20 Jul 2018

Flight of Fancy: early depictions of the parrot trade in European art

Parrots are such popular pets that their capture has driven many species to the brink of extinction in the wild. But this isn't a new phenomenon - their role in human culture has been ingrained for millennia. We explore what parrots in art can tell us about the history of world trade routes.

"East Indes Market Stall in Batavia", painted in the 17th century by an unknown artist
"East Indes Market Stall in Batavia", painted in the 17th century by an unknown artist
By John Fanshawe

For millennia, parrots have played a vital role in human culture, as companions, and as emblems of curiosity and wealth.  Indeed, our voracious interest in keeping these charismatic birds has driven a worldwide trade that has put many species at serious risk of extinction in the wild.  Most diverse in the tropics, parrots seem to epitomise all the bravado, colour and noise of countries like Brazil that, in the early 16th century, was often referred to as Brasilia sive terra papa-gallorum, or the ‘Land of Parrots’.

The parrot family is large, with the Handbook of Birds of the World BirdLife list recognising 399 extant species, and there is an extraordinary range of species, from macaws to pygmy-parrots. They include the genus Cacatua, 12 species of beautiful white parrots, both the large cockatoos and smaller corellas of Australasia and Melanesia. Many have been traded for millennia. Indeed, the recent discovery of a cockatoo depicted in a 13th-century Vatican manuscript has revolutionised our view of European trade routes. For some, a mixture of habitat loss and trapping has led to their threat statuses being raised.  Among them, Salmon-crested Cockatoo Cacatua moluccensis is listed as Vulnerable, and its presence in the painting reveals a long-standing trade. Originally widespread in eastern Indonesia, the species is now regular only in Seram, and common in Manusela National Park. 

In a study of early depictions of Salmon-crested Cockatoo, Stewart Metz includes the above painting with works by artists like Roelandt Savery, Johann Walter, Melchior d’Hondecoeter and Willem van Royen, all of who were active at a similar time. Painted in the 17th Century by an unknown artist, East Indies Market Stall in Batavia was formerly attributed to the Dutch painter, Albert Eckhout (1610-1665), who was well known for his oils of tropical scenes. Batavia was the centre of trading for the Dutch East India Company, and the site of modern Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.  A Chinese customer depicted is buying fruit: rambutan, mangosteen, durian, copra, mango, grapefruit, pineapple and bananas. Overlooking it all perches a Salmon-crested Cockatoo, a pet possibly, but perhaps for sale.


"Two Macaws, a Cockatoo and a Jay, with Fruit" by Jakob Bogdani


Notably, the cockatoo also appears in a painting by Jakob Bogdani (1658-1724), a Slovak who moved to Amsterdam in 1684, and then to London in 1688, going on to become a British citizen, and a popular painter of birds.  As Jonathan Elphick notes in his Birds: The Art of Ornithology, Bogdani was admired in the court of Queen Mary. Elphick writes that although species were shown separately at the time, they often appeared in combinations “...that look bizarre to anyone who knows about bird distributions”. Bogdani’s pictures could include a mix of peacocks, macaws, pheasants, tits, orioles, jays, lapwings and other birds.  Even with such an eccentric biogeography, these depictions give an idea of when birds appeared in Europe, and a good sense of the history of trade in these remarkable parrots.