Observing the Fantastic Beasts of Maluku

Full disclosure: Animal History is not my area of expertise and I do not intend to turn my current research in that direction. Perhaps, this may inform a future project.

That being said, I was recently browsing the pages of the Treatise on the Moluccas, a mid-16th century Portuguese administrator/sailor’s description of present-day North Maluku province in Indonesia, when I found myself taken in by the author’s descriptions of the region’s animals. Many early modern European manuscripts intended to introduce the places and peoples they encountered in their overseas expansion feature sections on animals alongside sections on geography, plants, and commodities. Truth be told, I usually skip those sections and go straight to the parts on regional history, politics, and customs. However, this section did not disappoint in the least.

Phalanger maculatus (male) - Museo Civico di Storia Naturale Giacomo Doria - Genoa, Italy - DSC03051.JPG
A kusu (Spilocuscus maculatus)
(Image: Wikimedia Commons) 

In Maluku, the Treatise’s author (scholars aren’t quite sure who wrote it, although it may have been governor António Galvão) describes many animals, including cockatoos, flying fish, and boars. He observed ferret-like animals that could hang from trees using their long tails and nurtured their newborns in a pocket on their bellies. He recounted stories of giant snakes. In one supposed case, the king (or sultan) of Tidore in Maluku was presented with a giant snake which was found dead after it had attempted to swallow a whole goat. The goat’s horns had mauled the snake from the inside and had punctured through the snake’s skin. In another case, a local man (the author calls him “a Jonah”) was swallowed by a giant snake in his sleep and, eventually with a knife, cut open the snake from the inside and escaped with his life. The two animals described here are the marsupial possums (kuskus in Indonesian or kusu in various Malukan languages) and pythons, respectively.

The author curiously spent more time describing a large fish with “skin better than any other [he] ever saw.” It was the size of a dolphin and had a cow-like head. It nursed its young. Mixed with water or wine, its ground up bones could be consumed as a painkiller. Its meat resembled beef. The Portuguese sailors called it peixe vaqua (“cow-fish”). The author was clearly in awe at this “most important” fish, or rather the humble dugong.

Dugon Willem van West-Zanen 1602.jpg
Image from a 1602 journal showing the killing of a seacow in Mauritius. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Stamps of Indonesia, 041-05.jpg
Indonesian stamp featuring the dugong
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Disturbingly, the author gives reports on the use of dugong as sexual objects and even references the buying and selling of dugong for that purpose by local fishermen (and presumably some European sailors, although the author does not explicitly state this) in East Africa. He does distinguish those dugong in East Africa from the dugong in Southeast Asia, which he implies are different species. They are not.

Upon further reading, the dugong features prominently in other European descriptions of Maluku and the Indian Ocean World. Among other names, European writers called it the peixe-mulher (Portuguese: “woman-fish”), zeekoe (Dutch: “cow-fish”), or, in those unsettling cases, zeewijf (Dutch: “sea-wife”). In his early 18th century Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indiën, Dutch minister and naturalist François Valentijn wrote hundreds of pages about the fish and crustaceans as well as the land animals of Ambon in Central Maluku, where he primarily resided. Yet, he also focused one of his chapters on the ever-intriguing dugong. The dugong, indeed, stirred a certain curiosity of early modern European sailors and likely informed some key aspects of mermaid mythology.

Side note: In Indonesian and Malay, mermaids are called putri duyung (“dugong’s daughter”) and ikan duyung (“dugong fish”), respectively. In Javanese, mermaid is dhuyung.

Print of a mermaid among sea creatures from Valentijn’s Oud en Nieuw Oost- Indiën.
This image is located in the chapter on the dugong.

One of the more bizarre accounts of animals during this period comes from a May 1546 letter written by Francis Xavier in Ambon to his superiors in Europe, in which the Jesuit missionary relays his noteworthy encounter with a goat that continuously and abundantly provided milk. He even had the joy of milking the goat himself. To add to the confusion, he uses the Spanish “un cabrón” which is a male goat as opposed “una cabra” which is a female goat. Nevertheless, Xavier was so impressed by the goat, he arranged to have it sent to Portugal via India. As of writing this post, I am unaware if the goat ever arrived in India let alone Portugal.

Unfortunately, we are not left with descriptions of these animals by early modern Malukans or other Southeast Asians, but we are still able to glean some aspects of their relationship with these animals. For example, when describing the kusu, the Treatise’s author mentions that the locals eat it much in the same way that early modern Europeans ate rabbit. That dish still exists today. The presenting of the goat-mauled python to the Sultan of Tidore suggests that the Tidoreans, too, were captivated by the sight. This National Geographic story shows that humans have not really changed much in this regard.

Travel accounts, court records, and expedition journals throughout history regularly feature tales of exotic or fantastic overseas creatures. Well, “fantastic” or “exotic” to those individuals from areas far away from the habitats of those animals. Early modern Europeans are by no means the only ones to become enthralled with animals, especially newly-encountered animals. Compendia of animal descriptions, often called bestiaries in the context of Medieval Europe, were already popular in Europe and similar manuscripts were produced in the Classical Mediterranean, the Medieval Islamic World, and pre-modern East Asia.  

Ming-era painting of the tribute qilin
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In perhaps the most renowned case of the discovery of a fantastic beast, the 15th century Chinese admiral Zheng He identified the giraffe as the mythical qilin, or kirin in Japanese (of Kirin Ichiban fame), during his voyage to East Africa. Eager to display this auspicious animal to his primary benefactor, the Yongle Emperor, Zheng He brought two of the qilin to Nanjing, where the emperor proclaimed the presence of the mythical qilin to be signs of his own power.

In another famous case, naturalists at the British Museum believed their first specimen of the platypus, which arrived from Australia in 1799, to be a bizarre hoax. Given that the platypus is duck-billed, has a beaver-like body and tail, lays eggs, and produces venom on its back otter-like feet, it is understandable why those naturalists doubted its authenticity in the first place. And, even continuing into the present, the platypus represents for many people the uniqueness of Australia’s wildlife.

In recent years, the field of Animal History has greatly expanded with an increasing number of historians turning towards animals in an attempt to reconsider anthropocentric narratives on historical events and trends (The “Animal Turn” in History). In the documents discussed in this post, the descriptions of animals provide insight into how those authors conceived of nature and humanity’s relationship to the natural world. In regard to early modern Europeans in Southeast Asia, these descriptions illustrate their curiosities, uncertainties, fetishes, and fears of the region as they were first encountering it. To these Europeans, the strangeness of the animals further demonstrated the foreignness of the region and its peoples, who regularly interacted with those strange beasts, as well as represented many of the opportunities colonization of the region presented. Moreover, in recording and describing these animals, these Europeans assumed a sort of stewardship over the region’s natural world that corresponded with their establishment of colonies in Southeast Asia. By considering such descriptions of animals, historians access another tool with which to see the world as certain people did in the past. This, indirectly, helps historians analyze and understand interactions between Europeans and Southeast Asians during periods of colonization.

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