A copy of the work finally made its way half-way around the world to Amsterdam, but it was ignored. Not until 1750 was it laboriously translated into Latin, to make it acceptable to the scholars of the day, and published in full.

Rumphius’s dotage was spent, as far as we can tell, worrying about whether any of his voluminous works would ever be published. He lived in his cottage in Ambon town with a small Bengali slave named Cour, and a Javanese mongoose that could “stand up, walk, and sit on his two hind legs, like a Monkey…and if he has nothing to do, he puts [his paws] on his chest, like a poor sinner….” Plagued with uncertainty whether any of his works would be read by future generations, Rumphius died on June 15, 1702. Such were the vexations of the seventeenth-century natural history writer.


Rumphius’s island of Ambon lies in a unique zoogeographic realm known as Maluku. It is a land in between the great zoogeographic provinces of Asia and Australia, and in honor of Wallace’s work it is often referred to as Wallacea. Because of its geographic position, the people of Wallacea have long found benefit in trading the treasures of the East in the markets of the West. Among the most valued of all the products at their disposal were nutmegs, cloves, the oil of the kulit lawang and kayu putih trees, and the plumes of birds of paradise. All of these products are harvested from plants and animals with venerable Australian/Gondwanan pedigrees, some being brought from as far away as the mountains of New Guinea to the markets of the Spice Islands. The trade is clearly an ancient one, for cloves were known in Europe by Roman times, despite the fact that they grow on only a few islands in Maluku.

The reasons that the Australo-New Guinea islands are so rich in such tradeable goods are curious. The birds of paradise, for example, can thrive in all their diversity and cumbersome plumage because the region lacks carnivores, such as cats and ferrets, which dominate the other zoogeographic realms of the planet. Instead it is the home of the marsupials, like possums and kangaroos. Its plants, such as the clove and nutmeg, are encouraged by the region’s poor soils to develop chemical defenses against insects, and it is these chemicals that put the spices in our lives. What the Australo- New Guinea region lacked, however, was manufactured goods; feathers and spices were traded for metal and porcelains, which abounded in Asia. It was cloves and nutmeg that brought the VOC—the Dutch East India Company—to Ambon, and it was the VOC that employed Rumphius, initially as a soldier but later as a construction engineer and merchant.

Rumphius wrote The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet before the world had ever heard of that great methodizer of nature, Linnaeus, and a full century and a half before Darwin and Wallace talked of evolution. As such it is an anomaly in the modern world, where science and natural history are virtually autonymous. Thus if you wish to learn about the taxonomic relationships of mollusks or crabs, The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet is not for you, for it confounds the living and nonliving worlds, and lumps together such unrelated species as squid and violet snails, sea cucumbers and anemones. If, however, you revel in the struggle of humanity to comprehend the vastness and beauty of nature, and if you can see the world, even fleeting, through another’s eyes, then this book will repay you a thousandfold.

The translator of this edition, E.M. Beekman, quotes the Earl of Roscommon in the opening pages, revealing the sentiments that guided him in what is clearly a labor of love:

Examine how your Humour is inclin’d,
And which the Ruling Passion of your Mind;
Then, seek a Poet who your way do’s bend,
And chuse an Author as you chuse a Friend.
United by this Sympathetick Bond,
You grow Familiar, Intimate and Fond;
Your Thoughts, your Words, your Stiles, your Souls
agree,No longer his Interpreter, but He.

Just as significantly it reveals that Beekman regards Rumphius not just as a natural historian but as a poet as well. It’s a quality the two clearly share, for Beekman’s translation retains all the freshness, curiosity, and vividness of the original. If you have never seen the Nautilus tenuis or Ruma Gorita, here is part of Rumphius’s description of it:

The Fish that lives there [in the shell] is notably similar to a Polypus or Many-Feet,…its flesh is entirely soft, supplied with 8 beards, of which the 6 front ones are short, white and covered with warts like all Seacats, and which it spreads out like a rose when swimming. The two back ones are the same length, which it stretches forth along the curl in the back, lets them hang down in the water and steers its little boat therewith; for they are round and smooth, but at the end as wide as the blade of an oar, the color of silver…. One will find that when this fish goes sailing it stows most of its body towards the rear, keeping only the two aforementioned rudders on the outside for steering; but when there is no wind, it will bring all its beards out, lowers the prow again, and rows. When it notices any kind of danger or ambush, it will pull all its flesh on board, turn the stern up, so that the little boat will take on water, and in this manner it goes to ground…. If one wants the shell complete with fish, one has to approach it very quietly in the wind and skillfully scoop it up; but this happens so rarely, that Fisher-men consider it a great boon if they catch one, which is only likely to happen when there is a great stillness after a thunderstorm.

Thus the “paper nautilus,” known to most of us solely as an empty shell sitting on a mantlepiece, is rendered a living thing. Rumphius conjures it to us, rowing across the slick tropical sea in the silent stillness that is only felt after the fury of a tropical storm has passed.


Rumphius’s account of his “Sea-Gellies’ Boats” is, if anything, an even more remarkable poetic tribute to nature, for it reveals a more familiar creature—the purple sailor shell—in what is, quite literally, a new light:

The animal that lives in there [the shell]…is like a kind of Sea Gelly that stands up straight like the joint of a finger, when it drifts out on the open sea; this little Sea Gelly is perfectly clear, like a little crystal, with a blue sheen, and it consists of nothing but slime, that is surrounded by a little skin, and if one keeps it but for a single day, it will surely pass away. These little boats are seldom seen, at least at Amboina we had them for the first time in August and September, Anno 1682, at the end of the Harvest, when they came drifting up in large schools from the East, on the open sea…. The little boat laid there with the opening up, and the Sea Gelly stood upright like a small pillar, appearing to sail with a faint breeze, wondrous to see that such a fleet of easily a thousand little ships, could sail so agreeably together. When one took them from the sea and put them in a dish with water, the little Sea Gellies did manage to stand upright for a day, emitting a wondrously beautiful repercussion of light, as if the dish were filled with Precious stones; but one could detect little life there, and they dried up gradually….

Skeptical, perhaps, at such fantastic description, Rumphius’s printer added in 1704: “What are the Sea Gellies and Sealungs, and what is their origin, since we are not certain at all?” The difficulty the European mind had in accepting the astonishing beauty and diversity of tropical life was to remain an obstacle for Rumphius and other natural history writers for decades. Indeed when Louis Renard published his Poissons Ecrivisses et Crabes…que l’on trouve autour des Isles Molucques…in 1754, so skeptical was the audience that he was forced to include a letter from a highly respected reverend who had resided in the Moluccas, stating that the fish he painted actually existed!

Rumphius’s naive wonder at many of the more obscure creatures of the sea is delightful. Among the most troublesome to classify were the Phallus Marinus and its more lowly kin. He notes that they belong to a class of organisms that “come very close to plants and stones, and hardly show anything that looks alive…but Nature is so confounded by the Element of water, that one finds things in it, which can hardly be assigned…as if they were remnants of the original Chaos.”

The Phallus Marinus, Rumphius ominously warned, is

very like the Male member,…6 or 7 fingers long; more than an inch thick…pointed in front, though tapering off roundly, where they pull a round little head in and out, from which they squirt a water that looks like whey.

The Dutch, he notes, call them Kaffir Pricks; the Malays, Buto Kling (which translates as “Indians’ penises”). These strange creatures share a page with the Tethyis, which are

the color of flesh…like nipples or fingers,…if one grabs hold of them too hard, they will provoke a burning or itching in one’s hand. Inside one will see nothing more than pipes that look like veins, and which are filled with water, which one can press out of them, as with nipples.

Here, I think, we see Rumphius floundering. What God, he might have asked himself, would have filled Ambon’s seas with such blatantly sexual “remnants of the original Chaos”? It’s as if the creator had been overly fond of genitals, and fashioning too many, had tossed the excess into the briny, where they took on independent life. It is somewhat disappointing to realize that marine biologists have solved the mystery for us, for these apparently cast-off body parts are nothing but sea cucumbers (relatives of starfish) and sea anemones respectively.

If sea cucumbers confused the blind seer of Ambon, then the medusas struck fear into his heart. Rumphius described the Bulu Aijam (meaning “chicken feathers” in Malay), as a “monstrous Sea animal…dreadful to behold, and not easily touched by those who have never seen one.” It has, he says, the head of a spider to which are joined five pairs of limbs. These limbs divide and subdivide, until hundreds if not thousands of tiny tentacles are produced. When the beast moves, Rumphius declares, it “is of such a ghastly appearance, that one would hold it to be a clump of millipedes or tiny little Snakes.” If one tries to grasp it, he added, its arms curl upward and grasp the offending hand. How sensibilities have changed, for today the beautiful gorgonians are a staple in undersea natural history films, and are more often likened to flowers than snakes.

Clams also disturbed him, though perhaps for different reasons. The smaller clams of the seashore he described as “dreadful to behold, because if one looks upon one that is gaping, one sees nothing but a taut skin, full of black, white, yellow and lead-colored veins, painted like a snake’s skin.” The giant clam, he tells us, is

3 to 4 and 5 feet long…. They gape almost always when on the ground, especially in order to catch the little fishes that come in multitudes to swim and play therein, until all of them together are suddenly locked in there, and come to serve as the Beast’s food: This lumpish Beast always has a little Comrade with it, which is its Guard, being a kind of little Shrimp…which pinches its flesh, when it sees that there is a great deal of prey in its house, whereupon the shell snaps shut, and one believes that the Beast cannot live, if that little Pinna Guard happens to be away from it, because the Beast cannot see, and cannot be on guard for robbers.

This wonderfully acute observation—even if combined with erroneous deduction, reveals perhaps the personal feelings of the great man. Who was the blind Rumphius’s pinna guard, one wonders? Perhaps the wife killed in the earthquake? Certainly it is such tiny details of biology, read by Rumphius as indications of loyalty, protection, and friendship, that lend the work some of its greatness.

The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet is divided into three parts. The first concerns the “soft shellfish” such as the crabs, lobsters, starfish, and worms. The second deals with the mollusks, while the third part is dedicated to stones and metals. A curious combination finds its way into these latter pages, from gold to fruit pips, fossils, and ambergris. Perhaps more than any other, it is this section that reveals the seventeenth-century mind at work. It opens with a merchant’s preoccupation of assaying precious metals, and of weights and measures suitable for them. We learn how gold is “falsified,” and how clever the Moluccans are at this practice. We are then made privy to a series of tests that Rumphius has developed for detecting various frauds. It’s quite a shift from the style of the earlier parts.

Following this, Rumphius discusses the strange metals and alloys of the East, and our seer must admit defeat in his attempts to create the Tambagga Suassa of the Malays. We then come to the thunder stones. These, Rumphius declares, all come from the sky during thunderstorms. Some of the objects illustrated are clearly meteorites, but others are neolithic stone axes and adzes, and yet others metal instruments from Asian cultures. At the same time that Rumphius dismisses as superstition the Malay belief that such stones are the teeth of the thunder giant, he informs us

that all of mankind’s arts and sciences, and the tools that go with them, and which serve man in this temporal life, were originally an Astral influence…; wherefrom one may conclude, that the Astral smith who informed mankind how to make hammers, chisels, and other tools for the smithy, could also make such tools in the Thunder fire that he commands.

The author is a little closer to the mark in his discussion of fossils, for he recognizes them as the remains of shells and fish that have been petrified, but he then goes sadly astray in his discussion of dishes that can detect poison in food and other such mysteries. And what are we to make of his inclusion of “white water” in this section? “Twice a year,” he says, “the sea around the Banda Islands turns white and shines brightly.” Again we see the animate and inanimate co-mingled. Further on, we read of “stone files,” “stone bullets,” and “stone fingers.” Clearly the geological sciences were sadly behind the life sciences in the eighteenth century.

The book ends with a discussion of the various kinds of ambergris, bezoars (or intestinal stones), pigs’ balls, stones found in certain fruits, and “stones which happen to have an unusual shape.” There are stones where “people go in secret in order to transact that cursed thing called Batappa [possibly mortification of the body], when they request something from the Djing or devil, such as luck in war, good fortune in gaining riches, whoring and other such things.” As for the stones of various fruits, the bezoars and their supposed properties, and the pigs’ balls, I’ll leave the joy of discovering their nature to the reader.

As I read this wondrous work I became saddened by the modern world. I have often sailed down Ambon Harbor, yet I have seen no coral gardens, no medusae, no fishes. Today the water stinks and is thick with effluent and garbage, and as one enters the town one is greeted by rafts of feces, plastic bags, and the intestines of butchered goats. The town itself has grown prodigiously. It is now a sprawling and grubby city, no longer the village of Rumphius’s day. It is also a troubled city. In August the people of Ambon—Christian and Muslim—were killing each other, while a corrupt and vicious military holds these remote islands in the thrall of a Javanese empire.

I have been a practicing biologist all of my life. As a student I’ve sat in lectures as the wonders of the sea were explained to me, only to come out with a head brim-full of facts and names, and a sense of curiosity and wonder utterly stifled. To my shame I must admit that I’ve taught students the same way, dissecting, ever dissecting nature, until tiny pieces of knowledge are passed on in what becomes an arcane ritual. Despite the book’s egregious errors, were I to teach again, I think that I would do so with Rumphius’s The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet by my side, for enthusiasm and a sense of wonder are worth more to a young biologist than a decade of learned “facts.”

The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet essentially represents a European, or perhaps hybrid European-Malay, folk taxonomy of sea creatures and stones of the Ambon region. As such it is full of what was then useful knowledge. We discover what every kind of crustacean looks like in its cooked and uncooked state, which ones are believed to be poisonous, and how to prepare the flesh of everything from a sea lung to a giant clam for dinner. Detailed notes are also given on the preparation of shells for the curiosity cabinet, and how much to pay for various objects. The roles of shells, food, and stones in Malay ritual are all documented, with Rumphius often uncritically passing on tips about the supposed medicinal qualities of the various denizens of the deep.

All of this is accompanied by a series of black and white plates that are useful for helping one determine exactly what sort of thing is being discussed. The copious notes are also highly useful in this regard, as is the introduction, setting out what is known of Rumphius’s life and works. So thorough and well researched is Beekman’s work that it appears to be both the labor and the passion of a lifetime. Yale University Press is to be congratulated on its handsome production.

Who should read this book, and why? A biologist searching for an account of the natural history of Indonesia’s Spice Islands will put it down, baffled and disappointed, at the first page. A biologist open to the possibilities of using the detail in the book to understand past changes in the Ambon region, however, will find a gold mine. But Rumphius’s book deserves a wider readership. If you seek to rediscover a natural world—any world—a place where animals, stones, and plants are perceived and experienced entirely through the senses, then this book will prove to be a rare and enduringly curious pleasure.

This Issue

December 16, 1999