University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cabinet of Natural History > Advijsen, old and new: the life span of VOC natural-historical information within the Dutch East Indies

Advijsen, old and new: the life span of VOC natural-historical information within the Dutch East Indies

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In the last decades of the 18th century, VOC administrators in Ambon dug deep into their own provincial archive in Casteel Victoria to unearth bundles of natural-historical papers written almost a century earlier. Among these late-17th and early-18th century papers were reports and assessments – often labelled advijs – written by and for individual administrative officials who sought answers to specific questions; in this case, questions pertaining to the controlled extirpation of plants in the Maluku islands. Georg Everhard Rumphius (1627–1702) was one among several other 17th-century administrators whose written assessments would come to inform administrative decisions almost a century later, in the last, twilight decades of the Company which witnessed heightened inter-imperial competition and a severe economic downturn that had far-reaching consequences in Company posts across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. This paper attempts to historicize how administrators gauged the life span of natural-historical information within this context and looks at VOC practices of recording and retrieving information on one island across time. How did officials’ own practices of reading and interpreting the papered past inform their understanding of contemporary problems and solutions? How did they register a century’s worth of time and practice in the papers of those whose practical urgencies differed from their own? Did they ever consider information to be outdated and how did they assess the risks of resuscitating old natural-historical methods for new use? This paper attempts to answer these broader questions while also reflecting on the power of the archive for historical actors whose own prognostications were based on fragments of mediated information from a wildly different past.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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