The Natuurkundige Commissie voor Nederlands-Indië archive and collection is one of the most important natural history collections in the Netherlands. It comprises a wide range of unpublished, handwritten documents, publications and biological and geological specimens, that were gathered and described between 1820 and 1850 on the islands Java, Timor, Ambon, Ternate, Sulawesi, New Guinea, Sumatra and Borneo in the Indonesian Archipelago. Today this collection still forms an important knowledge base for natural scientists, historians of science and other scholars. It is the basis of Naturalis Biodiversity Center as a centre of expertise on the biodiversity of Southeast Asia.
Origins of the collection
After the Napoleonic Wars the Netherlands were in poor condition. The economy, cultural life and the scientific community of the country were impoverished. William I, proclaimed king of the Netherlands in 1815, was eager to solve these problems. The Dutch East-Indies (modern-day Indonesia), governed by the Dutch East-India Company (V.O.C.) until the French period, were claimed as state property and placed under government control. In 1820 William I founded the Natuurkundige Commissie voor Nederlands-Indië (Natural science committee for the Dutch East-Indies) for the purpose of supporting the economic exploration - and exploitation - of this newly acquired property.
The mission of the Natuurkundige Commissie was of an economic as well as a scientific nature: to inventory the presence of economically viable natural resources of the East-Indies and to explore the flora and fauna of the region. Although its contributions to the economy of the Netherlands were little, the scientific achievements of the Natuurkundige Commissie were significant.
Over the course of 30 years the Natuurkundige Commissie has consisted of several different teams of scientists. Each team of scientists consisted of four members, who were sent to the Dutch East-Indies for a period of four years. During their missions the teams gathered as many information and specimens of unknown plants, animals and minerals as they could. These were shipped back to the National Herbarium of the Netherlands and the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden. Since the merger of these two institutes into Naturalis Biodiversity Center in 2010, the collections and archive of the Natuurkundige Commissie are maintained under one roof.
The first team of four consisted of biologists Dr. Heinrich Kuhl and Dr. Johan Conrad van Hasselt, taxidermist Gerrit van Raalten and illustrator Gerrit Laurens Keultjes. They explored western Java. Unfortunately the tropical conditions took their toll on the team and after three years only Van Raalten had survived. Nonetheless the team managed to gather a large collection which through the efforts of Van Raalten was received in Leiden in good condition and well-documented. The descriptions of the gathered objects, sent by the scientists to colleagues in the Netherlands, were published posthumously. In doing so they received the honour they deserved as discoverers of many new species.
In total 18 different men were sent to the Dutch East-Indies as members of the Natuurkundige Commissie between 1820 and 1850, of whom 12 did not survive the expeditions. The hostile tropical climate was not their only enemy. One of the committee members was severely injured by a Javan rhinoceros and hospitalized for months. Another was killed during a revolt of Chinese minorities in Java.
In 1850 the Natuurkundige Commissie voor Nederlands-Indië was officially dissolved. During the 30 years of its existence it has counted several prominent naturalists among its members.
Natuurkundige Commissie members
Eltio Alegondas Forsten
Johan Conrad van Hasselt
Gerrit Laurens Keultjes
Pieter Willem Korthals
The archive and collection today
The archive of the Natuurkundige Commissie voor Nederlands-Indië is maintained by the Library & Archives department of Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. Due to a restoration and digitization project funded by the Royal Library of the Netherlands’ Metamorfoze fund between 2007 and 2012, the archive is in good condition and almost entirely digitally available. It consists of:
2.088 pages of published material. This concerns the standard work Verhandelingen over de natuurlijke geschiedenis der Nederlandsche overzeesche bezittingen door de leden der Natuurkundige Commissie in Indië en andere schrijvers, published between 1839 and 1844. This work consists of three volumes treating the subjects I. geography and anthropology II. botany and III. zoology. Hundreds of new species are described in this work, which also contains numerous unique drawings of animals, plants, landscapes and indigenous culture.
1.204 individual sketches, drawings and other scientific images of exceptionally high quality. Some of these are the original drawings of the images that were published in the Verhandelingen mentioned above. The largest part of this collection however has never been published or exhibited.
13.958 pages of diary entries, field notes, expedition reports, transport lists, correspondence and other forms of information. These documents have been handwritten by various committee members, in different languages (Dutch, German, French and Latin) and often under difficult circumstances. Because of this, the material is hardly accessible to the untrained eye.
516 manuscript pages, notes and drawings of the Boie-manuscript, long considered lost but rediscovered in 2012, a never-published manuscript on reptilians and amphibians.
Naturalis Biodiversity Center also maintains many thousands of specimens gathered by the Natuurkundige Commissie between 1820 and 1850. To give an idea, Müller alone gathered:
1.100 skins and 300 skeletons of mammals
6.500 skins, 700 skeletons, 150 nests and 400 eggs of birds
2.300 amphibian specimens on alcohol
3.000 fish specimens on alcohol
24 crates of minerals
Access to the Natuurkundige Commissie collection
The archive will be made accessible over the course of the Making Sense of Illustrated Handwritten Archives project. However, 168 unpublished bird drawings from the archive were donated by Naturalis to Wikimedia Commons and can be accessed here.
The Verhandelingen over de natuurlijke geschiedenis der Nederlandsche overzeesche bezittingen publication is partially available online. Digitized versions of volumes II and III are accessible through the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). The illustrations from the Verhandelingen were donated separately by Naturalis to the Geheugen van Nederland portal (Memory of the Netherlands) and can be accessed here. Through this portal the same set of images has been made available at Europeana.
Parts of the specimens collection have been digitized in recent years and can be accessed through the Naturalis Bioportal.
Drawing of a Dwarf fruit dove by Pieter van Oort
Literature on the Natuurkundige Commissie
Over the years various various researchers have laid important groundwork which enables historians and biologists to study and contextualize the NC collection. Here is a selection of titles:
Weber, A. 'Collecting Colonial Nature: Foreign Naturalists and the Dutch Indies in the Early Nineteenth Century,' BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review, accepted for publication, appears in late 2019.
Mees, G.F, and C. van Achterberg. ‘Vogelkundig onderzoek op Nieuw Guinea in 1828: terugblik op de ornithologische resultaten van de reis van Zr. Ms. Korvet Triton naar de zuidwest kust van Nieuw-Guinea’. Zoologische Bijdragen 40 (1994): 3–64.
Klaver, Ch.J.J. Inseparable Friends in Life and Death: The Life and Work of Heinrich Kuhl (1797-1821) and Johan Conrad van Hasselt (1797-1823), Students of Prof. Theodorus van Swinderen. Groningen: Barkhuis, 2007.