This morning’s Guardian Australia brings news of the identification of a cockatoo in a Renaissance painting dated to 1496, which is just too early for any of the European voyages of discovery to have brought the bird back from New Guinea or Australia.
Unlike the drawing of the kangaroo in the Portuguese liturgy I wrote about in January, we can be reasonably sure that the cockatoo didn’t get to Venice on a European ship. Well, not all the way.
Venice, in the fifteenth century, had a near monopoly of the spice trade in Europe, dealing with Arab traders in Alexandria, who bought spices from India and Sri Lanka via the Indian Ocean trade.
And while, as the Guardian article says, the bird could have been traded on via trepang or sea cucumber traders, through Chinese trade networks and eventually ending up on the silk road, it is important to realise that the Moluccas or Spice Islands are very close to the Wallace line, and that the wildlife of the area contains a mixture of Australasian and South East Asian species.
The Moluccas are also not that far from Sulawesi where the Makassar trepang traders came from, and we know from the discovery of pre 1788 European glass beads in Australia that the Makassars where probably also engaged in the spice trade as well as supplying the Chinese community with sea cucumbers.
Rather than invoke trade via China, one could also hypothesize that a trepang trader acquired the bird as a curiosity, and like all parrots cockatoos are vaguely endearing, and traded it on, and that somehow the bird ended up taking the fancy of a Venetian spice trader in the market in Egypt.
It is also possible that the bird did come via China – after all the Chinese did like parrots as cage birds. It might be interesting to look fore references to white cockatoos (or parrots) in both Chinese and Arabic literature before 1500 …
I’ve just read a preprint of Heather Dalton’s paper on the Wiley journals website. The full paper is worth a read and rather more detailed than the initial newspaper reports which fastened on to the silk route connection.
Gratifyingly for me at least, Dalton assembles quite a lot of evidence to suggest that trade via the Indian Ocean spice route is possible, and that there is evidence of parrots being traded from India to renaissance Italy before the Portuguese voyages of discovery.
She also mentions Niccolò de’ Conti – a Venetian merchant who travelled overland to the Persian Gulf and on by sea to the Spice Islands – and by inference if Conti could do that so could a cockatoo in a cage make the reverse journey …
This week brings news of another cockatoo where it shouldn’t be, this time in a book in the Vatican library dating from sometime around 1250, and consequently well before the European age of exploration.
What this shows is that trading networks across SE Asia and the Indian ocean via Alexandria and perhaps Baghdad were already in place making it not only possible for early travellers such as Sighelm the ealdorman to visit the Christian communities in Kerala, but also for precious and rare objects, such as spices and jewels, as well a a cockatoo to travel the other way back to Europe
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