S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Rumpf (or Rumph), Mr Georg Everhard (botany)

Born: 1627, Hanau am Main, Hessen, Germany.
Died: 15 June 1702, Ambon, Indonesia.

Georg Everhard Rumpf (or Rumph, later Latinised to Georgius Everhardus Rumphius) was educated at the gymnasium in Hanau am Main, before moving to the Netherlands in 1645. In November that year his employer, the (Dutch) West India Company, sent him to its settlements in north-eastern Brazil. However, the ship on which he and his fellow soldiers were travelling ended up in Portugal, from where he returned to Germany in 1648. In December 1652 he embarked on the Muijden for the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. The ship arrived in Table Bay on 18 April 1653, where Jan van Riebeeck* had founded a settlement a year earlier. During his brief stay until 26 April he made some botanical observations. A quantity of the wild growing "suurklawer" (Oxalis sp) was taken on board to serve as a vegetable and to combat scurvy.

Rumpf remained in the East Indies for the rest of his life. In 1657 he obtained a post in the Dutch East India Company's administrative service, with the rank of junior merchant, and was stationed on the island Ambon. There he lived with a local woman (Susanna) and made a detailed study of all aspects of Ambon and the flora and fauna of the Moluccas. He compiled Het Amboinische kruidboek comprising 13 volumes, in which he described the trees and other plants, both terrestrial and aquatic, of Ambon. Among others he mentioned seeing Oxalis corniculata and a plant belonging to the family Malvaceae near Signal Hill at the Cape. The first six volumes were sent to Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1690, with the rest following later. The work was eventually published as Herbarium amboinense (6 vols in 4; Amsterdam, 1741-1750) in both Dutch and Latin, and dealt with about 1300 plant species. He also compiled a Dierboek (book of animals), the manuscript of which was lost. However, before it was lost Francois Valentyn* made extensive use of it for his book on the East Indies.

Though he became blind in 1670, Rumpf was retained as an advisor by the Dutch East India Company and continued his studies with the help of his wife and others until his death in 1702. On 17 February 1674 he lost his wife and young daughter in an earthquake and associated tsunami, describing the events in Waerachtig verhael van de schrickelijke aerdbevinghe (True account of the frightful earthquake). On 11 January 1687 his house, with many books, drawings, and his collections of plants and shells, was destroyed by fire. Despite these setbacks he contributed 13 papers to Miscellanea Curiosa, the journal of the German Academia Naturae Curiosorum, after becoming a corresponding member of the academy in 1681. In his D'Amboinische rariteitkamer (Curiosities of Ambon; Amsterdam, 1705, with later editions) he described crustaceans, molluscs, and the rocks, minerals and soils of Ambon and other nearby islands. An English translation was published in 1999. He also wrote Generale lantbeschreivinge van het Ambonse Gouvernement (published in 2001), being a general description of the island Ambon, and Amboinse history (History of Ambon, published in 1910).

Rumpf was one of the greatest scientists employed by the Dutch East India Company. He was remarkable in that he studied plants in the wider context of their habitat and may perhaps be called the first ecologist.

List of sources:
Buijze, W. De natuurhistoricus Georg Everhard Rumphius en zijn bezoek aan Tafelbaai, 1653. Quarterly Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa, 2001, Vol. 56(1), pp. 12-19.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Nieuw Nederlandsch Biografisch Woordenboek. Leyden: Sijthoff, 1911-1937.

Schoeman, K. Kinders van die Kompanjie: Kaapse lewens uit die sewentiende eeu. Pretoria: Protea Boekhuis, 2006.

Compiled by: C. Plug