The birds of paradise have an allure that has never faded, right from the first time they enchanted onlookers in the Spanish court. When I first heard the story of the sixteenth-century legless birds of paradise that were believed to be angelic and perpetually floating, I knew I had to floow it deeper. They were the first case I explored for my doctorate, and perhaps the most magical (referring, of course, to the few species known in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which were primarily the greater and lesser birds of paradise, and the king bird of paradise).
In 1522, the dismembered skins of new and fabulous creatures were brought to the court of Emperor Charles V. These were the skins of birds of paradise from the East Indies, carried with a cargo of spices and other valuable marvels on the last remaining ship from a fleet that had left Spain in 1519 to circumnavigate the globe under Ferdinand Magellan. Several mentions of these birds had been made in earlier travelogues, but they were otherwise unknown and entirely unseen previously in Europe. The account of the ship’s chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta described how five of these enigmatic objects were presented to the sailors by the Sultan of Bachian Island in the Moluccas. Two skins were a royal gift for the Emperor Charles V:
He also gave us for the King of Spain two most beautiful dead birds. These birds are as large as thrushes; they have small heads, long beaks, legs slender like a writing pen, and a span in length; they have no wings, but instead of them long feathers of different colours, like plumes:… they never fly, except when the wind blows. They told us that these birds come from the terrestrial Paradise, and they call them ‘bolon dinata‘, that is, ‘divine birds’.
These fabulous skins were shrunken and wingless, causing their beaks and gorgeous plumes to be disproportionately exaggerated. This effect was the result of the preservation methods used by New Guinean tribal hunters who procured the birds. The methods used today may be not unlike those in the sixteenth century. The flesh is removed along with some limbs, sometimes the skull, and the whole skin smoked for preservation. These methods heighten the dramatic effect of the male birds’ elaborate feathers, which New Guinean men use in tribal dances and displays.
Yet, the living birds were virtually unknown to anyone outside New Guinea, even to the Moluccan traders who dealt in New Guinean products. The lack of direct knowledge of the living birds was noted by a Portuguese apothecary who lived in Malacca and sailed through the East Indies. In 1513 Tomé Pires wrote that birds ‘which are prized more than any others come from the islands called Aru (Daru), birds which they bring over dead, called birds of paradise (pasaros de Deus)’. Bird of paradise plumes, in particular, were the most coveted products in Asia, traded from New Guinea to the Moluccan islands, then on to Malacca and Asia. Bird of paradise skins had been part of extensive Asian trade networks, involving spices and other valuable commodities, for at least 5000 years before Europeans reached the region in the late fifteenth century. These birds became significant in Asian and Islamic mythologies, and were inextricable from the spices with which they were traded.
Spice plants such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg grew only in the Moluccas, but their harvested products reached the Middle East and eventually to Europe in the Middle Ages through trade networks that passed through Venice. The high demand for precious commodities such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg in early modern Europe drove the first European explorations of ‘a strange, and for so many ages, an unknown world, in order to search for the islands where spices grow’. These voyages, the earliest of which were Portuguese sought to undermine the Venetian monopoly on the spice trade.
The Spanish court secretary, Maximilianus Transylvanus, wrote an account of Magellan’s travels, De Moluccis Insulis (Rome, 1523). Transylvanus used interviews with the sailors on Magellan’s voyage, and the Asian accounts of the birds they had brought with them:
The kings of Marmin began to believe that souls were immortal a few years ago, induced by no other argument than that they saw that a certain most beautiful small bird never rested upon the ground nor upon anything that grew upon it; but they sometimes saw it fall dead upon the ground from the sky. And as the Mahometans, who travelled to those parts for commercial purposes, told them that this bird was born in Paradise, and that Paradise was the abode of the souls of those who had died, these kings embraced the sect of Mahomet, because it promised wonderful things concerning the abode of souls. But they call the bird Mamuco Diata [Bird of God]…
Just as they were in Asia, the birds of paradise immediately became perceived as divine creatures from a spice-filled Earthly paradise. Looking at their plumes, you can just about see why. It was what happened to the imagery of the birds later on that get’s really interesting though, but that is an article for another time.