A Strange Bird

by sarahkburke

This post is written by Sarah Burke Cahalan, Special Projects and Reference Librarian at Dumbarton Oaks.

I don’t always get a chance to pay close attention to the image orders that cross my desk. There are simply too many other details to monitor. The nature of the work necessitates a focus on paperwork, image specs, and the details of sending the right MediaFire link to the right patron. But an image from a new acquisition caught my eye, in part because images from this book will likely be used in the upcoming symposium volume for Botany of Empire. It also registered because it is just plain weird: What is this giant bird doing on a raft?

The harbor at Paita, Peru

The harbor at Paita, Peru

I posted the image on my personal Twitter account [“NBD. Just taking my eagle out for a paddle.”] and didn’t think much more of it, besides taking the usual satisfaction in the number of times the Tweet was starred and retweeted by colleagues who also enjoy the esoteric details we come across in special collections materials. But then I thought about it again over the weekend. This should be a relatively easy puzzle to solve. What was this giant bird doing on a raft? So I consulted the text.

Title page, Oost- en West-Indische voyagie

Title page, Oost- en West-Indische voyagie

Fortunately there is an English translation of Admiral Joris van Spilbergen’s Oost- en West-Indische voyagie, door de strate Magallanes naer de Moluques, a seventeenth-century account of a journey through the Strait of Magellan to Indonesia, commissioned by the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The Dutch and the Spanish were, of course, rival powers in this period, and this image shows the battle over the port of Paita, Peru in 1615. In the engraving, we see Dutch ships in the harbor and Dutch troops approaching the city, with Spaniards retreating over a hillside in the background. This book was acquired by Dumbarton Oaks in part because of its depiction of balsa rafts, such as the one with two sails in the middle foreground. The use of such rafts for riverine and oceanic travel dates far into the Pre-Columbian past, and this image is therefore a fascinating example of European and American vessels depicted side-by-side.

While VOC ships were moored in the harbor at Paita, Admiral Spilbergen dispatched some of his men to find food. On their expedition they also found two extraordinary birds. The following quotation is from the English translation I mentioned above:

During the time that we were at anchor the Admiral seeing that our victuals were beginning considerably to diminish sent four well equipped boats to the aforesaid Island de Loubes in order to catch some of these fish named loubes. This they did bringing a large quantity some still alive others dead and which when cooked were of good flavour and afforded perfect nourishment…

On the island our sailors also caught two birds of marvellous size having a beak wings and claws shaped like an eagle a neck like a sheep and combs on the head like cocks being formed in a very wonderful manner.

The “Island of Loubes” refers to the Lobos de Tierra, located to the south of Paita. And the bird? Most likely it was an Andean condor, which does in fact have a fluffy white neck “like a sheep,” and a comb and wattle like a rooster.

This 1648 volume reprints Willem Cornelisz Schouten van Hoorn’s publications of thirty years previous. The image itself derives from an earlier engraving; one example has been digitized by the John Carter Brown Library.