Materia Medica, 2015 (India – The Netherlands)

Transpose our thoughts now back to 600 years ago in an era of global exploration for new commodities, or ‘novelties’ extending to all continents. What were these explorers searching for, other than that of ‘immutable mobile’, studying material and spatial specificities of scientific instruments and practices? In 1498, along the Malabar (Kerala) coast, Vasco da Gama was a competitor to Arab merchants with an agenda to procure spices and monopolise the trade for the Portuguese.

Purportedly, da Gama requested permission to the Zamorin of Calicut to take a few pepper saplings with him back to Portugal. The Zamorin’s minister expressed caution, which the Zamorin ignored and instead granted his request, stating: “Let him take the pepper plants. After all, he cannot take our climate with him.”

One particular Portuguese doctor: Garcia da Orta, came to India to learn more about medicine, especially pepper. His name is derived from the Latin Hortus, or Portuguese, Horta meaning garden. His comprehensive book on Asian botany, ‘Colloquies on the simples and drugs from India’, collated hearsay from Arab traders and medicine men who had their own experimental fruit and medicinal gardens. Orta engages in conversation with the imaginary figure of Ruano, possibly a young Orta or devil’s advocate who defends Western medicinal knowledge and classification. Published in Goa in 1563, it was the first secular book printed in India. It provided the foundation for further botanical and medicinal studies of indigenous.

These dialogues in ethno-botany encompass many references, drawn from disparate sources including indigenous expertise from users and eyewitnesses. Remarkably, those who gather the plants are also given voice, such as with the figure of Antonia, a local Konkani servant who brings Bangue or cannabis: “Here is the tree of the small ones, and see here is the seed, and here is what they sell in the drug shop. For you told me to bring them altogether.“
Drugs were sold and exchanged but it was pepper that was most desired and it eventually became known as Malabar Gold. According to Orta: “The usual price of black pepper at Cochin is 2 cruzados, but in Bengal 12 cruzados; while the long pepper sells in Bengal at 1 cruzados. They put this pepper on the tables of the lords as we put salt. It is esteemed in both parts of Malabar as good against poison and for the eyes.”

It was actually a Dutchman living in Goa and working in the service of the Portuguese, Jan Huygen van Linschoten, who read Orta’s book and copied excerpts from it for his own ‘Itinerario’. Rumour has it that Linschoten sold his copy to the skipper of the ship Pedr’ Alvares. The ‘ex-libris’ tells how it went to the Dietrichstein family, then to Christina, Queen of Sweden, who in turn gave it to the Dutchman Isaak Vossius, whose heirs sold his books to the Leiden library, the place and space where we film.

With its manifold functions Linschoten’s four-volume ‘Itinerario’ imbibed the interdisciplinarity of not only the navigational, but the social and economic conditions of the era. Ships were heterotopias that circumnavigated the world with cargoes of commodities and relied on accurate cartography. The capitalistic exchange system between the Dutch cities and the Indian continent would rely on the circulation of plant specimens, scientific ideas, technological instruments and indigenous knowledge.
Like with the city of Goa, which had a population of 200,000 in the 16th century.
Linschoten’s name appears in each of his illustrations that portray Goa as very different to the Protestant industrious Lowlands. Spices, fruits, a stock exchange and even the moneychanger comprise an incredibly detailed illustration of Goa’s commerce street, Rua Direita. Linschoten’s ethnographic portraits reflect the Goan multicultural society as a mixture of merchants, slaves and localites. He writes: “many sorts of captives and slaves, both men and women, young and old, which are daylie sould there, as beasts are sold with us, where everie one may chuse which liketh him best, everie one at a certaine price.” As the slaves are brokered in this main street, the elite are carried through the city by servants, shielded from the sun.
The life of leisure and decadence in Portuguese colonial India was facilitated by the labour of slaves from all corners of the world. Not only mansions for the Portuguese but temples or ‘pagodas’ as they were called, were built alongside mosques. Local fruits, spices and drugs were harvested by locals such as the hallucinogenic datura, or jimsonweed, given to husbands by mestizo wives so that they could do as they pleased. ‘Itinerario’ shows the new commodities, such as the desired pepper plants, but also drug gardens of ‘bangue’ (cannabis) and ‘opium’. Their seeds became specimens for ‘physic’ or herb gardens and were shipped back, attempting cultivation in Europe.

Linschoten printed the first part of ‘Itinerario’, entitled ‘Reys-Geschrift’ or ‘travel notes’ in 1595, which revealed the carefully guarded ‘trade wind’ information of Portuguese navigation so that the Dutch could use it for their first voyage to join in the European race toward colonial expansion.

The VOC (Dutch East India Company) used these trade winds and in 1663 captured the Portuguese fort in Cochin, sending most Portuguese back to Goa. Carolus Clusius, translator of Orta’s book to Latin, instructed VOC employees to collect specimens and dried plants for his botanical garden in Leiden. One VOC employee, who was also inspired by Orta’s book, constructed his own garden of indigenous plants.

Hendrik van Reede tot Drakenstein a.k.a. Commadore Odatha to the locals, as ‘Odatha’ means garden in Malayalam, created not only a physical garden but one of text and images, the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus. The 12 volumes contain sworn statements from the individual indigenous physicians Itty Achudan, and 3 Konkani Brahmins: Ranga Bhat, Vinayaka Pandit and Appu Bhat. This was the first printing of the Malayalam and Konkani Brahmin Nagari scripts. Exquisite Dutch 17th c. engravings of 740 Malabar plants, with their names in 4 languages are juxtaposed alongside descriptions of their medicinal workings. This earliest comprehensive work on the flora of Malabar was printed in Amsterdam between 1678-1693, produced and self-financed by Van Reede. Is it an illustrated botanical garden, a taxonomy of named plants, a medicinal bible, a translator’s dictionary, or perhaps an object of art?

Besides books, the transfer and classification of material medica – new exotic, indigenous plants from India – meant forming landscapes of indigenous botanical knowledge systems with transplants. Eventually climatic control was achieved through the construction of ‘physic gardens’, which provided environments to grow medicinal plants for apothecaries of imported specimens from distant lands.

However it wasn’t until the 18th century, with mass-produced glass, that ‘hothouses’ were designed to keep out the European winter.

Finally reproducing the so-desired South Asian tropical ‘climate’ to which the Zamorin referred, pepper plants could thrive all year round.

Eventually the 3mm ‘Dutch light’ horticultural glass engineered the modern day greenhouse system, enabling the cultivation of off-season fruits and vegetables for consumption worldwide, for which they are known. Nowadays crop production in the Netherlands includes experiments of cultivation of plants without sunlight or even growing potatoes in climates like those on Mars.

Project together with artist Renée Ridgway.
Vrije Keyser: camera, script, editing