In the first half of the nineteenth century, various attempts were made to survey and study natural resources in the emerging Dutch empire in the Indonesian archipelago. Like the British in South Asia, the Dutch made extensive use of local Indonesian informants and naturalists from other European countries. To understand how the entanglement of transnational and trans-imperial networks and actors within the field of natural history shaped the study of nature in the early nineteenth century, this essay focuses on the field practices of the Natuurkundige Commissie voor Nederlandsch-Indië (Committee for Natural History of the Netherlands Indies, hereafter ‘the Committee’).

Established in 1820 by King William I of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Committee was a costly, large-scale surveying and collecting endeavour, offering naturalists, draftsmen, and preparators2, who came from German-speaking countries, France, and the Netherlands, a unique opportunity to pursue a career in the field of natural history as travellers and colonial civil servants. Until the Committee was dissolved in 1850, its seventeen members visited large parts of the far-flung Indonesian archipelago, sending a wealth of information, such as field notes and drawings, and specimens documenting the area’s rich biodiversity and natural resources to Europe.3 Collecting flora and fauna in the Indonesian archipelago and establishing their stature in Europe, however, presented various challenges that will be discussed in more detail below. Overall, in this essay I argue that the Committee’s history is best studied by bringing local colonial and European trajectories of natural historical inquiry under one analytical umbrella. An entangled perspective allows me to attend to actors, networks, and modalities of intercultural exchange that have traditionally been ignored.4

By using this approach, this essay engages with recent scholarship dealing with the role of natural historical and other forms of knowledge production in the context of the early nineteenth-century Dutch empire in insular Southeast Asia. Other studies have argued that natural historical inquiries in the Indonesian archipelago lacked scientific rigour, assuming that scientific knowledge was exclusively produced in the West.5 In contrast to this latter body of work, historians have started to generate more entangled narratives, analytically weaving together historical dynamics in Europe with those in colonial Southeast Asia.6 Fenneke Sysling and Robert-Jan Wille, for example, have shown that advances in anthropology and biology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are impossible to explain without considering input from learned travellers and institutions in the Netherlands Indies.7 Bernhard Schär has mentioned that two Swiss collectors working on ethnography and natural history in colonial Celebes formed a community of German-speaking museum directors and Southeast Asia scholars in Europe.8 Moritz von Brescius has noted the scale of intellectual engagement among German-speaking and other European naturalists, emphasising that by the mid-nineteenth century such connections had become inter-imperial.9 By focusing on the history of the Committee, this essay aims to enrich this discussion, which bases analyses of colonial natural history and collecting on the entangled past of empires and nation states.

My argument in this essay is elaborated in three sections. The first section briefly details the biographies of the Committee members, demonstrating the truly pan-European nature of its collecting endeavours. As in previous centuries, the vast colonies of the Netherlands in Southeast Asia offered an opportunity to participate in its networks of global knowledge exchange, attracting German-speaking naturalists in particular.10 Following the members of the Committee to the Indonesian archipelago, the second section underlines how natural history knowledge in the early nineteenth century is best analysed as a contingent product of local encounters, in which exchanges between European and non-European experts in natural inquiry were pivotal.11 Encounters outside the Committee’s headquarters in the botanical garden in Buitenzorg (now Bogor) in Java are of particular interest to my argument in this essay. Focusing on the publication challenges the Committee faced, once the manuscripts and specimens had been sent to Europe, the third section shows how linguistic nationalism impeded disseminating knowledge about nature and natural resources of the Netherlands Indies in the early nineteenth century. Overall, this essay provides an entangled narrative, in which stages in natural history knowledge production are intertwined with developments in Europe and elsewhere.

The Committee: A European project12

The history of the Committee begins in the early years of the reign of King William I (1815–1840) of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. After the French Empire’s collapse in 1815, William I and his advisors initiated numerous projects aimed at transforming the Northern and Southern Netherlands into a powerful and influential nation with economically profitable colonies in the Netherlands Indies. The economic prospects seemed promising. While the Southern Netherlands (currently Belgium) had a thriving textile industry and abounded with natural resources such as pit coal, the commerce-oriented Northern provinces (currently the Netherlands) shipped textiles and industrial products to Batavia.13 Ships returning to the Netherlands brought colonial products such as cloves, nutmeg, tea, and coffee. Newly established financial and commercial agencies seeking to strengthen the national economy included the Fonds ter aanmoediging der Nationale Nijverheid (Fund to Encourage National Industry, established in 1821), the Algemene Nederlandsche Maatschappij ter begunstiging van de volksvlijt (General Dutch Society to Promote Diligence, established in 1822), and, most importantly, the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij (Dutch Trading Company, established in 1824/1825).

These economic projects coincided with cultural and scientific reforms. To promote the prestige of his kingdom in Europe, King William Istrengthened and enlarged cultural institutions established in the aftermath of the Batavian Revolution, such as the Nationale Bibliotheek (National Library, 1798) in The Hague and the Nationale Konst-Gallerij (National Art Gallery) in Amsterdam.14 To showcase the Asian colony in this narrative, William I also founded two national museums and repositories for the rapidly expanding ethnography and natural history collections: the Koninklijk Kabinet van Zeldzaamheden (Royal Cabinet of Rarities, 1816) in The Hague and the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie (National Museum of Natural History, 1820) in Leiden. In 1829, William I established a Rijksherbarium (National Herbarium) in Brussels. The violent secession of Belgium the following year, however, led this herbarium to be transferred to Leiden.15 William I and his advisors hoped that these institutions would afford cultural credence to the Dutch aggressive agricultural and economic policy in Europe and the colonies.

The establishment of the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie and the Rijksherbarium had a tremendous impact on the intellectual and cultural landscape of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Both institutions soon developed into European hubs of natural history research. By the mid-nineteenth century, their collections equalled those in Paris.16 Their swift ascent was thanks to two key factors. On the one hand, both museums could build on existing collections gathered by individuals, such as the cabinet of Dutch Stadtholder William V or institutions, such as the learned societies in Haarlem, Amsterdam, or Middelburg.17 On the other hand, William I enabled the directors of the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie to form the Committee and other groups dedicated to collecting.18 By exploring the biodiverse islands of the Indonesian archipelago, the collections gathered by the Committee enriched the national repositories of historical specimens in Leiden and Brussels.

Like the staff of the Dutch trading companies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Dutch universities, the Dutch colonial armed forces, and the seasonal workers in the long nineteenth century, a significant share of the Committee members were recruited not from the Netherlands but from German-speaking parts of Central Europe.19 Due to a lack of clearly defined career paths, German members, like many other young naturalists in Europe, considered a position in the Netherlands or the Netherlands East Indies ideal for securing an income, an audience, and a reputation.20 Moreover, it allowed them to escape a politically divided Central Europe, where upward mobility depended on family ties, private capital, and class.21 Especially in German-speaking areas, only naturalists with socio-economic standing and family connections with the government of one of the German territories such as Prussia could pursue a career in the field.22 Some German-speaking naturalists used their medical training to further their interest in natural research either in the Netherlands or in the Netherlands East Indies.23 While career prospects were poor in German-speaking areas, the demand at the Dutch universities and the newly established natural history institutions and the need to acquire new specimens and publish about new insights in the field offered well-trained experts of nature with lower socio-economic standing sufficient social and professional flexibility.

In the context of the Committee, Salomon Müller (1804–1864), who was born in Heidelberg, exemplified this course. The son of a saddler, Müller never pursued an academic degree. He specialised in preparing specimens for preservation and presentation in natural history museums, securing a position as the Committee’s preparator of animals and plants in 1825.24 Other members from German-speaking areas hailed from higher socio-economic classes. The parents of Carl Ludwig Schwaner (1817–1851) owned an apothecary in Mannheim, while Heinrich Kuhl (1797–1821), Heinrich Boie (1794–1827), and Heinrich Macklot (1799–1832) had each been affiliated with universities in Southern Germany.25 Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn (1809–1864), born in Mansfeld, Saxony-Anhalt, was trained as a surgeon, and Ludwig Horner’s father was a member of the Zurich city council. In the late 1820s the Committee also employed a Frenchman named Pierre-Médard Diard (1794–1863), who was born near Tours. Given the French strategic interests in Asia, however, Diard raised the suspicion of the Dutch colonial authorities and his fellow naturalists on the Committee.

Financed by the Dutch crown, the Committee was officially established in 1820. Although the name suggests a cohesive organisation throughout the period the Committee existed, the reality was more complex. In the beginning, the Dutch crown and the Museum of Natural History in Leiden trained naturalists, with the intention of attracting naturalists from German-speaking areas. Before leaving for Java in the early 1820s, Heinrich Kuhl was allowed to visit numerous private and public collections in France, England, and Prussia.26 To curtail costs, later generations of naturalists received no specialised training. The Committee’s fieldwork depended on the goodwill of the Governor General in Batavia. Especially in the years prior to the Java War (1825–1830), the Committee’s travels to survey natural resources was paid by the colonial government. In addition to facilitating travel over land and by sea, the colonial government’s primary obligation to the Committee was to ensure that all observations and specimens collected were shipped to the Museum of Natural History in Leiden. When naturalists deviated from this rule, the colonial government intervened.27

Each Committee member had specific expertise. When Kuhl, at the age of twenty-one, left for Java in 1820, he was hailed as one of the most talented young naturalists in Europe.28 The publication of two monographs on mammals, and in particular on bats, had brought him acclaim in German-speaking areas and beyond.29 Heinrich Boie, who had been curator of the zoological collections at Heidelberg University, was professionally renowned as well. Before leaving for Java, he had worked on a major monograph on Java’s amphibians (Erpétologie de Java).30 Before Diard joined the Committee, he had worked under the French naturalist Alfred Duvaucel in British and French India. Later, Diard continued collecting in Singapore.31 Although they were officially employed by the Dutch state, all Committee members hoped their sojourn in the Dutch empire would establish their reputation as authorities on nature in the colonies. The large new botanical garden in Buitenzorg was especially attractive, offering them both an excellent infrastructure for their fieldwork and links to networks of trade, bureaucracy, and printing.32

While most notebooks, specimens, and drawings of the Committee returned to Europe, many naturalists died in the colonies from diseases such as malaria and syphilis.33 Many of the documents and specimens are now scattered throughout European museums and archives. Specimens collected by Diard and other members were sent to the Royal Society in London and the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (Museum of Natural History) in Paris. In the 1830s, when most of the Committee’s specimens arrived in Europe, the Leiden Museum of Natural History regularly exchanged items from Asia with natural history museums in Berlin, Vienna, Frankfurt, Munich, and Copenhagen.34 Compiling a complete list of the European trajectories of items related to the Committee would be challenging, as many natural history museums in Europe have yet to digitise their collections and inventories.35 A minority of the items stayed in Indonesia. Most of the notes documenting Carl Schwaner’s investigations in Borneo in the 1840s, for example, are still at the National Archive of Indonesia (ANRI) in Jakarta.36

This brief historical overview of the Committee offers a glimpse of the rich material, visual, and textual outcomes of its members’ collecting endeavours. Neither the careers of Committee members nor their collections can be fully understood from a solely European perspective. Only if European and colonial trajectories are considered together, may analysis of the Committee provide an account of natural history and empire in the early nineteenth century. The preference of the Dutch for naturalists from German-speaking areas is remarkable. As German states had no territorial claims in Asia, the Dutch regarded German scientists as loyal civil servants and collectors.37

Collecting nature in the Netherlands Indies

After its establishment in 1820, Committee members visited large parts of the Netherlands Indies. Kuhl, Boie, Macklot, and Diard explored the environs of Batavia, Buitenzorg, and the western part of Java in the 1820s. Macklot, Müller, the Dutch draftsman Pieter van Oort (1804–1834) and the Dutch preparator Gerrit van Raalten (1797–1829) set out on the Triton for a long sea expedition encompassing New Guinea, Timor, Celebes, and Amboina in 1827.38 Later expeditions also covered Sumatra and Borneo. The purpose of these travels was twofold. First, the Committee’s research had to serve the colonial state in managing its overseas possessions. They were regularly instructed to help colonial authorities find feasible solutions to pressing issues, from cultivating cash crops to appraising soil.39 Some naturalists were asked to map peripheral regions which were unprospected so far and gather information about natural resources. In the 1840s, Schwaner was instructed to investigate pit coal resources in South Borneo, useful for steamships and industry.40 Müller provided a detailed map of this region. Second, Committee members were expected to act as collectors of the Museum of Natural History and the National Herbarium in Leiden.

Upon arriving in Batavia, most naturalists immediately went to the botanical garden in Buitenzorg. Here, the colonial government had reserved a house and store rooms for Dutchmen and foreigners.41 The garden was next to the residence of the Governor General and the building of the Algemene Secretarie (General Secretariat), the Dutch colonial administrative centre in Java. Until the Committee was disbanded in 1850, the garden and its surrounding infrastructure served as its operational centre, both in the Buitenzorg district and in more remote regions in Java and other islands. The garden also provided the naturalists with a secure place to dissect collected animals, write and copy their notes, compare their findings with observations by others, prepare drawings, and arrange for items to be shipped to Europe.42 The handwritten field notes of Kuhl and Conrad van Hasselt, for example, show that in February 1821 the garden’s anatomy facilities were used to dissect and describe the anatomy of a female elephant (Elephas indicus).43 Managing the dissection of an animal weighing two to five tons required a well-organised anatomy site with lifting facilities, dissection instruments, and enough helpers to remove the animals’ intestines.44

The storerooms, laboratory and offices in the botanical garden in Buitenzorg formed an important infrastructure for early nineteenth-century naturalists in Java. This illustration of the garden appeared in Carl Blume, Rumphia, sive commentationes botanicae, imprimis de plantis Indiae Orientalis (Amsterdam 1834–1849).

Dissecting and collecting natural history items was a collaborative endeavour involving large numbers of European and non-European helpers. All Committee members could rely on the colonial infrastructure. By the time their drawings, manuscripts, and specimens reached museums in Europe, they had passed through numerous hands. The field diary of Van Oort, one of the group’s most productive collectors and draftsmen, reveals the daily routine of the Committee. Van Oort was born in Utrecht and arrived in Java in 1826.45 He died in 1834, aged only 29. In his diary, which comprises over one thousand handwritten pages, Van Oort vividly describes collaboration and tensions alike with local helpers and German- and French-speaking naturalists. When Committee members left Buitenzorg in 1831, they often had an entourage of over 150 persons.46 In addition to soldiers and porters, the caravan included eight Bugi hunters, several cooks, guides, and two Javanese (one was named Asied) and one Chinese draftsman who helped Van Oort organise his drawings.47 To ensure the safety of the group en route, the authorities informed district heads of their upcoming travels. Van Oort and his colleagues were allowed to stay in protected residences for travelling colonial civil servants (known as pasanggrahan), when they followed the postal road connecting Batavia’s harbour with Buitenzorg’s botanical garden and other important sites in Java.48 In addition to their base in Buitenzorg, these pasanggrahan provided naturalists with a temporary base, where they could rest and prepare their field notes, and specimen collections to be transported back to Buitenzorg.

Map of the hinterland of Banjermasing (now Banjarmasin) in South Borneo designed by Samuel Müller. The map is based on geographic information Müller compiled during his visit in 1836. Müller marked the area controlled by the local sultan in red. Naturalis BC, NNM001000871_090. Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Once Van Oort and his fellow travellers arrived in a village or city, the local meetings followed the same procedure. First, the naturalists were welcomed either by a Dutch and/or by a local district head, who usually invited them for a meal and tea. During these meetings, which were often translated by interpreters, Van Oort and his colleagues received information on the economic and natural resources of that particular district. The diary of Van Oort is filled with long lists of Sundanese, Malay, and Javanese names of plants and animals.49 Armed with experience-based expertise on flora and fauna, Javanese women were often crucial mediators between the Committee’s interests and the interests of local rulers.50 We know Van Oort, whose diary abounds with sexual innuendos, had several affairs with Javanese women.51 Although the socio-economic background of these women are impossible to reconstruct, these diaries reflect the women’s importance as sources for the Committee’s research on Javanese flora and fauna. The diaries mention that a Javanese woman called Siepiet, with whom Van Oort had a longstanding affair, was born on a large private country estate (Pondok Gedeh) in the hinterlands of Batavia in 1813 or 1814.52 However, in the later published accounts of the Committee’s fieldwork aimed at an audience of European readers, Chinese draftsmen and meetings with Javanese informants are far less prominent and are rarely mentioned.

During the Committee’s years in Indonesia, only part of Java was under Dutch control. In more remote areas the Committee relied on the infrastructure provided by private landowners and plantation administrators, many of them were British. In May 1832, for example, the Committee visited a large country estate in West Java. The estate manager John Pitcairn was also involved in sugar production.53 Many of these estates were dependent on the Dutch colonial government authorising them to produce sugar using cheap local labour. Private estate managers supported the Committee members with additional guides, porters, hunters, and interpreters. They also made their local servants prepare temporary footpaths and lodgings.

Illustration of a female Elephas indicus. Special Collection of the University of Amsterdam, Iconographia Zoologica, box 99: Public domain.

Despite extensive collaboration, tensions arose, both between the Dutch and the foreign Committee members and between the Committee and the locals. The safety of the members could not always be guaranteed during and after the Java War (1825–1830), which had claimed the lives of over 200.000 civilians as well as Javanese and European soldiers.54 Macklot was killed in an uprising of Chinese workers in Purwakarta shortly after the war.55 During the attack on Macklot’s house, the Committee also lost many manuscripts, specimens, books, and other scientific equipment.56 Tensions between Dutch and other European naturalists also compromised the Committee’s productivity. When the Frenchman Diard took over the Committee’s financial administration, for example, Van Oort questioned whether he was trustworthy. Given the French interests in Asia, Van Oort and other Committee members suspected Diard of sending specimens and observations to Paris rather than to the Netherlands.57

Unlike Diard, the German-speaking members were usually praised for their productivity and loyalty. After the untimely deaths of Kuhl and Conrad van Hasselt in the mid-1820s, for example, a specially designed tomb and burial monument in Batavia sponsored by the Governor General paid tribute to their fieldwork. In his diaries, Van Oort also described Boie, who died in 1827, as a naturalist with outstanding expertise.58 The Dutch trust in German-speaking naturalists was reflected in their generous salaries. While Van Oort received a monthly salary of 200 colonial guilders, Macklot and Boie were each paid 500 colonial guilders.59 This trust, however, was not unconditional. In the 1820s, the Governor General asked the Dutch preparator Van Raalten to copy the field notes of their deceased German colleagues.60 King William I explicitly forbade naturalists to send manuscripts, specimens, or drawings to German or other European museums. The case of Junghuhn, a German-speaking member of the Committee in the 1830s, shows that this fear was justified. Upon discovering Junghuhn’s correspondence with German publishers and learned institutions, the colonial government terminated his affiliation with the Committee.61 Ultimately, only a few members of the Committee returned to Europe. In the next section I follow the return of the surviving naturalists to Europe , examining the difficulties they faced in turning the Committee’s notes and specimens into scientific publications.

Van Oort and one of the hunters are offered a snake in Timor, around 1828/1829. In the background is a soldier. Especially in the years before and after the Java War, substantial numbers of armed soldiers accompanied the naturalists when they left the botanical garden. Coenraad Temminck e.a. (ed.). Verhandelingen over de Natuurlijke Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Overzeesche Bezittingen, vol. 3 (Leiden 1839–1844) plate 29. Naturalis BC, NNM001000871_029. Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Circulation of fieldwork in Europe

The German naturalist Müller returned to Leiden in 1837. In the years prior to his return, the repositories and archives of the Museum of Natural History and the National Herbarium were rapidly filled. According to a report by Wilhelm de Haan (1801–1855), curator of the invertebrates collection at the museum in Leiden from 1825, the number of insects rose from 249 in the 1820s to 18.410 in 1834.62 Although exact figures are unavailable, handwritten manuscripts in the museum archive also appear to have increased substantially during these years. Müller and the botanist Pieter William Korthals filled thousands of pages in field books with meticulous descriptions of the flora and fauna in the colonies.63 Despite this influx of material in Europe, natural history knowledge was slow to materialise in scientific publications. Focusing on some of the tensions that arose during the creation of the Verhandelingen, the main dissemination project of the Committee, in the third section of this essay I explore the challenges faced by the Committee members when they tried to publish an overview of the natural resources aimed at the European readership. Transforming field notes, specimens, and drawings into scientific publications was far from simple. These tensions offer a fresh view on European natural history and empire formation in the early nineteenth century.

A first tension arose in the mid-1830s. Until then, only a few articles and excerpts from letters had been published in German, Dutch and French periodicals.64 In this context, the interim Governor General of the Netherlands Indies Jean Chrétien Baud had sent William I a long letter deploring the inefficient dissemination strategy of the Committee.65 Hardly any of the travellers had managed to inform European readers about the natural wealth of the colonies. Findings of the Committee members on fishes in the Indonesian archipelago had already been published by French naturalists.66 To reduce the Committee’s annual costs of 40.000 guilders a year in total, Baud proposed the king to restrict the number of naturalists in the colony, and he urged that they should be sent back to the Netherlands as quickly as possible to publish their findings.67

The tomb and the monument constructed after the death of Heinrich Kuhl and Johan Conrad van Hasselt in Batavia in the early 1820s. Collection Tropenmuseum Amsterdam, inventory number TM-0-461.

Baud’s reservations did not fall on deaf ears. As William I and his ministers were uncertain how to respond, they forwarded the letter to Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt, director of the botanical garden at Leiden University from 1822, and Coenraad Jacob Temminck, director of the Museum of Natural History in Leiden from 1820, requesting them advice in this matter.68 In his reply, Temminck deplored the lack of financial support that William I allocated the Committee and regretted the failure of his collectors to publish appropriate reports on their fieldwork. Reinwardt added another argument and complained that William I regarded this fieldwork exclusively as a national endeavour which had then to be published in Dutch.69 In Reinwardt’s view, all observations made and specimens gathered in the Netherlands Indies belonged to a shared pool of knowledge, and had to be made accessible to naturalists all over Europe.70 Inspired by the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), Reinwardt also recommended the king to sponsor a ‘physical description’ of the colonies, in which the interplay between various forces of nature (such as wind, rain, volcanic activity, and erosion) would reveal and explain the wealth of natural resources in the colonies.71

Reinwardt’s suggestions were ignored. Finally, in February 1839, William I agreed to sponsor a multi-volume monograph series on the findings of the Committee. The first volume would address zoology, the second botany, and the third ethnography. Each volume had to include many lithographs. The purpose was to communicate the findings of the Committee to a larger readership. All contributions had to be in Dutch or Latin. To ensure that the monographs remained a ‘national exercise’, the use of French, the main language of natural history publications at the time, was ruled out.72 The refusal of William I to honour requests from readers in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe to publish the Committee’s findings in French needs to be understood within a broader official policy to strengthen the Dutch nation.73 The administrators of the Batavian Republic, which preceded the reign of William I, had already taken various measures such as the creation of an official spelling and several educational reforms to ensure that administrative and learned exchanges within the Republic were established in Dutch.74

As a result of William I’s decision, the success of the Verhandelingen was limited. Rather than enabling the Committee’s knowledge on natural history to circulate throughout Europe, only 250 copies were published. The Dutch government ordered that a substantial share should be distributed among ministries, learned societies, and museums in the Netherlands and abroad. While learned readers in Europe devoted time and money to the latest instalment of the ‘physical description’ of South America, written in French by Alexander von Humboldt, many copies of the Verhandelingen were presented as diplomatic gifts, and disappeared unread in the libraries of Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world.75

While the European circulation of natural history publications based on the Committee findings in the Netherlands Indies remained modest in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Committee’s specimen collections and handwritten documentation had a major impact on natural history research in Europe in the long term. To this day, this rich source serves biologists and biodiversity researchers as reference material in taxonomic inquiries and publication projects. The large number of type specimens that the Committee brought together are a valuable asset in naming unknown specimens76, conducive to understanding long-term environmental change not only in insular Southeast Asia but in other parts of the world as well.77 Many of the species such as the Silvery Javan Gibbon, Javan Rhinoceros, Common Spotted Cuscus, and Javan tiger are now either extinct or critically endangered.78 This archive of the Committee, still largely unexplored, offers historians of science a fascinating insight into the daily lives of European naturalists of diverse backgrounds and interests in the Netherlands Indies. Moreover, it deepens our understanding of the cross–imperial natural history in the nineteenth century.


In this essay, I have shown how the history of the Committee for Natural History of the Netherlands Indies is best approached from a transnational and cross-imperial perspective. Recently, historians have focused on the role of overseas imperialism in facilitating natural history and other forms of learned inquiry. The history of the Committee also shows that the Dutch empire exuded a broad appeal to young people within Europe, in particular from German-speaking lands. Many hoped that participating in a state-sponsored collecting endeavour would give them the opportunity to consolidate their careers and establish their stature as naturalists.

The decision to publish the Committee’s main publication in Dutch left many of the expectations of these naturalists unfulfilled. Aside from the difficulties the Committee experienced circulating its fieldwork results within Europe, the Committee and its material remnants both shaped and were shaped by non-Dutch nationals, mostly naturalists from Central Europe. The enormous influx of specimens that the Committee collected in the Netherlands Indies has had a lasting impact on European institutions and the scientific study of nature in the colonies. The close relationships of the Leiden Museum of Natural history with other institutions in Europe, including museums in Paris, London, and Munich, has endured.

Field notes by Pieter William Korthals, photograph taken in the archives of the former National Herbarium of the Netherlands (now Naturalis Biodiversity Center) by Andreas Weber, 2010.

In the Indonesian archipelago, the Committee was important as a surveyor of the emergence of the colonial state and its aggressive agricultural exploitation. The Committee, however, was more than a tool of the empire. While travelling in the remote areas and islands of Java, the Committee encountered a world in which a colonial government barely existed. Collecting natural history specimens under these circumstances required striking a careful balance among divergent local interests. Against the backdrop of a colonial policy that forced local peasants to produce cash crops for the world market, the local Indonesian assistants of the Committee must have met odd reactions to their collection activities from family, friends and neighbours. Regardless of whether these Indonesian assistants were forced to participate in the Committee’s activities, or whether they were attracted by financial incentives, or just curious about the work undertaken, they assisted in creating a shared cultural and natural heritage.

Studying this heritage will teach us more than the biodiversity and the long-term changes in flora and fauna in one of the most biodiverse regions in this world.79 As historians, we can also read these archives as the products of a moment in which European natural history, local Indonesian expertise of natural resources, and colonialism were closely entangled.