|Story by Stu Dawrs
Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams
In its broad outline the story is so unbelievable it seems like it belongs in the rejection pile of unpublishable Harlequin romances.
It’s the mid-seventeenth century, and a young German aristocrat longs to see the world. On his way to Venice, he’s shanghaied and forced into military service for the Dutch Republic. He survives that war but later finds himself in far Indonesia, this time as a willing mercenary in a bloody war against rebellious natives. Most of his comrades die, either in battle or from disease, but he somehow survives, rising out of the military and into the mercantile class. Half a world from home he finds true love, both in the form of the native woman he marries and the flora and fauna of the lush island where he will live out his life. It is a landscape so foreign to his own, so strange and beautiful, that he dedicates his life to recording it, to writing and illustrating a book that will be like no other, a book that will capture every detail of that exotic world. But then, tragedy: He is struck blind. His family is killed in a natural disaster. His manuscript is destroyed by fire. Blind and alone, he starts over, and after fifty years of labor his masterpiece is finally completed … and then he dies before it can be published.
“The difference between truth and fiction,” Mark Twain once said, “is that fiction must be believable.” This is the tale of Georgius Everhardus Rumphius. Every bit of it is true, and even in its broad outlines it is still only half the story, the rest of which includes even more tragedy, more death and, finally, triumph—all of it surrounding the creation, decline and revival of one of the most important works of botanical writing in history.