Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A wooden library from Sumatra

Knowledge on plants was spread in many ways during the long eighteenth century, when plant systematics took a huge leap forward. One decorative way that gained popularity in the last quarter of the eighteenth century was the wooden library. It proved an interesting but shortlived fashion, that quickly faded after its main creators (who also were its main promotors) had died, somewhat about 1830.
Wooden libraries were mainly a German product, and only a few (but productive) makers are known.

I recently acquired a rather strange echo of this fashion: three 'bindings', remains of wooden library made in Sumatra circa 1840. The three bindings are labeled 'Paning-paning of Eikenhout', 'Marabouw hout' and 'Lasso hout'. I will refer to them further as books, but of course they are only book-alikes.

Paning-paning is an alternate name for Lithocarpus gracilis, now commercially called 'Mempening' (and, as the Dutch name Eikenhout already refers to, once placed in the Quercus oak family).

Marabouw is the tree now called 'Merbau', both used for Intsia bijuga and Intsia palembanica, two closely related species. Merbau is still a major and valuable timber for the region.

Lasso was much harder identifiable. Translation from Malay to European languages were not yet standardized, and this makes the search in old dictionaries harder.
Filet's oldest specialist plant name dictionary for Indonesia (1876/2nd. ed. 1888) mentions 'lasso' as a name for Parthenoxylon pseudo-sassafras (now named Cinnamomum parthenoxylon). Miquel's even older botanical book on Sumatra (1861) mentions 'lasoh' as name for the same tree. Later ('cleaned-up') dictionaries from Dutch-Indonesian/Malay origin maintain more modern orthography (for example
Van Eeden's book on Indonesian timber (1905), calls 'laso' as a local name) Strangely enough, the name is not mentioned in De Clercq's extensive plant name dictionary of 1909.

This orthography problem remains in the search for references to all three names. However, in general (and not surprising), the oldest dictionaries give the most comparable names (Filet has all in exactly the same orthography). Especially 'Marabouw' for merbau is a constant factor, as the huge commercial importance made a standard name necessary in daily communication.

Why would someone in rough tropical condition take the time to present botanical material in such an elaborate way? The answer may well lie in the fact that many (if not most) of the researchers were Germans. As German-originated fashion, wooden libraries would have been easy to encounter during their education (indeed, most of the extant wooden libraries are still in the possession of German institutions), and inspired a researcher to make this 'tribute' to his upbringing.
But as much is unclear about the set, further research is needed.

The books have clearly remained for some time in the tropics after they were made.
As was usual for books, they have received a petroleum treatment regularly, as prevention against the main tropical book enemy: insects. This may have been essential for their survival, unfortunately it destroyed each trace of plant material that could have been inside of them. Without these materials, they can only be judged on the text written on them.

Inside, their places of collection are stated, twice 'Padang' and once 'Fort van de Cappelle' (= Fort van der Capellen, now Batusangkar, curiously enough with triple spelling error).

The books are numbered 17, 20 and 22, suggesting they were part of a larger set. The three that I have at hand now are specimens of timber trees. Typically, as the libraries were meant as educational tools for (economic) botany, the wooden libraries would also have included trees that are used for their fruits, resins or dyeing properties.

The books are somewhat hard to date, but the lettering (especially the highly decorated P of the Paning-Paning) suggests a date around 1840. Fort van der Capellen (named after the Dutch governor who ruled till 1826) was built between 1822 and 1826. The triple spelling error could point towards a rather early date, when the fort was still relatively unknown. It later became an important and well-known stronghold, making it hard to get the name wrong.

The front sides of the books are numbered in an army type font, which suggests that the set was once stored in an army library or archive. Van Eeden (1905) gives a rather complete overview of the botanical collections that were part of the Koloniaal Museum at Haarlem (which served as central storage and true Wunderkammer for everything brought back for the colonies), but from his descriptions it is hard to determine exactly whether these books were part of the Museum.

During the 1830-1840's, Minangkabau territory was under Dutch 'influence', but not strictly under Dutch rule. Botanical expeditions were made only a few times, as military guides were expensive, and other (military) explorations were seen as more important/necessary. The only major expedition, the one of P.W. Korthals and S. Müller from 1833-36, could well be the source of this collection. Korthals' dairies are kept in the Nationaal Herbarium at Leiden. When I have time to see these, this part will probably be continued..

Only a guess now: Korthals travelled with a French draughtsman to put his discoveries on paper. Could this explain both the spelling error and the calligraphic quality of the inside texts?

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