A Bad Cockatoo Article in The New Yorker
An article on cockatoos in medieval Europe recently appeared in The New Yorker (June 28, 2021). Written by staff writer Rebecca Mead, it looks at two well-known examples of cockatoos in European texts and images — examples that were publicised by the British-Australian researcher Heather Dalton, whose life and work is also surveyed in the piece. Dalton has written two articles on cockatoos in pre-sixteenth-century Europe, one on the yellow-crested cockatoo that appears in the background of Madonna della Vittoria, a 1495–6 painting by Mantovan painter Andrea Mantegna, and the other on the description and depictions of a sulphur-crested cockatoo in Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (‘On the art of hunting with birds’ — 1240s). Mead expresses wonderment at the idea that a cockatoo could end up in medieval Europe; the New Yorker Twitter account referred to it as a ‘rare bird from an almost inconceivable corner of the world’. The article’s subhead says:
Birds native to Australasia are being found in Renaissance paintings — and in medieval manuscripts. Their presence exposes the depth of ancient trade routes.
It goes on to suggest that Dalton’s Australian background enabled her to pick up on something earlier researchers had not: the extraordinary ‘Australasian’ origin of the cockatoos that appear in these medieval European sources. How could an ‘Australasian’ bird end up in medieval Europe?
This is a bad article. It’s Eurocentric and it gets a lot wrong. Some of the errors — of some of them I should say ‘howlers’ — may be Mead’s, but I suspect, having talked to her about these topics several times on Twitter, that much of the fault lies with Dalton. Dalton understands very little about the Indo-Malaysian archipelago, from what I can tell, and seems to want to equate it (or at least its easternmost parts) with Australia, as Mead’s article does as well.
(‘…before the fourteenth or fifteenth century, the people of Australia and Indonesia had very limited contact with people in continental Southeast Asia’ — so the article says. This is such an ignorant sentence that I don’t know where to start. The claim is attributed to Valerie Hansen, but I frankly don’t believe that. Anyway.)
Wherever the fault lies, the article’s premises are entirely wrong. There is nothing mysterious about these cockatoos (see Figure 1 for images). Dalton was not the first to note their appearances in these texts and images; Casey Wood’s 1943 translation of Frederick’s De Arte Venandi cum Avibus notes, for instance, that the bird described in that section is a cockatoo (p.59, footnote 11), and Wood even makes a point of saying that the likeliest origin for the bird was the ‘Sunda Islands’ (i.e. the Lesser Sundas in southeastern Indonesia/Timor Leste; it probably comes from a little further east). The New Yorker article notes that Mantegna’s cockatoo had already been mentioned in a 2007 catalogue on parrots in art by Richard Verdi. What these scholars appear to have known, and what Dalton does not, is that commodities from eastern Indonesia were common in medieval Europe, and that these appearances of cockatoos are to be expected. If anything, the mystery is why we do not see more cockatoos in texts and art from Europe in the Middle Ages.
In this post I’m going to look at some of the claims in the New Yorker article. I’m going to start by questioning the validity of applying the label ‘Australasian’ to the bird in this context, as Dalton does; it seems to me that this is a weasel word intended to make readers think that an Australian origin for one of these cockatoos is plausible or likely. When I raised this with Dalton on Twitter she said that she didn’t think anyone would do that, but, well, here’s a still from a TikTok video covering Dalton’s work (Figure 2):
After that, I’ll go over the evidence for commodities from eastern Indonesian islands in medieval European texts. You’ll see that there’s an awful lot of this evidence, and that the islands that produced these commodities were in some cases also home to populations of cockatoos, or were in close contact with people on islands that were. Then we’ll take a look at evidence that suggests that by the fifteenth century Europeans knew where cockatoos came from, and that this information was reasonably well-known, appearing in print (yes, print!) a few years before Mantegna started work on Madonna della Vittoria. I’ll try to correct the account of Indian Ocean trade summarised in the New Yorker piece as well — it’s rather inaccurate, as you’ll see — and then I’ll do my best to sum it all up. It’s a long article and a complex story so this won’t be a short piece.
An ‘Australasian’ Bird
Island Southeast Asia is biogeographically complex. It is typically characterised — after the work of Alfred Russel Wallace in the mid-nineteenth century — as a region in which Asian and Australasian flora and fauna collide. On the western islands of Indonesia and Malaysia one finds typically Asian animals like tigers, monkeys, and deer, while in the extreme east, near New Guinea, one will instead come across cassowaries and marsupial mammals like the cuscus and the tree kangaroo. (There are no monkeys in New Guinea’s jungles, which I suppose makes them some of the only major tropical forests on earth with no non-human simian inhabitants.)
Wallace drew a western boundary, a point west of which Asian fauna predominated, just east of Bali and Borneo; this is known as the Wallace Line. There are similar lines in eastern Indonesia, although it’s a little more complicated there (see Figure 3). Most of eastern Indonesia is an intermediate zone in which Asian and Australasian species have mixed and mingled for centuries. This intermediate zone is sometimes named ‘Wallacea’, after Wallace. Geologically this is one of the most complex regions in the world, with lots of small tectonic plates interacting in complex ways; the land there is only partly made up of rock from the Australian Plate. Cockatoos are ‘Australasian’ in the sense that they are part of the characteristically Australasian fauna of New Guinea and eastern Indonesia; their antecedents were from Sahul, not Sundaland. They can be found in Australia and New Guinea as well as a number of eastern (and some small western) Indonesian islands — but not (natively, at least) in Java, Sumatra, or the Malay Peninsula.
This is only part of the story, though. The fact of the matter is that the biogeographical facts aren’t really relevant here. Ireland is biogeographically distinct from Great Britain — there’s a reason there aren’t any snakes on the island, and it’s not because of Patrick — but if you were to write a history of Ireland that claimed that it was a primordial prehistoric land wholly separate from Europe then you’d be writing history wrong.
And so it is here. Eastern Indonesia has a completely different history from that of Australia. Parts of eastern Indonesia are largely or even completely Australasian in terms of flora and fauna, but that doesn’t mean much when we’re looking at trade and politics and so on. For a start, Asian and Australasian species have long mingled on many eastern Indonesian islands, in several cases because of anthropogenic dispersals of animals from one island to another, some of them in the early Holocene or late Pleistocene. Cassowaries (Australasian) were probably brought to Seram from New Guinea by people a few centuries ago; deer (Asian) were brought to Timor (geologically Australian, and on which Australasian species predominate) in prehistory (as was at least one cuscus species from further east, incidentally).
Agriculture never seems to have taken off in Australia but it has been practised for an extremely long time in New Guinea and eastern Indonesia, with evidence of fields for bananas and sugarcane going back several thousand years in the highlands of New Guinea. Breadfruit, bananas, sugarcane, and certain varieties of yam and taro are thought to have been domesticated in New Guinea itself or slightly to the west. Outrigger canoes and bows and arrows — both technologies unknown in Australia — have long been used in New Guinea and eastern Indonesia (and the Pacific at large).
Many eastern Indonesian islands are known to have been involved in some way in international trade in the Middle Ages. The best white sandalwood (Santalum album) came from the island of Timor, where the tree originated, and Timor was frequently visited by foreign traders as a result. Just south of Seram lie the Banda Islands, from which all the true nutmeg and mace in the medieval world came. All the clove trees harvested before the nineteenth century grew on islands a little to the north in what is now the Indonesian province of North Maluku. Nutmeg and cloves were very common in medieval Europe, and it seems to me that if a cockatoo could have come from one of these frequently visited eastern Indonesian islands then there’s no mystery whatsoever about the origins of either of the European cockatoos.
Commodities from New Guinea were certainly traded off the island in the Middle Ages, too. There’s a reference to massoy bark in Bujangga Manik, the late-fifteenth-century Old Sundanese narrative poem I edited for my Ph.D thesis, and another reference to massoy appears in the Classical Malay Hikayat Raja Pasai, a historical narrative concerning the Sumatran Islamic polity of Samudra-Pasai traditionally believed to have been written c.1390 but which may well have been written in the fifteenth century instead (and in any case survives in manuscripts of much more recent date — Figure 4). Massoy trees (Cryptocarya massoy) only grow in western New Guinea, so this is evidence that trade in the region involved the western parts of the island some time before the sixteenth century.
A reference in the Old Javanese kakawin Deśawarṇana (canto 14.5 — written 1365) to Wwanin — Onin, a place on the Bomberai Peninsula in New Guinea known in later times for its massoy production — corroborates the notion that massoy was being exported as far back as the fourteenth century. It is also clear from A Suma Oriental, a book written by the Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires before 1515, that New Guinea was known by name (‘Papua’) in Melaka, in what is now Malaysia, before the first European expedition to the island in 1526–7.
Could a cockatoo from New Guinea itself have ended up in Europe? In principle, yes — although sulphur-crested cockatoos also live on islands slightly further west, islands that are known to have been linked politically with the clove-producing Islamic Sultanates of Ternate and Tidore west of Halmahera at the end of the fifteenth century.
Australia is not mentioned in any of these texts, nor are any commodities that could only have come from there. Australia doesn’t appear under any name in any medieval European, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, or Indo-Malaysian sources. It doesn’t even appear in any of the early post-1511 Portuguese sources, and as the geographical information in those often appears to have come from local Southeast Asian informants it seems unlikely Australia was known to people west of New Guinea before the sixteenth century at the earliest. There must have been contact between northern Australia and New Guinea by way of the Torres Strait, but there’s no reason at all to think this involved anyone further west. (Though it would be fascinating if there were good evidence for this, of course.)
This is a very significant difference, and both Dalton and the New Yorker piece seem to want to brush over it. As I said above, I think Dalton’s using ‘Australasian’ as a weasel word here — to subtly suggest that an Australian origin of these cockatoos is as likely as any other. It should be clear that this is not the case. While Australia and many eastern Indonesian islands are biogeographically ‘Australasian’, their histories are wholly separate in this period (as far as we can tell).
Eastern Indonesian Commodities in Medieval Europe
On this blog we’ve looked at a lot of different examples of eastern Indonesian commodities in medieval European texts. Aside from the cockatoos, these are invariably spices, usually cloves (dried blossoms of the tree Syzygium aromaticum), nutmeg (seeds of the nutmeg tree, Myristica fragrans), and mace (the fragrant aril that surrounds the nutmeg seed). (White sandalwood features only rarely in Europe, although it’s commonly referred to in texts from India, the Middle East, and China.)
Cloves only came from five islands (Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian, and Bacan) to the south and west of Halmahera, a little to the west of the Bird’s Head of New Guinea. True nutmeg only came from the Banda Islands, a tiny archipelago south of Ambon and Seram (although another species of nutmeg with rugby ball-shaped seeds, M. argentea, may also have been exported from the west coast of New Guinea) (Figure 5).
Cloves, mace, and nutmeg can be found in a bewildering array of texts from medieval Europe, not to mention China, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. (If we had many surviving texts from medieval tropical Africa we’d probably find them in those too.) One or other of these spices can be found in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400), Dante Alighieri (c.1265–1321), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), Pedro López de Ayala (1332–1407), and François Villon (1431?-1463?). They are mentioned in rental contracts, in letters, in ledgers and account books, in glossaries, in recipes for medicines, and in cookbooks. And those are just some of the examples that have featured on this blog; others I haven’t examined on here include the Arthurian tales of Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach (wherein nutmeg is associated with the palace of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail); the poems of Neidhart von Reuental; Hugo von Langenstein’s Martina; Picatrix; Bald’s Leechbook; Jacob van Maerlant’s Der naturen bloeme; and — look, they’re everywhere. It’s not that you’ll find cloves or nutmeg in every medieval European text of significant length but it does sometimes feel that way.
Now, the islands on which these spices were grown and harvested also played host to populations of cockatoos or were closely linked with islands that did (Figure 6). These include the yellow- and sulphur-crested cockatoos of the kinds seen in Madonna della Vittoria and De Arte Venandi cum Avibus and described in other medieval texts (see below). Why should we be so surprised and so fascinated by appearances of cockatoos when there are all these references to other commodities from the same region? What does Dalton’s (and The New Yorker’s) mystification add to our understanding of medieval trade in general and of this part of the world in particular?
Anyway, another medieval European text containing references to eastern Indonesian spices that I haven’t discussed on this blog before now is Peter of Eboli’s Liber ad honorem Augusti ‘Book in Honour of Augustus’ (1196–7), a lengthy poetic account of the difficulties experienced by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI of Hohenstaufen — father of renowned cockatoo-owner Frederick II — as he attempted to establish control over Sicily in the 1190s. In the description of Henry’s coronation Peter of Eboli (aka Pietro da Eboli etc.) says (Figure 7):
‘Balsam, frankincense, aloes, nutmeg, cinnamon, nard
Customary for kings, amber of mild odor,
Perfume the streets and houses and spread their scent through the city.’
(This is Gwenyth Hood’s translation — p.123 of her wonderful edition of the text)
What I want to know is why it’s more interesting to know that Frederick II owned a cockatoo than that nutmeg was present at his father’s coronation. Why does one make a greater difference to our understanding of medieval trade than the other — as the New Yorker piece suggests — when both things came from the same part of the world?
Europeans Knew Where Cockatoos Came From
The New Yorker piece, and Dalton’s scholarship in general, portrays this region, this ‘Australasia’, as completely unknown to Europeans in the Middle Ages. And it is true to say that Europeans would have known very little about the sources of cockatoos in the thirteenth century. Frederick II’s bird was thought to have come from somewhere in ‘India’, broadly conceived, by way of the Sultan of ‘Babylon’ (i.e. Cairo/Egypt), whose gift it was. But by the 1490s, when Andrea Mantegna was painting his cockatoo, there were accounts of eastern Indonesian islands and of the cockatoos that were traded from them. Two of them, in fact, both ultimately from the mind and mouth of a Venetian merchant named Niccolò de’ Conti, who travelled around the Indian Ocean in the 1430s and 1440s with his Egyptian wife and children. His travels included a stay of several months in Sumatra and probably Java as well. (Conti absolutely despised these places and their peoples but appears to have enjoyed eating durian.)
Conti returned to Italy in 1444 after losing his wife and two children to plague in Egypt, and apparently after having converted to Islam. As penance the Pope asked that Conti recount his travels to the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini. Bracciolini then related Conti’s travels in the fourth book of his De Uarietate Fortunæ (‘On the Vicissitudes of Fortune’  — see my earlier blogpost). This account mentions cockatoos under the name cachi (a garbled Latinisation of the Malay (burung) kakatua — probably Bracciolini’s error rather than Conti’s, as with Bracciolini’s noros for Malay nuri ‘parrot’). Conti/Bracciolini says that these birds came from the Banda Islands (known in Malay and Old Sundanese, incidentally, as Bandan, which is also Conti’s name for them):
‘There are three kinds of parrots in Bandan. […] The third kind are white and the same size as a chicken. Known as cachi, meaning ‘excellent ones’, these birds are the best at producing human speech. They do so in surprising fashion, to the point of being able to respond to questions asked of them.’ (my translation — see here for the original)
I should say that Conti never actually visited Banda — he seems only to have heard about it from others. Nonetheless, it seems that western Indo-Malaysian traders purchased their cockatoos in the Banda Islands. (Incidentally, a description of Banda in Chinese survives from the fourteenth century; I translated it here.)
Conti also told the tale of his travels — so most scholars believe, anyway — to the Venetian monk and cartographer Fra Mauro, who spent the 1450s putting together a superb world map, one of the originals of which survives in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. Banda appears on the map as bandã (where the tilde signifies a missing nasal consonant — so, Bandan), although one of the captions says that white cockatoos came instead from another island known as ‘Sondai’, which is unidentified. (Sondai also features in Bracciolini’s version of Conti’s travels.) Either way this place appears to have been in eastern Indonesia. Here’s the relevant caption (the language is Venetian — Figure 8):
Sondai insula propinqua a bandã. In questa na-
sce nose muscade et altre specie ĩ quãtita. e qui se
troua papaga de .vij. colori grossi come uno
colombo. et ancora se ne troua unaltra sorte
grossi chome uno cocal e tuti bianchi salv[o]
i piedi el becho che sono rossi
‘Sondai [is] an island close to Banda. On this [island] grow nutmegs and other spices in quantity. And there are found parrots of seven colours the size of a dove. And moreover there is found another sort as big as a seagull and all white, save for the feet and the beak, which are red.’
Importantly, these accounts antedate Mantegna’s cockatoo by several decades. They seem to be describing white cockatoos (Cacatua alba), but given their brevity and secondhand nature they could well be describing sulphur- or yellow-crested ones.
Regardless, much of what was traded out of the Banda Islands was brought there from elsewhere in eastern Indonesia; Banda was a convenient hub for ships from New Guinea, North Maluku, and other islands. It had food, water, and a harbour, and it lay about two weeks’ sail from Java. Malay traders may have thought the birds came from the islands themselves but that’s not necessarily the case. I should also mention that the Portuguese accounts of Duarte Barbosa (c.1516) and the aforementioned Tomé Pires (pre-1515) support the notion that one could procure exotic birds in Banda, including cockatoos but also — more intriguingly, in my view — birds-of-paradise, something alluded to a few decades later by the great Portuguese poet Camões. (This post is already getting rather long, though, so I’ll leave those texts for another time.)
Anyway: Were the homelands of the cockatoo ‘inconceivable’ to people in Europe at this time? It doesn’t appear so. They were at the edge of European understanding in this period, but they had been known for several decades in Italy in Mantegna’s time. In fact, a printed edition of book IV of Bracciolini’s work, with a new title, India Recognita, was published in Milan in 1492, only a few years before Mantegna painted his cockatoo.
Finally: How would a cockatoo have travelled to Europe? In the original articles by Dalton et al., it was suggested that the birds would first have been taken by boat to Java and from there to China, after which they would have journeyed in a caravan across Central Asia — along the ‘Silk Road’ — to the Middle East. This strikes me as rather ludicrous, and a result of the overestimation of the importance of the (overland) ‘Silk Road’ in popular conceptions of medieval trade. It still appears to be the belief of Dalton’s co-authors (see the final paragraph of the New Yorker piece), but Dalton herself has moved on. She now thinks the cockatoos would have travelled to Europe by sea:
‘Dalton told me that she now believes the cockatoo was probably transported largely by sea — not in a single epic voyage across the Indian Ocean but in a series of trips in small boats which hugged the coast of India and Arabia.’
Well, if you know anything about medieval trade on the Indian Ocean then you know the following:
- Ships on the Indian Ocean, particularly east of India, were some of the largest in the medieval world. They were known even in Europe for their size, and we find the name for them — variants of the word ‘junk’, from the Old Javanese word joṅ — in a large number of medieval texts, including accounts written by Odoric of Pordenone, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, and (in distorted form) Afanasij Nikitin, to name a few. A section of Bujangga Manik suggests that a Javanese jong could be as great as 48 metres in length, although that depends on the value of the unit employed in the text (depa, roughly equivalent to an English fathom). ‘Small boats’ is entirely wrong either way.
- ‘Hugging the coast’ is not how anybody got across the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages. That had been rendered unnecessary at the end of the first millennium BCE by the discovery of the cycle of the northeast and southwest monsoon winds, which allowed ships to depart at regular intervals from different parts of the Ocean and sail right across it. (This is on every introductory course and in every book on the pre-modern Indian Ocean. I’m not sure if this is Dalton’s error or Mead’s, but either way it’s a howler.)
Transshipping commodities at different ports en route around the Ocean was the norm, and it does seem unlikely that the birds would have travelled all the way from Java to Egypt in one ship. It should be noted, though, that that was possible, and that ships tended to travel across the Ocean out of sight of land in any case.
Either way, the birds would probably have been caught in eastern Indonesia, sent to Java in local craft (which would take about a fortnight with good winds), and then transported from Java to Egypt by sailing across the Indian Ocean and up the Red Sea, probably stopping at several ports (Palembang, Melaka, Pasai, Kochi, Calicut, Jiddah, Aden, etc.) on the way. On arriving in Cairo or thereabouts they would have been taken overland to Alexandria, where they could have been purchased directly by European merchants — as with other commodities from the same part of the world, like cloves and nutmeg. (Fred II tells us that his cockatoo was a gift from the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, so no need for this step.) Under the right conditions, such a voyage needn’t have taken all that much longer than a year, but it really depends on how lucky the ship(s) involved was/were with the winds and currents.
So. To sum up.
There’s a preponderance of evidence for an eastern Indonesian origin for these two birds. We have more-or-less contemporaneous accounts describing where these birds came from, in addition to abundant evidence of commodities from the same locales ending up in Europe at the same time. The evidence of long-term links between eastern Indonesia and the wider medieval Afro-Eurasian world is indisputable and overwhelming. Parts of the extreme west of New Guinea were also part of this world, if the Malay, Sundanese, and Javanese texts are anything to go by (and I think they are).
There is no evidence that Australia had anything to do with the kind of long-distance commerce that was routine in Banda and Timor. Australia was not part of the same world of trade and intercontinental links. It doesn’t appear in any texts from anywhere in Afro-Eurasia — or anywhere in the world — in this period. Why use the term ‘Australasian’ at all? ‘Eastern Indonesian’ is precise enough — except, of course, that to say that an eastern Indonesian bird ended up in medieval Europe is not sensational. And therein lies the crux.
When Dalton’s work appeared in The Guardian a few years ago I remember seeing a comment from a user on the site to the effect that the cockatoo in the Mantegna painting was merely an extension of the spice trade — ‘nothing to see here’, essentially. I would agree that it was an extension of the spice trade and that it didn’t tell the sensational story Dalton apparently wanted it to. It certainly couldn’t be claimed in good faith that the bird came from Australia.
But I must say that I think there is something to see here. I think these cockatoos are fascinating evidence of links between eastern Indonesian islands and the wider world before the first Portuguese expedition to the region in 1512. They join the myriad references to cloves, nutmeg, mace, and white sandalwood in European and other Afro-Eurasian texts from the Middle Ages in showing the extraordinary connectedness of the medieval world and the Indo-Malaysian archipelago’s pivotal place within it. These are all traces of the lives and labour of otherwise undocumented people in eastern Indonesia. To my mind we should celebrate all of these references to all of these commodities with the same verve and energy with which the internet and major news media tend to greet these sensationalist cockatoo tales.
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Dr A. J. West — Leiden, 2021.