Disembodied birds: crafting the dodo and the birds of paradise in 17thC natural history

The Exoticorum libri decem (Ten books of exotics) (1605) was one of the first natural history works published in Europe dealing exclusively with novel exotic plants and animals. It was published by the scholar and naturalist Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), professor of botany at Leiden University, who’s extensive network of merchants, scholars, collectors and apothecaries helped him to source wonderful natural objects and information from around the globe.

This book included entries on two very different birds: the dodo, a rotund and flightless bird from the island of Mauritius, and the birds of paradise, spectacularly plumed creatures from the forests of Papua New Guinea. Despite how dissimilar these birds were, they were also both exotic wonders from distant places. Clusius crafted them into just the type of monsters that sold books, adding material even as the book was being published.

Skins and bones

The dodo and birds of paradise had very different physical histories. The birds of paradise reached Spain in 1522 as dried skins prepared by hunters in Papua New Guinea, often without legs or wings. They had been traded across South East Asia for hundreds of years. The beautiful but strange appearance of these plumed skins contributed to the idea in Europe that the birds never landed, but floated perpetually as dew-drinking, angelic entities. They were called Manucodiata in Europe, derived from the Islamic Malay name, Mamuco diuata (birds of God) and became valuable collectors’ items.

cropped-aicher-bop1.jpg
Birds of paradise, att. to Conrad Aicher, 1567.

In contrast, the dodo was from a hitherto uninhabited island and therefore not part of any pre-existing trade network. It was rarely brought to Europe as a physical specimen, much less a live animal, but used as a source of provisioning for Dutch ships heading to the Indies in the early seventeenth century. Some feet, skins or heads were found in curiosity collections, while a very few birds might have lived in menageries.

At the time that Clusius wrote about them, the dodo was relatively unknown, first described in a travelogue by first Dutch fleet to land at Mauritius in 1598. The sailors had described many ‘foules twice as bigge as swans, which they called Walghstocks, being very good meat,’ although soon they found they ‘lothsome’ and inedible. There were no scholarly descriptions to speak of, so Clusius could assemble his own.

de Bry the dutch on mauritius

Since their first arrival as legless skins aboard the ships returning to Portugal from Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the globe in 1522, the birds of paradise had been the subject of considerable scholarly discussion. The first accounts of them came from Malay tales told to the first European sailors, of the birds’ origins in Paradise and their heavenly nature, which sparked heated debates between scholars.

Sources for absent birds

Clusius had limited access to actual specimens of these birds, so despite his intention to gather first-hand information, he had to overcome the challenge of creating authoritative ‘histories’ of largely absent birds.

Clusius’s task with the birds of paradise was to reconstruct a familiar exotic, to make it his own. The living birds of paradise were unknown outside of New Guinea, and specimens were hard to access. He was frustrated in his attempts to see some new, legged specimens that arrived at Amsterdam in 1601, as they were rapidly sold to a wealthy collector. He was forced to describe the legless specimens owned by his friends. Clusius did, however obtain a letter from the vendor of the Amsterdam specimens describing their ‘unseemly and ugly’ feet.

In contrast, the dodo was largely unknown in Europe until Clusius described it. Clusius was not only staking a claim over this bird, but undertaking its textual genesis. There were very few whole dodo specimens in Europe, and Clusius certainly never saw a whole bird, but used his network of correspondents to secure experience of partial specimens. His colleague owned a ‘leg cut off as far as the knee’ and another collector owned ‘certain stones’ from the dodo’s stomach. Clusius made painstaking descriptions of these objects and used an image based on the journals from the first Dutch landing on Mauritius.

Clusius_dodo copy

Shaping saleable images

Clusius made a standardised ‘type’ of each animal, virtual commodities that had far greater value than the actual specimens of the animals they represented, part of a cache of wonders that fuelled the sales of books and paintings.

Both of these birds had great symbolic value, generated by their construction in natural histories like the Exoticorum. The dodo’s physical form and ‘greedy’ behavior represented the moral ills of gluttony, a resonance shared with other large flightless birds such as the ostrich. It became linked to the imagery of the consumptive Dutch East India enterprise in later natural history works.

The association of the birds of paradise with a heavenly existence in an Eastern Paradise persisted long after Clusius’s publication. The newly terrestrialised birds also gained other symbolic associations: with the increasingly bloody cost of the Dutch monopoly over spice trade came a shift in European perceptions of the East Indies through the sixteenth century. The ‘fabled Southland’ became an ‘infernal Southland.’ The newly legged and sharp-taloned birds of Clusius’s work reflected this shift in perception, as the aerial dew-drinkers became fierce carnivores.

Originally published in another form on Commodity Histories

Clusius kingbird image
King Bird, from the Exoticorum, p.362

 


 

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