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Knowledge through the Trade Routes

Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Age of Empire by Harold J Cook;


contemporary religious turmoil. People

Knowledge through the Trade Routes

carried on worldly studies and retained the Renaissance interest in objectivity, despite the religious bigotry of the time. One place Mridula Ramanna which remained a centre of investigations

he volume under review is the 20th in the series, entitled New Perspectives in South Asian History. This well-crafted work by Harold Cook seeks to understand the “scientific revolution” in the first age of global commerce, basing its location in north-western Europe, in the Dutch Republic, of the 16th and 17th centuries. By the middle of the latter century, the Dutch had the most extensive sea-borne empire. Backed by naval power, they had taken over most of the Portuguese positions in Asia, Africa and South America, besides adding new ports of call in south-east Asia and North America. The global economy linked silver from Peru to China and Europe, as it did, sugar from the Caribbean and nutmeg from the Indies, slave labour and luxury goods. Medicine and natural history emerged as the big science in Europe and, for 150 years, Dutch intellectuals found ways to describe and explain nature, according to what could be known about it through the use of the five senses, supplemented by reason. They came to be acknowledged as the leaders in many areas of medicine and natural science, partly because of their contacts in Asia. Proponents of the “new science” argued that nothing would come from trying to understand the purposes intended by nature or god, instead they valued the search for the exact description of natural things, as could be grasped by the senses.

Natural Knowledge

The book approaches history through the lives of people, involved in some of the significant events, the supposition being that movements in the larger world were clearly seen from the vantage point of particular persons. These were, to name a few, botanists, like Bernardus Paludanus and Carolus Clusius, naturalists and physicians, working in the East Indies like Jacobus Bontius and Willem ten Rhijne, medical professors like Herman Boerhaave, philosophers like Rene Descartes and Benedict Spinoza, and anatomists like Nicolas Tulp. It was from encounters with nature and its

Economic & Political Weekly

april 19, 2008

Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Age of Empire by Harold J Cook;

Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2008 (first published by Yale University Press, 2007); pp xiv + 562, Rs 650.

goods, and with like-minded persons, and from both interest and hope of material gain that natural knowledge was acquired.

However, many other people were involved in the production, accumulation and exchange of natural knowledge; not only intellectuals, but ship captains, surgeons, sailors, merchants and travellers, who took note of what they saw and sent back specimens. This discovery of geography, peoples, plants and animals, astrological and alchemical associations, the collections of specimens, their cataloguing and the detailing of their structures caused tremendous public excitement. Facts travelled with people, who moved about exchanging goods and information. Facts could be easily communicated penetrating cultural borders, without altering deeply-felt assumptions. In the process, local knowledge was transformed into universal truths. A wealth of new information circulated in lecture halls, through books and in the natural objects that were available in European gardens, cabinets of curiosity and in anatomy theatres. Apothecaries accumulated information that passed through their shops and displayed strange bits of nature to attract customers. Plants from Ottoman gardens revolutionised European horticulture. Thus the tulip, the most widely coveted flowering plant in the late 16th century, not only had an astounding variety in shapes and sizes, but also became the base for speculation like any other commodity, except that it required much less capital.

The rise of the “new science”, during the Reformation and Counter Reformation, has been attributed by some scholars to Protestantism, but Cook observes that what is far more important to understand is that it represented the ability to escape the intellectual constraints placed by the into nature was the medical faculty at Leiden. Natural history developed as a part of medical study, and the students not only attended lectures, but also gained knowledge in the anatomy theatre, botanical garden, chemical laboratory and clinic.

Epitomising the best botanical knowledge with the humanist legacy was Carolus Clusius, a traveller, a linguist, an exact observer, a net worker and a devout, yet un doctrinaire. He published an edition of Garcia da Orta’s Portuguese book, Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India, on the exotic plants of Asia, which had first been published in Goa and was scarce in Europe. By the end of his life, Clusius had published many works on descriptive botany, accompanied by fine illustrations, paying close attention to the information from the West and East Indies.

The chapter on ‘Commerce and Medicine in Amsterdam’ draws a picture of the medical market place, where consumers, even with small means, had a range of practitioners to choose from. These included midwives, medical itinerants, and “local cunning folk” who, the author points out, were considered helpful and were not accused of witchcraft, persecution for which was low in these regions. Into this environment Nicolaes Tulp brought an order. He initiated a new pharmacopoeia to regulate the practice of the apothecaries, warned against the quacks, and brought about the establishment of a college of physicians, Collegium Medicum and an apothecaries guild. His medical writing was based on the observable rather than on theories, and he conducted public anatomical demonstrations in Amsterdam, which were well attended.

Exchange of Knowledge

Moving to the Indies, Cook shows that while knowledge and wealth were acquired by the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), the Dutch East India Company, at a high cost borne mainly by the islanders, the pursuit of natural knowledge continued. Here, the work of Jacobus Bontius was remarkable. Despite


punishing schedules, he collected knowledge about medicine and natural history of the region, which he compiled into four major studies. Bontius commented admiringly on how Indians, Javans and Malays did “things”. Thus he commended the Indians’ sagacity in distinguishing between the medicinal, edible and poisonous herbs, better than the most expert botanist in his country. Bontius and Georg Marcgraf, in Brazil, not only acquired information and shipped it to the metropole, but appropriated and reinscribed information previously developed by other people in other cultures. In doing so, they universalised and objectified descriptive information, making it easy to exchange.

The Dutch were aware both, of the enormous wealth flowing in from violence and trade and of lessons of public anatomy showing that human abilities were to be linked to the material form. Moral philosophers were forced to contemplate a world governed not by reason alone, but by passion. Rene Descartes found his attention drawn to these debates, and developed an explanation of how the passions rose from the material world and became the main source of behaviour and thought. Benedict Spinoza went further and argued for the identity of the mind and body, in which an understanding of the passions was critical. For these philosophers, mind and body, god and nature, commerce and wisdom were a part of the whole, rather than separate. Some Dutch physicians took this a step further resulting in a fullfledged materialist view.

Development of Knowledge

Development of knowledge in medicine and natural history depended on accurate description, for which investigators adopted information acquired from latest technologies of production. Thus advances in anatomical knowledge came from new methods of preparing specimens, and a whole new world of life was discovered, from the use of a single lens microscope. Cook points out that these projects significantly combined topics, which are often seen as separate, like anatomy, chemistry, natural history and microscopy. These projects also showed how investigative techniques arose outside the walls of the universities.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Dutch investigations of the natural history of Asia and the southern Caribbean were carried on, stimulated by medical interests and enthusiasm for exotic garden specimens. Willem ten Rhijne, the physician who worked in Japan, and others tried to understand and interpret the medical practices they encountered in Asia. Though culture may have made the translation of the whys as understood by one group difficult, it was no barrier to comprehend how to do something.

In the last chapter entitled ‘The Refusal to Speculate’, Cook states that most people preferred to see the previous two centuries as resulting in better knowledge and a decrease in superstition, because of the rise of the new and experimental science and philosophical enlightenment, with the growing material economy providing the means of sustenance. They believed it was unnecessary to search into the foundations of things. Some saw change as a sign of god’s providence. Yet, they held that empirical knowledge of nature should be cultivated not because it made one more virtuous, but because it made one more expert. The new and experimental physician was not superior to the empiric because he used reason and the empiric did not, but because he had gathered superior experience from all sources. He was also superior to the dogmatist because he refused to speculate beyond the observable.


What was happening in the Dutch Republic was happening elsewhere in Europe, as well. Physicians, savants and virtuosi in all these countries worked to establish commonalities. Despite religious and political differences, Dutch and Italian virtuosi maintained personal contacts. Similarly, with other Europeans: Iberians, French, Germans, Scandinavians and Russians. Men of learning went to and fro along trade routes. Because of the people’s ability to exchange information and generalisations, the “new science” could lay claim to being a universal method of investigation, even if they disagreed upon conceptual foundations. This medical and scientific revolution of the early modern period involved people of all social ranks, backgrounds and training, who looked for facts. But this also required a willingness, to devote time, energy and money. Funds came from patrons, who were directors of the VOC, wealthy merchants or princes, who were engaged themselves in studies of nature and appreciated the difficulties of discovering new things for human benefit or pleasure. The new knowledge was not always placed along other manifestations of knowledge, but arrived in the form of new foods, medicines or exotic flowers, delightful to see and smell. Doubtless, trading companies did not have the disinterested pursuit of knowledge as their goal, but their servants pursued the investigations of nature, and began to tie together the information of all the people of the world.

The reader is transported into what seems to have been a fascinating world of global exchange of knowledge. The book has a lucid style, excellent illustrations, most of them from the Wellcome Library, London, and an exhaustive bibliography. Harold Cook’s book is a valuable addition to the growing literature on medical history.


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