Orangutans and Latin

When as a sixth-form student it was time to decide what to study at university, I was truly undecided. The way in which the world around me worked fascinated me just as much as delving back into the mysteries of the past. Eventually I was able to narrow my choices down to one of two options – do I study Biology, or Classics?

I chose the latter, and enjoyed every second of it. As the seconds ran out, I started to have to think about what I wanted to do for a career. At a bit of a loss, I started to volunteer in my local museum and absolutely fell in love with the heritage sector. Before coming to Worcester, I had volunteered at a range of different institutions: the London Borough of Sutton, the National Army Museum and the National Maritime Museum. As I learnt more and more about the periods of history covered by these organisations, I began to think that using my Latin would become a thing of the past for me – as too would indulging my interest in natural history.

How wrong I was. A good proportion of the books in the Cathedral library and archive are in Latin, and being able to read them has obvious benefits when it comes to carrying out research – or just being plain nosey. Leafing through one of our more sumptuously illustrated natural history books (and one written in Latin), I came across a rather dubious illustration of an orangutan. As I would later find out, this was actually the first ever depiction of the ape to appear in Europe, first published in 1631. Yet what was truly fascinating was the rather curious inscription underneath the picture: Loqui vero eos easque posse, Iavani aiunt, sed non velle, ne ad labores cogerentur: ridicule me Hercules! This translates as something like ‘The Javanese say that they [the orangutans] are able to speak, but do not want to, lest they be compelled to work. Ridiculous by God!’ I still find orangutans fascinating. Yet there’s just something truly amazing about reading the first European account of one – to think of the astonishment that a 17th Century Dutch naturalist must have felt at seeing this red-haired form – almost human, but not quite – swinging through the shadowy jungle, and his attempt to make sense of it all.


The first image of an orangutan to appear in Europe. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

My interest was truly pricked. Here was book that had it all: Biology, Latin, and a good smattering of the histories of science and colonialism. I think it goes a long way to demonstrate too that it doesn’t matter what pathway you take into the heritage sector. The main thing is to be endlessly curious about everything and to really enjoy communicating that enthusiasm.

I was able to post many of the other lovely woodcuts from this book on twitter as part of #explorearchives week. I also enjoyed #archiveselfie feature – here’s one of me looking appropriately serious at work!


Archive selfie!

Read more about my encounter with the orangutan at http://worcestercathedrallibrary.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/dutch-colonisation-natural-history-and-why-latin-is-still-useful/ Contact me on Twitter @TMPHopkins1

Tom Hopkins