Pin It

Hortus Indicus Malabaricus

Facebooktwitterby feather

Hortus Indicus Malabaricus

‘This part of India was truly and rightly the most fertile part of the whole world’.

  Rheede tot Drakenstein, Preface to volume 3 of the Hortus Malabaricus, p. v.

Prior to his appointment as Commander of Malabar in 1670, Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691) had had a lively military career as part of the Dutch East India Company. He had served in the Cape of Good Hope and Batavia, Ceylon and the Malabar but it was in the Malabar that van Reede really made his mark. Having restored order by 1674 van Reede turned his attention to botany. There were numerous reasons for this: first, the Company had a keen commercial interest in any medicinal benefits that might be accrued from the region; secondly, the availability of skilled personnel, such as the cleric Matthew of St Joseph, and the Malayali physician, Itti Achuden, ensured that the projected Hortus Malabaricus had a sound scientific basis. Van Reede, though enthusiastic, simply did not have the time to devote to such a large project, given his military role in the Malabar.

Hortus Indicus1

Rheede tot Drakenstein, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (Amsterdam, 1673-1703) vol 1, Fig 16.

Differences with the Governor of Ceylon, Rijcklof van Goens (who subsequently became the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies) led to his departure from the Malabar in 1677 and had a major impact on his subsequent career. Following his return to Amsterdam in 1678 van Reede had some time to devote to his manuscript before setting off again for Asia in 1684. It was during this time that van Reede worked with editors such as Arnold Syen (1640-1678), Professor of Botany at the University of Leiden, Johannes Munnicks (1652-1711), Professor of Botany at the University of Utrecht), Jan Commelin (1629-1692) at Amsterdam, and his publishers Johannes van Someren (1634-1706) and Jan van Dyck (fl. 1678) to produce the multi-volume Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (1693-1703) which Worth collected.

Hortus Indicus2

Rheede tot Drakenstein, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (Amsterdam, 1673-1703) vol 1, Tab 19. Todda-panna.

The importance of the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus cannot be over-estimated. Its comprehensive nature, coupled with the skill of the illustrators and the combination of Latin, Malayalam, Konkani and Arabic-Malayalam names ensured that it became the source for early modern botanists interested in Asian botany. Its pre-eminent status has been acknowledged by the fact that it contains the lectotype for eleven plants (Majumdar et al). For example, van Reede’s ‘Todda Panna’ was declared the lectotype for Cycas circinalis by Stevenson et al in 1993. Linnaeus had established the genus Cycas in 1753 but since then confusion has reigned over the proper identification of various species within it for it seems clear that Linnaeus had based some of his comments on earlier works where different species had not been correctly identified. In subsequent commentaries on the plant, Cycas rumphii and Cycas circinalis have often been used interchangeably. Hill (1995) sought to bring some clarity to the issue, stating that ‘almost all plants in cultivation that have been known as C. circinalis in fact belong to the C. rumphii complex’. However, he pointed out that the seeds of the two were a useful distinguishing factor. An Indian endemic, Singh (1993) gives the geographical location of Cycas circinalis as follows: ‘in the type variety restricted to the Western Ghats and hills of the southern peninsula, as far north-east as Madras, in the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. It typically occurs in fairly dense, low shrub-woodlands in hilly areas, and is still locally abundant.’ Cycas rumphii ranged over a greater territorial area, extending from Africa to Tonga.

Hortus Indicus3

Rheede tot Drakenstein, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (Amsterdam, 1673-1703) vol 2, Fig 28, Hummatu.

Van Reede’s striking image of Datura metel, here named as ‘Hummatu’, is not the lectotype for the plant. Published in 1679, it was quickly taken up by contemporary botanists: John Ray refers to the plant by its name in the Hortus Malabaricus, ‘Hummatu’, identifying it as part of the Datura family: ‘Daturae Malabaricae Hummatu’, while Dutch scholars such as Paul Hermann associated it with Datura Stramonium. In 1753 it was classified by Linnaeus as Datura Metel, one of the Solanaceae family. As Heniger points out, this illustration of Hummatu is a testament both to the inventiveness of the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus and, also, its close connections with Dutch botanical gardens, for here we see invented illustrations of cross sections of the Datura fruits which were ‘possibly based on specimens cultivated in the Netherlands’ (1986, p. 136).

Hortus Indicus4

Rheede tot Drakenstein, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (Amsterdam, 1673-1703) vol 4, Tab. 3, Adamaram.

The Hortus Malabaricus was above all an international project which spanned continents and decades. In 1684 van Reede was appointed Commissioner-general of the Western Quarters of Asia. The instructions which he sent to the Governors, Director and Commanders of the Ceylon in 1691 (the year of his death), amply demonstrate that he had continued his botanical researches. They also draw attention to the collective nature of the enterprise. Van Reede stated that he had requested: ‘some of you orally to send annually by the homeward-bound ships from Ceylon to the fatherland all kinds of seeds, bulbs, or roots of the trees, plants, herbs, flowers, etc. which each of each of you is able to collect in his district for a whole year.’* In his instructions van Reede emphasised the medicinal benefits which might accrue to the Dutch state: his commanders were reminded of the ‘medicinal virtues which the above-mentioned wise men might discover and find out’. The impetus had come for ‘distinguished gentlemen’ who included in their numbers both ‘wise men and amateurs’ and van Reede reported that their efforts had not been in vain, ‘because in the fatherland good results have already been got from these seeds’. Van Reede wasn’t looking for just any seeds – the more exotic the better: ‘we do not mean seeds of garden plants which are tame and known in Europe, but exotic, wild, and unesteemeed seeds which occur and can be found without exception in the forests.’ His instructions draw attention to the international nature of this botanical exploration since initially the cases of seeds sent back to the Netherlands were to be sent to Pieter van Dam, the solicitor of the Company in Amsterdam, but from there one case each would be ‘forwarded and handed to His Majesty of Great Britain and the other part to Mr Jan Commellin, for the account of the Academic garden of Amsterdam.’

* The quotations in this paragraph are from Heniger, J (1986), Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691) and Hortus Malabaricus. A contribution to the history of Dutch colonial botany (Rotterdam), p. 269.


Grove, Richard (1996), ‘Indigenous Knowledge and the Significance of South-West India for Portuguese and Dutch Constructions of Tropical Nature’ in Modern Asian Studies vol 30, no. 1, pp. 121-143.

Heniger, J (1986), Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691) and Hortus Malabaricus. A contribution to the history of Dutch colonial botany (Rotterdam).

Majumdar, N. D. and Guha Bakshi, D. N. (1979), ‘A Few Linnaean Specific Names Typified by the Illustrations in Rheede’s Hortus Indicus Malabaricus’ in Taxon vol 28, no. 4, pp. 353-4.

Singh, R. (1993), ‘The Indian Cycas in the field’, in Cycad Newsletter vol 16 no 2, pp. 2-3.

Facebooktwitterby feather