Irina Ridzuan

Plantable gold

An era of colonial agriculture


's Lands Plantentuin te Buitenzorg - Screw palms (Pandans) with stilt roots in 's Lands Plantentuin in Buitenzorg, West Java. Circa 1899   Image taken from  WereldCultuur collection . Item no.    RV-A143-28 

One of the main culprits of contemporary scent is the local ecosystem. But with a globalized approach to importation and exportation, our locality not only sports indigenous flora but foreign ones too. Imagine markets without the fragrant aromas or tropical fruits. Likewise, imagine the city without the piercing whiff of freshly brewed coffee. Certainly, the smell of Amsterdam's waterfront would not be the same.  

Beginning from the 17 th century, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had brought in various foreign species of flora and fauna into Amsterdam. For the animals, most ended up in private collections — that's until the Artis Zoo was established two centuries later. As for the fate of the plants, most of them did not survive Holland's changeable climate. But it didn't take long for importation or this flora to become an important focus.

The Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam, during its initial phase, was already sporting some ambitious new species: two coffee plants, an Asian mulberry tree, pineapple, and okra. One of major events that propelled this interest in exotic plants was being able to cultivate pineapple plants from the West Indies, in Dutch soil (Brouwer, 2017). But this was quickly shadowed by more profitable activities. Take the coffee plant, Coffea Arabica: the VOC managed it from Ethiopia at the Hortus, and that later became the parent for the entire coffee culture colonies like Suriname and Java. A story similar to the coffee plant is the fate of some potted oil palms. They were initially tasks from (Dutch) Mauritius into the Hortus and later, propagated throughout Southeast Asia. The profit from its produce surmounted to a major source or revenue for the Company. But behind these attractions at the Hortus lies a forgotten economic mission.

The Dutch, by way of the VOC, had much to gain from colonial agriculture. Importing exotic plants was not just for show but also for profit; and thus, the following centuries saw a growing investment into botany and chemistry research. This was precisely to improve cash crops in colonial plantations (Hoogte, 2013). And the progress took a massive leap with the establishment of the 'S Lands Plantentuin te Buitenzorg in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), in 1817.

The Buitenzorg started its journey as a typical colonial garden. But in 1851, a new objective was introduced with the establishment of an agricultural-chemistry laboratory. This was a new period in agricultural cultivation, in which chemistry became a tool of colonial agriculture. By the 20 th century, the Buitenzorg's status was elevated to a world renowned agricultural institution (Hoogte, 2013). In fact, arguably, the Buitenzorg's biggest success was the cultivation of the Java Coca plant that afforded the Dutch immense wealth. But the coca plant was not singular as a cash crop species; so were coffee, tea, tobacco, oil palms and sugar cane to name a few.

One thing interesting to note here is how the presence of these aromatic produce at the Port of Amsterdam would reflect a larger economic phenomenon during colonial times.