ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 18

When Lanka’s haven of herbs became the centre of research

By Dr. K. D. Paranavitana

It is a little known fact that the Dutch Hospital in Colombo once functioned as the centre of botanical studies in Sri Lanka. Therefore, it is appropriate that this article follows the ‘Dutch Hospital by the side of the harbour’ published last week.

After the Dutch took over the administration of the maritime regions of the island in 1656, the importance of studying Sri Lankan flora and fauna was highlighted especially by writers Phillipus Baldaeus in his True and exact description of the great island of Ceylon (1672) and Wouter Schouten in his Remarkable Voyage (1676). Robert Knox in his work An historical relation of Ceylon (1681) paid serious attention to the Sri Lankan herbaria.

Drawing of Cinnamon plant from Burman, 1737

“All their cures,” says Baldaeus, “consist of pure empirics and experience. They possess great written folios, which had been passed to them from their fore-fathers, to which they have added the results of their own researches. All their purgatives are administered either in pills or mixtures, which are composed of various medicinal herbs; in the case too profuse a discharge of the bowels, they advise the patient to apply a little black pepper ground with water on or about their navel. I have myself experienced this to be a sovereign remedy and it is good for all cases of Tormina Ventris or stomach troubles and for checking strong stools.” (Baldaeus, Tr. Ch. 47, p.376)

Commenting on the Sri Lankan herbs Robert Knox observes that, “The woods are their apothecaries shops, where with herbs, leaves and the rinds of trees they make all their physic and plaisters with which sometimes they will do noble cures….A neighbour of mine Chingulay, would undertake to cure a broken leg or arm by application of some herbs that grow in the woods, and that with that speed, that the broken bone after it as set should knit by the time one might boyl a pot of rice and three carrees, that is about an hour and half or two hours; and I knew a man who told me he was thus cured.” (Knox, Ch. V, p. 28)

Page from the catalogue of seeds sent to Botanical Garden in Leiden,1746.

Robert Knox, published his work An historical relation of Ceylon, in 1681 embodying his findings on the native medicinal plants. This work which was translated into Dutch in 1692 drew the attention of botanists in the Netherlands for the medicinal and exotic plants, trees, vegetables, fruits and spices of Sri Lanka.

Quite apart from the writers referred to, the administrators were also interested in different aspects, mainly the personal and economic factors associated with Sri Lankan botanical studies. The crews of the Dutch East Indiamen generally suffered from scurvy and other shipboard diseases. For example, ten East Indiamen from the Netherlands carrying 2653 persons suffered heavy casualties and 1095 or 43% of them died before reaching Cape of Good Hope while 915 survivors were admitted to the hospital — such was the situation in the Cape in 1782. The Cape of Good Hope was then considered as the ‘Tavern of the Indian Ocean’.

The next major comfortable port of call for the seafaring Dutch population to the East was Colombo. The sailors who landed in Colombo were in need of fresh water, green vegetables and fresh meat. These contributed more to their recovery than a doctor with his medicines. Probably the increasing mortality on board during the second half of the 18th century was due to chronic ill-health of many men on the ships. Therefore, the Dutch authorities had to expand the hospital in Colombo and enhance the studies in medical herbaria to reduce the heavy cost of medicines, imported from Europe.

The first considerable report by a Dutchman on the natural science of the island was compiled by Robert Pathbrugge in 1668. He reported on the possibilities of finding iron and saltpetre and proposed improving forestry and collecting information on useful plants. A substantial contribution was also made by Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein during his sojourn in Sri Lanka as the High Commissioner of the Dutch East India Company in 1685.

He became a world famous botanist after his well-known work Hortus Malabaricus (1678-1693), extending to twelve volumes dealing mainly with Asiatic flora. He inspected southern Sri Lanka in 1685 and collected plants for the botanical garden in Amsterdam. In his capacity as the High Commissioner, he issued an ordinance commanding high ranking officials to prepare an annual list of plants and seeds with their names and despatch it to the headquarters in the Netherlands.

This collection from Colombo went in two directions, one to Stadhouder Willem III (1672-1702) who gave it to the botanic garden in Leiden. The other went to the botanic garden in Amsterdam. The orders and the good work started by Van Reede continued having the Dutch Hospital in Colombo as the responsible centre.

The Swedish doctor Herman Nicolai Grimm attached to the Colombo Hospital (1674) started collecting medicinal plants, vegetables and minerals and combined all his experiences in a handbook titled Labaratorium Chymicum (1677). This was perhaps the first serious work on the study of natural sciences in Sri Lanka and was printed at the Dutch East India Company press in Batavia, present Jakarta in Indonesia.

The foundation for the study of natural science in the island was laid by Paul Hermann, a German Doctor attached to the Dutch hospital in Colombo, between 1672 and 1680. He built up a collection of animals preserved in nitric acid together with a large collection of dried plants. He was more interested in Sri Lankan flora, especially plants with medicinal properties. He consulted the local physicians and learned the etymology of their Sinhala names and their applications in various tropical diseases. He despatched a large portion of his collection to Arnold Syen, Prof. of Botany in the University of Leiden and to Jan Commelin who was a well-known chemist in Amsterdam.

Syen was succeeded by Paul Hermann to the chair of botany in the University of Leiden in 1680. He took his entire collection of Sri Lankan plants and animalia to his official residence in Leiden. This collection went under the auctioneer’s hammer after his death and disappeared. However, the catalogue of plants he prepared was published posthumously under the title Musei Indici (1711), and Museum Zeylanicum (1717) providing a source of information on studies of the natural science of Sri Lanka.

The lists sent to the Netherlands consisted of an average of 150 plants at a time. At a later stage these reports giving plant names had a short description of their medicinal value. It is remarkable that Professor Pieter Hotton of the University of Leiden wrote a comprehensive research paper on the medicinal value of Ackmella in curing stones in the kidney referred to as renal calculus, to Philosophical Transactions in 1702.

At the end of the 17th century, during the tenure of office of the Governors, Laurens Pijl (1680-1692) and Thomas van Rhee (1693-1697) they initiated a step forward and prepared in two volumes codex of beautiful water colour drawings of Sri Lankan plants with short descriptions. Prof. David van Royen of the University of Leiden received a few boxes of Sri Lankan plants in 1769, 1771, and 1777. Simultaneously, Amsterdam Professor Johannes Burman received similar boxes in 1771 and 1773.

Knowledge on Sri Lankan plants was enhanced with the publication of Johannes Burman’s Thesaurus Zeylanicus in 1737. He added an alphabetical summary of well-known Sri Lankan plants to his work with the help of a contemporary Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus who stayed at his residence for some time. Linnaeus was an indefatigable researcher who went after the missing collection of Sri Lankan plants belonging to Prof. Paul Hermann. A few years later he found it with an auctioneer in Copenhagen. These two botanists joined together and published an excellent work on Sri Lankan botany titled Species Plantarum (1753) which marked a substantial turning point in Sri Lankan botany to modern botanical studies.

The last Dutch botanist associated with the Colombo Dutch hospital was Carl Per Thunberg who studied Sri Lankan flora between 1777 and 1778. The plant and the flower that any Sri Lankan knows as Thunbergia, is named after him. His collection of Sri Lankan flora was considerably large and on his return to the Netherlands it was gifted to the botanical garden in Amsterdam and a part of it to his friend, Doctor Martrinus Houtthuin who published them with descriptions in his work Natuurlijk Historie (1761-1785).

In 1796, the British took over the territory under the control of the Dutch and in 1811 William Kerr, on orders of the king of Britain established a botanical garden in Slave Island in Colombo by the side of the Beira Lake. This was named after the Royal Botanical Garden in Kew, London and the street name ‘Kew Road’ in Slave Island still exists.

This longstanding combination of botanical studies between Leiden and Colombo, begun by Prof. Paul Hermann was expanded laying a solid foundation for botanical studies in the island. This tradition was continued with the help of Smithsonian Institute in Washington and the State Botanic Garden in Leiden by producing a standard work for Sri Lankan botany titled A revised handbook to the flora of Ceylon under the editorship of Fosberg and Dissanayake running into fifteen volumes.

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