A taste of fish from the Indies
Don't let that mermaid distract you
3 March 2017
The natural world is a source of endless fascination for us. Who hasn’t been captivated by the antics of meerkats, or marvelled at a David Attenborough documentary, or been stunned by close-up images of plants and insects, or submarine views of the strange creatures in the vast ocean depths? Film, television, photography, mass circulation magazines, and the Internet have made these easily accessible to people throughout the world.
But just imagine the wonder that Europeans of the late 17th and early 18th century must have felt when for the first time the explorers and colonisers of Asia and the Pacific began to relate their tales and circulate drawings of the amazing flora and fauna they encountered on their travels. This was a time when scientific investigation was becoming an established discipline and there was a hunger for knowledge coupled with a desire to describe and classify the natural world.
The proliferation of globes, maps and atlases during this period introduced Europeans to the size, geographical location and relationships between countries, oceans and seas, opening up a new perspective on the world – particularly Africa and Asia.
Long before the European explorers made their first sea voyages round Africa, many of the plants of the East, especially spices, were well known in Europe as they were traded along the old land routes. They were already studied and used by herbalists and botanists as well as in cooking. However the opening up of the sea routes to East and Southeast Asia provided direct access and a greater opportunity to cultivate and study live specimens.
Asia's animals fuelled the long-standing European interest in keeping and displaying “wild animals”. Royalty, the nobility and other wealthy citizens had for centuries kept exotic animals in their gardens, while travelling shows introduced them to the wider public.
Now they could add to their stock of lions and monkeys some intriguing new species. These animals and birds also became a feature of Renaissance paintings.
According to Gustave Loisel in his Histoire des ménageries de l'antiquité à nos jours, animals from the East were such a regular cargo to Amsterdam, that the Dutch East India Company had special warehouses and stables on the quayside to receive them. They also had a depot and menagerie at the Cape of Good Hope.
The allure of the natural world led to the popularity of “cabinets of curiosities” amongst the affluent members of society. They were a status symbol for some, but for others they were a genuine reflection of their fascination with the new worlds opening up before them. These cabinets might include a wide range of objects, some focused on a particular type of specimen or artefact, e.g. coins, sculptures, rocks, corals, or stuffed birds, while others were an eclectic mix of whatever took the collector’s fancy. What a talking point to display in the drawing room when you were hosting a soiree! Some of these early cabinets became the basis of museum collections in later years.
How did the collectors obtain their material? It might reach them in many ways. From traders and pirates, from people who specifically travelled as collectors to obtain material for sale, as souvenirs obtained by sailors, soldiers or Company representatives posted in the East, or from scientific expeditions and voyages of discovery. Opportunism, serendipity, research and a desire for the rare and unusual all played a role.
For those unable to put together their own cabinet, or who wanted to study more deeply, books depicting the unusual flora and fauna encountered in the East were published. Some works on botany and zoology from this period are considered classics, and their authors lauded for their scientific attempt to classify and accurately describe species. For example, Castor Durante, a physician, published in 1585 his Herbario nuovo with 874 woodcuts of plants, a massive work which continued to be reprinted and translated into the eighteenth century.
However it is a work on fish, often derided in later times, that really appeals to me (and not just because of my fishy surname Whiting!). The book is Louis Renard’s Poissons, ecrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires, que l'on trouve autour des isles Moluques et sur les côtes des terres Australes, which translates as "Fishes, crayfishes and crabs, of diverse colours and extraordinary forms, which are found around the islands of the Moluccan and on the coasts of southern lands." It was first published in Amsterdam in 1719 and is one of the very few pre-Linnaean works on fishes to be published in colour. The Library holds a beautiful facsimile edition of the original work, together with a detailed volume of commentary and translation of the text by Theodore W. Pietsch. I love it for its flaws as well as its strengths, for the insight it provides on the people involved, for what it conveys about the audience, and for the sheer beauty of the illustrations.
Louis Renard (c. 1678–1746) was born in France but, to escape religious persecution as a Hugenot, moved to the Netherlands with his family around the turn of the century and became a book dealer and publisher. Poissons, ecrevisses et crabes is probably his most famous work. There are 100 brilliantly hand-coloured plates of copper engravings that represent 416 fishes, 40 crustaceans, two insects, a dugong, and even a mermaid.
The introduction to the work includes statements attesting to the authenticity of the illustrations (perhaps a hint that Renard was expecting some doubts) as well as a dedication from Renard that it was “Presented to the public by Mr Louis Renard, agent of His Britannic Majesty at Amsterdam”. Apparently Renard was employed by George I and George II to search ships leaving Amsterdam to prevent arms from reaching James Stuart, the Roman Catholic 'Old Pretender' to the British throne. I imagine Renard thought this royal connection would lend a further stamp of legitimacy to his work. He was obviously not concerned that it might compromise the covert nature of any activities he undertook on their behalf.
The Dutch artist Samuel Fallours, a soldier stationed in Ambon with the Dutch East India Company, painted many of the drawings that Renard copied for this work. Fallours created many drawings of East Indian marine life that were reproduced in several eighteenth century publications, including Renard's. According to Pietsch, Fallours probably included some of the more “creative” elements in his drawings in order to attract the European collectors who purchased his works. These embellishments ranged from some abnormal shapes and colourations to total fabrications such as the mermaid.
Although the inclusion of the mermaid is not as odd as it might seem.The myth of a marine human extends as far back as 5,000 B.C., when the Babylonians worshipped a fishtailed god named Oannes. In the centuries that followed, many people claimed to have seen mermaids and they were often featured on early maps. In 1493 near the Dominican Republic Christopher Columbus spotted three mermaids and he wrote that these sirens “are not as beautiful as they are painted, since in some ways they have a face like a man.” Mermaid stories such as these were not merely hallucinations or “tall tales” told by sailors to the gullible, but probably sightings of dugongs or manatees.
Renard’s book doesn’t contain any text apart from the engraved descriptions on the plates of some of the fish. Unlike today’s taxonomic works, these brief comments are far more entertaining. They include quaint stories about the habits of the fish and crustaceans, their local usage, and some assessments of edibility and cooking suggestions. Interestingly, for several species there are references to collectors from Holland having them in their cabinets, or being popular in ponds. Pietsch has very helpfully translated the original descriptions into English in the facsimile edition. Here are just a few to give a flavour (no pun intended) of them.
Despite the artistic inaccuracies of some of the depictions, scientists have been able to identify the majority of the species. Here are just a few comparisons of Renard’s illustrations with a photograph of the fish.
Leafing through this lovely work from the 18th century, you can imagine the amazement and delight of the European audience, perhaps familiar only with the mundane cod, herring or sardine, when they saw these sea creatures from the exotic East for the first time.