Pringo Atmodjo, a Javanese botanist at the ‘s Lands Plantentuin te Buitenzorg (Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens in present-day Bogor), collected this species of St. John’s wort (Hypericum japonicum) on 11 June 1904 in the Alaslands in northern Sumatra. He was surveying for plants as part of a Dutch military expedition through the Gajo, Alas, and Batak lands in Aceh. The brigades traveled across the highlands, from Lhokseumawe on the coast to the Batak lands south of Danau Toba, on a mission to pacify the interior of Aceh. The Hypericum above was collected just 3 days before Luitenant-kolonel van Daalen’s violent raid on the village of Koeto Reh. The colonial military massacred 313 men, 189 women, and 59 children defending their homes in Koeto Reh. It was one of the worst massacres of Indigenous people in colonial Indonesia.
Atmodjo and his laborers trekked through the forests along with the expedition in search of plant species unique to science. The dates and locations marked on his herbarium specimens follow the chronological order of Van Daalen’s personal journal from the expedition. Atmodjo compiled an extensive herbarium collection on the expedition, gathering 544 species in total. Porters on the expedition, mostly Javanese and Ambonese, carried and maintained his traveling herbarium. The forced laborers carried and maintained his traveling herbarium, but they are, of course, forgotten for their contributions to science in Aceh. Each month, Atmodjo sent the laborers with his specimens back to Koeta Radja, present day Banda Aceh, for storage. Researchers studied and catalogued the herbarium specimens at the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens on the island of Java and today they reside at the National Herbarium of the Netherlands in Leiden.
This was the first colonial botanical exploration of the Leuser region. Atmodjo’s accompaniment on such an important military mission offers insight into the relationships between colonial expansion and scientific knowledge production. Bioprospecting for economic plants was essential to the imperial project. At the same time, his participation also reveals another phenomenon that is central to my dissertation; the role of colonial control, violence, and the military in scientific practices and the production of scientific knowledge in northern Sumatra in the early to mid-twentieth century.