The dodo is a familiar image from books such as Alice in Wonderland or natural history museums- and it’s one of the most prevalent icons of anthropogenic extinction. The real bird was probably nothing like the fat, ungainly creature charactured in literature or media, it was certainly a welcome treat for hungry sailors when it was first discovered by Europeans.
Though trade routes had existed between India, the Middle East and Africa from antiquity, the Mascarene Islands were only recorded on the charts of Arab traders in the 1300’s. Mauritius was acquired but little used by the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century save from planting bananas and leaving livestock to provide supplies, who called it ‘Ilha du Cerne’, the ‘Island of Swans’.
Reports of the Mascarenes first reached Europe with the 1598-9 Dutch voyage to the East Indies under Admiral Jacob Cornelisz van Neck. A storm at the Cape of Good Hope separated several of the ships from the rest, which landed at ‘Ilha du Cerne’ and remained for several weeks. The sailors explored the island and renamed it ‘Mauritius’ after the statesman, Maurits van Nassau. They discovered a tropical paradise replete with fresh water, docile dugongs, giant tortoises and numerous birds so unafraid that they could be taken ‘plentifully with their hands’. The wildlife’s lack of caution suggested that this island ‘must bee an unfrequented place’.
The incredible bounty of the island was recorded in various sailors’ journals. There was such a great supply of game, that ‘two people in a short time could catch enough for all five ships’. There were large and unfamiliar birds that some of the journal authors referred to as Kermis or Cermes gaensen (fair geese) or Griffeendt (griff meaning fair and eendt meaning duck). These journal entries were the first detailed accounts of the dodo by Europeans: one mentioned a ‘kind of bird, as big as a goose, with the body of an ostrich the feet of an eagle’, others that the birds had ‘wings the size of doves, so that they cannot fly’ and ungainly proportions, their large body size like an ‘ostrich’, with wings far too small, like a ‘pigeon’ or ‘teal’, and few feathers. They gave gastronomic details: ‘they [were] reasonable of taste yet tough’, the birds ‘when plucked apparently very good, if tough-skinned’ and had ‘a stomach large enough to provide two men with a delicious meal’ as ‘the tastiest part of the bird’.
After the fleet returned to the Netherlands in 1599, Mauritius became an important way-station for ships trading to the Indies because of its strategic position along the route around the African Cape for a vital re-stocking of ships. The Dutch even created a settlement in Mauritius in 1638, exploiting its ebony and ambergris (bile secretion from whales, used historically in perfumes). Later accounts by sailors described dodos being salted down and stored on board for food, and the plentiful remains from cooked birds thrown carelessly overboard. Dodo bodies rarely made it back to Europe: Returning Dutch East India Company ships were so heavily laden with valuable goods such as spices and tea that they only had capacity for a basic crew. Sizeable natural items like dodo carcasses were far from top priority.
The first journals made by the sailors landing on Mauritius were quickly published in Europe in travelogues. The first was on the whole voyage of van Neck’s fleet, called Waarachtige Beschryving (A True Account) (Amsterdam, 1599). The original no longer exists apart from an English translation, A true report of the gainefull, prosperous and speedy voiage to Iava . . . (Anon., 1599).
Here they tarried twelve daies to refresh themselves, finding in this place great quantity of foules twice as bigge as swans, which they called Walghstocks or Wallowbirds, being very good meat. But finding also aboundance of pigeons & popinniayes, they disdained any more to eat of those great foules calling them (as before) Wallowbirds, that is to say lothsome or fulsome birdes.
On the return of the rest of the fleet, a more extensive account was published in 1600, Het Tweede Boeck (The Second Book, 1601), which became the most repeatedly-used account of the dodo for the next century.
More details were given of the bird’s use as foodstuff in Het Tweede Boeck, portraying them as un-appetising. Though the sailors ‘cooked them [the dodos] for a long time, they were very tough to eat, although the breast and the stomach were very good.’ The meat was ‘so tough that we could not cook it done, but had to eat it half-done’. The terms ‘Walghstock’, Walg-vogel’ or ‘Walch vogel’ found in Van Neck’s publications, or ‘Wallow bird’ in English translations, may well derive from the Middle Dutch, walghe, meaning nausea, and Middle English wealg, meaning insipid. Translated French accounts took ‘Walghvogel’ and turned it into ‘oiseaux de nausee’.
About eighty years after this first landing, by the 1680s or 90s, the Walghvogel was extinct. It was probably over-hunted and overcome by the ground mammals invading the island as a result of the Dutch occupation of the island. The event of its decline and disappearance was not extensively noted even by those in Mauritius, and certainly not in Europe, perhaps because other flightless birds, such as the flightless Mauritian red rail, Aphanapteryx bonasia, acted as dodo ‘substitutes’.