By George Beccaloni, March 2019
Heinrich Agathon Bernstein (22 September 1828 - 19 April 1865) was a German naturalist and explorer who was born in Breslau (Wrocław). He moved to what is now Indonesia in 1855 and in 1859 he became an official collector of animals and plants for the Leiden natural history museum. In 1860 Bernstein travelled to the Moluccas, setting up his base on Ternate Island as Wallace had done. Hermann Schlegel, the director of the museum, urged Bernstein to keep ahead of Wallace, who had been collecting in the area since early 1858. Jansen (2008) recounts how "The rivalry was strong but gentlemanly. On 6 February 1861 Wallace wrote in a letter from Dili (Timor): 'The Dutch have just sent out a collector for the Leyden Museum to the Moluccas. He is now at Ternate, and goes to spend two years in Gilolo and Batchian, and then to N. Guinea. He will, of course (having four hunters constantly employed, and not being obliged to make his collecting pay expenses), do much more than I have been able to do; but I think I have got the cream of it all. His name is Bernstein; he has resided long in Java, as doctor at a Sanatorium, and tells me he has already sent large collections to Leyden, including the nests and eggs of more than a hundred species of birds! Are these yet arranged and exhibited? They must form a most interesting collection.'" It is not known whether the two men ever met.
Bernstein, became one of the most successful natural history collectors who worked in Indonesia in the 19th Century. Jansen (2008) estimates he collected "4,645 bird skins, some 1,000 eggs and 354 nests for the museum at Leiden, plus 181 mammals, 212 reptiles, 211 fish, 588 molluscs, 10,215 insects and 42 crustaceans." He says that "The bird skins are today in various museums around the world, including London (now Tring), New York, Vienna, Paris and Genoa, owing to exchanges made by Leiden."
Sadly, Bernstein was to die aged only 36. Jansen (2008), citing Veth (1879), states that he "...died on Batanta at 19 April 1865 of a liver abscess, and was buried either on Batanta or Ternate..." However, whilst reading Rosenberg's 1875 book Reistochten naar de Geelvinkbaai op Nieuw-Guinea in de jaren 1869 en 1870 I discovered the following passage (translated from the Dutch by Erica Tonnema): "There, in the park-like cemetery, a romantic site, at the foot of the proud ‘firemountain’ of Ternate [Mt Gamalama], a simple memorial, in the southeast corner of one of the nearby crossways, marks the grave of Dr. Bernstein...and it is that place, in the close proximity of his earlier residence, from the workshop, where he did so much research, in the name of science and made things ready for our homeland, that is for him the most appropriate resting place, because this was just not possible on gloomy Batanta, in the middle of the regions where he acquired his most precious results..." Also in Rosenberg's book is a nice illustration of Bernstein's grave monument (below).
Intrigued to know more about Bernstein's fate, I did some research and found an 1883 article in Dutch about Bernstein by Musschenbroek. It explains how Bernstein's servants after returning with his body from Batanta Island, gave the following statement to the magistrate on 20 May:
“that Dr. Bernstein, their master, died on April 19th in the evening around 9 o’clock.
that he suffering from a lingering illness already for some time and used blue ointment on his right side of the body.
that they, seeing him so being so ill, friendly insisted on going back to Ternate, which Mr. Bernstein did not do, telling them 'they didn’t have to be afraid of him dying'.
that he one day before his death, told them that he had the feeling he would die soon because of his illness, and told them at that moment that they shouldn’t bring him to Ternate but had to bury him on Batanta.
that he wrote a note on that moment and gave that to one of them, namely Ali Poeasa, to hand it to Mr. Jungmichel (on Ternate).
that he ate some soup the following afternoon and was lying in his bed or sitting in his armchair, that he called Ali at night to help him with his to go to the lavatory.
that afterwards he didn’t want to go to bed and just stayed to read in a corner.
that he summoned Ali to store some goods in tins and sent him out afterwards.
that they, remaining in his close proximity, were summoned to go again.
that they heard a coughing around 9 PM and found Mr. Bernstein dying a few moments after.
that they, after washing and dressing the body, made a coffin from some shelves and put the body within after powdered it with camphor.
that they afterwards put all the belongings of the departed in the prau in which the body remained and covered everything by closing the whole prau with planks.
that they were scared of eventual evil consequences, because of not meeting the wishes of the departed to be buried on Batanta.
that they afterwards left for Ternate and arrived there on May 18th"
"This statement was given by Ali Poeasa and Djoemae Gaga, head servants of Dr. Bernstein to the magistrate of Ternate at that time, Mr. van Cattenburgh and confirmed by others and to me, when I was on Ternate later by some people who travelled with him. Kamis Birahi described me the illness in full detail and it turned out to be that Dr. Bernstein succumbed due to a liver-abscess.
The body was examined on Ternate as much as was possible and there were no other signs than the ones confirming the above. Afterwards the body was buried in a coffin in the cemetery for Europeans on Ternate."
Sadly no sign of Bernstein's monument has yet been found in the old European cemetery in Ternate (most of the grave monuments have been damaged or destroyed and the cemetery is full of refuse), but perhaps part of it will eventually be found.
The above passages from Musschenbroek (1883) were kindly translated from the Dutch by Erica Tonnema. Many thanks to Paul Whincup who put me on the trail of the illustration of Bernstein's grave in Rosenberg's book.
Jansen, J. 2008. Pioneer of Asian Ornithology Heinrich Bernstein. Birding Asia, 10: 103-107.
Musschenbroek, S. C .J. W. van. 1883. Dagboek van Dr. H. A. Bernsteins laatste reis van Ternate naar Nieuw-Guinea, Salawati en Batanta, 17 October 1864–19 April 1865. Bijdragen Taal-, Land- en Volkenk. Nederlandsch-Indie, 31: 1-258.
Rosenberg, C. B. H. von. 1875. Reistochten naar de Geelvinkbaai op Nieuw-Guinea in de jaren 1869 en 1870. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Veth, H. J. 1879. Overzicht van hetgeen, in het bijzonder door Nederland, gedaan is voor de kennis der Fauna van Nederlandsch Indie. Leiden.