Dutch Colonialism, Natural History and why Latin is still useful

The content of the Cathedral Library at Worcester has been produced or collected by the monks and clergy here over more than a thousand years. Even with that fact born in mind, the sheer variety of topics covered by our books is still staggering. Subjects that you would expect to find here – such as theology, liturgy and history – are certainly very well represented. More surprising perhaps are the number of mathematical and scientific books which we hold. This blog post focuses on one of our very attractive natural history books, which demonstrates not only the extent of biological knowledge in the early modern period, but also the story of Dutch colonosation in South America.

Piso Worcester Cathedral Library

Watch out, J Lo. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The colonial activities of the Dutch in the East Indies are very well known. Less so are their doings in the Americas. A few islands in the Caribbean remain part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Surinam only gained independence in 1975 and still retains Dutch as its official language. Yet surprisingly the Dutch also had a shot-lived but influential presence in Brazil.

From 1630 until 1654, the Dutch controlled large tracts of territory on the Brazilian coast – comprising nearly half of the area to be colonised by Europeans in Central-Western South America at the time. Soon the Dutch began to fall-out with their longer-established Portuguese neighbours, and conflict arose between then. While the Dutch forces were well trained and equipped, the Portuguese relied on the use of native troops and irregular guerrilla tactics to gradually wear down their foes. The Second Battle of Guararapes in 1649 effectively ended the Dutch as a fighting force in the region, and they officially surrendered their colony to Portugal five years later. These events are still regarded by many Brazilians today as being formative in the birth of their nation.

Piso Worcester Cathedral Library

The Dutch troops, much like the Armadillo, were very well armoured. Alas they did not fare well in the tropical heat. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Skipping back in time to 1637, Brazil was still a land of mystery and opportunity for the Dutch. A young Amsterdam naturalist and physician named Willem Piso travelled to the fledgling colony in the employment of the Dutch West India Company. While there, Piso’s curiosity with his surroundings was truly pricked. He became engrossed in his studies of the local fauna and flora, and grew particularly interested in remedies for tropical afflictions that were derived from local plant life.  Together with the German scholar George Marcgrave, Piso published, in Latin, his Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (Natural History of Brazil) in 1648.

Piso Worcester Cathedral Library

The Portuguese forces fought with bravery and cunning, just like the wily Jaguar. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Worcester Cathedral Library holds a later edition of this work, published in 1658 under the title of De Indiae Utriusque re Naturali et Medica (Nature and Medicine of both the Indies). At that time, the term ‘Indies’ could refer to the Americas or Asia alike – and this later edition contains contributions from Jacobus Bontius, a naturalist who studied the wildlife of the East Indies.

Piso Worcester Cathedral Library Dutch East Indies Brazil

Massive tarantula – just because I like scaring people. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Interestingly, Bontius’ section contains the first account to appear in Europe of one of the East Indies’ most iconic animals – the Orangutan. Originally published in 1631, Bontius provides a rather suspect illustration of these famously shy apes. He also includes the following description of what the locals told him about them: Loqui vero eos easque posse, Iavani aiunt, sed non velle, ne ad labores cogerentur: ridicule me Hercules (‘The Javanese say that they are able to speak, but do not want to, lest they be compelled to work. Ridiculous by God!’)

Piso Organguatan Dutch East Indies Worcester Cathedral Library

Orangutan, allegedly. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

When I studied Classics at university, I little imagined that I would be using my Latin in order to uncover accounts of Indonesian zoology written by Dutch naturalists in the 17th Century. It just goes to show that learning an apparently ‘dead’ language is never ever useless, not interesting or not fun.

Tom Hopkins


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