‘The best description of the Oran Ooutan’: Daniel Beeckman’s Voyage to Borneo

This post discusses historical attitudes to race, and quotes language and attitudes considered offensive today.

In November 2023 the RCP Heritage Library bought a copy of the book A voyage to and from the island of Borneo in the East-Indies written by Daniel Beeckman, published in the year 1718. This purchase was made possible by generous support from the ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries. This blog post will look inside its covers at why this book is an important addition to the Heritage Library.

Title page of an 18th century book called 'A voyage to and from the island of borneo'.

Beeckman’s voyage

Daniel Beeckman, the book’s author, was a captain in the East India Company. In 1713 he captained the Eagle, a 200-ton galley with a crew of 40 and 16 guns, on a two-year journey to south-east Asia and back again to buy the pepper grown there, a valuable commodity in Europe. The East India Company (EIC) was probably the most powerful corporation in history. At its height, it dominated global trade between Europe, South Asia and East Asia, fought numerous wars using its own army and navy, and conquered and colonised modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma.

Beeckman’s Voyage is a detailed account of the journey he and his crew made via the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, Christmas Island, Jakarta (known to Beeckman as Batavia) on the island of Java, and on towards Borneo. He wrote on a wide range of topics including the technical details of navigation, weather, flora and fauna, the appearance and customs of the people he met en route, the produce of the countries visited, and internal conflict amongst the ship’s crew.

Beeckman and his crew spent nearly six months in Borneo from June to December 1714, docking at the town on Banjarmassin (‘Banjar Masseen’ in his spelling) on the south of the island, and travelling up the Martapura River to the town of Kayutangi (‘Caytongee’) and beyond. Beeckman was able to secure the purchase of approximately 240–300 tonnes of pepper from the local traders.

Upon their arrival they began a deceit maintained throughout their entire stay that they were in fact not EIC representatives, and were in actually independent traders acting entirely under their own agency. The reason for this was the breakdown in relations between the rulers of the region and the previous EIC traders. Previous EIC representatives had assured the local authorities that they were only traders and had no military designs on the region, but were then reported to have fitted out their warehouse with guns and to have begun attacks on local people, leading to the destruction of the trading post and the arrest and execution of some of the EIC representatives. Apparently oblivious to the irony, Beeckman repeatedly warns the readers of his book about the various ways that the locals on the island would supposedly try to cheat traders seeking to buy pepper or other commodities such as birds nest, dragon’s blood, gold, camphor, and bezoars.

Beeckman described Borneo as ‘the biggest Island, not only in the Indian Sea, but in the whole World, except perhaps California in the South Sea’ (at that time, California was believed to be detached from the north American continent).  Beeckman considered it ‘unwholesome [i.e. unhealthy] because of the Moistness’, and noted that ‘in the beginning of the rainy Season there is no sleeping for the Noise which the Frogs make, whereof there is a vast multitude in these swampy Woods’. He wrote dismissively about many of the customs of the local people, including their rejection of alcohol, their use of opium, their fright at a lunar eclipse, and their belief in evil spirits or demons. He particularly disapproved of the music which he heard at a local wedding.

Which jargon I can compare to nothing more like than the rough musick that the butchers make with their marrow-bones and cleavers, the noise of a copper-smith's shop, or even the thumping and jingling of chains by the mad-folks in Bedlam.


Beeckman took particular care to describe the animal life encountered on the voyage, recounting seeing flying fish while at sea, as well as dolphins, whales, albatross, alligators and crocodiles, parrots, tortoise, tigers and a great number of flies. He saved his fullest description, however, for one particular primate native to Borneo.

An illustration of an ape seated on a log with its hands in its lap.
Beeckman’s illustration of the orangutan, with a particularly human-like face.

Beeckman’s ‘man of the woods’

Beeckman’s A voyage to and from the island of Borneo is reputed to be the first European reference to and illustration of an orangutan. (An earlier book– Orang-outang, sive homo sylvestris (1699) by RCP fellow Edward Tyson – uses the same name for the animal from central and West Africa we now identify as the chimpanzee.)

Beeckman describes the animal as follows, using overtly racist language to convey his impressions:

… the most remarkable are those they call Oran-ootans, which in their language signifies men of the woods: these grow up to be six Foot high; they walk upright, have longer Arms than Men, tolerable good Faces (handsome I am sure than some Hottentots that I have seen), large Teeth, no Tails nor Hair, but on those Parts where it grows on humane Bodies; they are very nimble footed and might strong; they throw great Stones, Sticks, and Billets at those Persons that offend them. The Natives do really believe that these were formerly Men, but Metamorphosed into Beasts for their Blasphemy.


‘Hottentot’ is a now extremely offensive term previously commonly used to describe the indigenous people of southern Africa: by comparing the orangutan favourably to them, Beeckman is revealing his extremely disparaging attitude towards some of the people he encountered earlier on his voyage.

Beeckman bought himself an orangutan for six Spanish dollars. It lived for only seven months more, dying at the age of about twelve months. Its survival was probably not helped by Beeckman allowing it to drink alcohol:

he was a great Thief, and loved strong Liquors; for if our Backs were turned, he would be at the Punch-bowl, and very often would open the Brandy Case, take out a Bottle, drink plentifully, and put it very carefully into its place again.

Illustration of a white man in an 18th-century wig.
Portrait of George Edwards by Bartholomew Dandridge, engraved by JS Miller. PR846

Why buy this book for the heritage library?

Books that illustrate the history of trade and imperialism are by their nature relevant to the history of medicine, as much colonial activity was directed towards finding and exploiting natural resources that had the potential to be medically useful. However, this book has a far more direct link to the history of the RCP, making it a very appropriate purchase for the heritage library.

The recently-bought copy of Beeckman’s Voyage was owned and used by naturalist George Edwards (1694–1773). Edwards was an important figure in the 18th century life of the RCP. He was made ‘Bedell’ of the RCP in 1733: a role comparable to a beadle, with responsibility for college property and security. As part of this role, he also took on responsibility for the college library, styling himself Library Keeper. He retired in 1760.

Edwards’ ownership of the book is shown by the presence of his engraved bookplate on a flyleaf at the start, and through his annotations in two locations: on the title page and on the illustration of an ‘Oran-ootan’ (i.e. the orangutan).

Armoiral bookplate with a lion rampant supported by two birds.
George Edwards’ armorial bookplate in the front of Beeckman’s A voyage to Borneo.


Edwards’ bookplate shows his coat of arms: a lion on a background of ermine fur, supported on either side by two birds: a heron on the right and an uncertain species – possibly a corncrake or a rather elongated partridge – on the left. The motto beneath, 'Auino D.V.W. Deryid’, is written in other heraldic sources as 'A vyno Duw dervid', meaning ‘What God has willed will be accomplished' in Welsh. On the bookplate Edwards also proudly notes his status as keeper of the RCP library.

On the title page Edwards has written ‘with the best description of the oran ooutan’. On the plate illustrating an ‘oran-ootan’ seated on a stone or fallen log, he wrote ‘This Animal seams to be the same with one figurd by Peter Vander Aa, Bookseller of Leiden which he calls Orang-autang se[e] his Book of Figures in the Library of the College of Physitians Lond[on] under Letter F2 242’.

Marginalia (described in main text) around an image.Title page annotation (described in main text).
Illustration of an orangutan sitting under a tree, with mountainous landscape in the background.

Following the trail: van der Aa in the RCP library

Pieter van der Aa’s Icones arborum, fruticum et herbarum exoticarum, published c. 1720, did indeed used to be shelved at the location F2 242 in the RCP library. Today it’s at D1/27-d-17, and it still has its old shelf mark written inside it. It’s a curious book in oblong format (wider than it is tall) made up of 80 illustrations of people, plants and animals (both real and mythical) from the Caribbean, South America and Asia, all without any accompanying text to explain or contextualise them. Many are commodities such as tea, coffee, sugar and spices that were being heavily traded by colonial powers. 

Plates 11 and 67 both show an ‘orang-autang’: in the second of these the orangutan is depicted holding onto the trunk of a palm tree, interacting with a ‘Satyri Sylvestris’, a ‘satyr of the woods’ (a mythical humanoid creature with goat-like legs). In the other orangutan illustration, the animal is seated on the ground with its hands in its lap, rather similarly to Beeckman’s illustration of the same animal. 

But what’s strange is that in the RCP copy of this book an extra picture has been pasted in right opposite van der Aa’s seated orangutan. It’s labelled at the bottom as ‘The satier, sauage, wild-man, pigmy, orang-autang, chimp-anzee etc.’

A book open showing two pages. On the right, the same orangutan as in the previous image. On the left, an extra sheet of paper stuck in, with another ape, this one crouching against a bench holding a stick.
Old books bound in brown, red and tan leather on a bookshelf.
George Edwards’ works on their library shelf at the RCP

Gleanings of natural history

This mystery added illustration is plate number 213 from George Edwards’ own publication Gleanings of natural history, published in 4 volumes between 1758 and 1764. 

Edwards’ annotations in Beeckman’s Voyage indicate that he used the book as part of his research into one of his two masterworks, Gleanings of natural history, a three-volume compendium of illustrations and descriptions of animals from around the world, published 1758–64. The hand-coloured copy of this book in the RCP heritage library was given to the institution by Edwards himself, and is one of the treasures of the collection. We know that he made his drawings from living and dead specimens of animals seized from their natural habitats around the world, but until acquiring this book, we didn’t have any of George Edward’s own reference books to fill out the picture. Intriguingly, it may have been Edwards himself who added his illustration of the orangutan into the RCP library’s copy of Pieter van der Aa’s Icones during his tenure as librarian.

Edwards’ illustration of the orangutan has a significantly more simian face, and far more hair than in Beeckman or Aa’s portrayals. He based his drawing on a dead specimen about 75cm tall, which he reports was kept at the British Museum.

Addressing colonial and discriminatory histories

Over the last 3 years, one of the RCP Archives, Heritage Library and Museum Services team’s priorities has been to address colonialist and discriminatory histories and language preserved in its collections, as documented in our public statement on the subject.

This acquisition epitomises the European ‘scientific’ drive to control overseas territories by intellectual as well as military and economic means, by describing and categorising the flora, fauna, inhabitants, and landscapes of the lands encountered as part of the colonial enterprise, with a view to their exploiting their usefulness to the colonial powers. Daniel Beeckman’s book can be read at one level as a travel narrative, but his role within the EIC demonstrates that advances in geographical and natural history understanding in Europe cannot be taken as neutral developments divorced from their geopolitical context.

Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian


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