Dangerous Plants in the Colonial Imagination: Rumphius and the Poison Tree
Michael R Dove
January 1, 2014
Dove, Michael R. 2014. Dangerous Plants in the Colonial Imagination: Rumphius and the Poison Tree. National Tropical Botanical Garden. Allertonia 13: 29-46
One of the most celebrated plants in Rumphius’ “Ambonese herbal” is the Poison Tree or Upas tree (Antiaris toxicaria (Pers.) Lesch.). Rumphius’ account of it is high colored, even fanciful. In the political economy and ecology of the time, this reflects colonial fear of secret native knowledge and resources. It also reflects native exaggeration of this knowledge and resource. The combined result was centuries of European speculation concerning the Poison tree. Imagination was an integral component in the region’s ancient global trade in plant products and it was always co-produced by the participants from both poles of the global system, Europe and the Orient. The role of the European imagination in perceptions of the Poison tree is illuminated by its role in native perceptions of black pepper (Piper nigrum L.). Pepper was an ancient trade good in the region, and it dominated colonial trade for three centuries. Its cultivation and trade drew native peoples and states into the often unwelcome embrace of the European powers. Some native states tried to abolish its cultivation, claiming (e.g.) that its hot vapours led to ‘malice all over the country’ and even government disorder. This was another case in which plant imagery was co-produced through the relationship between colonial and native actors. This is one of the great values of Rumphius’ work: it illuminates the confluence of East and West in the production of knowledge in the early modern era, and it bears lessons for understanding the role of the imagination in perceptions of people, plants, and the Orient to this day. The publication of the “Herbarium” gives us an incomparable resource for taking a long, and insightful, view of this relationship.
Keywords: Poison tree, Upas tree, Antiaris toxicaria (Pers.) Lesch, Ambonese Herbal, Hikayat Banjar, plant metaphors, colonial science
Date posted: January 31, 2014