Imagine the poor creature, minding its own business on the island of Mauritius for countless millennia, and then wiped out in the course of the seventeenth century, apparently because of human intervention in a previously uninhabited island. Not only were the dodos hunted for food, but their habitat was (inadvertently?) destroyed by the introduction of dogs, cats, rats, pigs and other species which preyed on their eggs and their young.
The saying ‘as dead as a dodo’ seems to have emerged in the 1890s: earlier versions include ‘as rare as the dodo’ (1860s) and ‘as extinct as a dodo’ in the 1870s. It has been suggested that the dodo achieved its greatest posthumous fame as a result of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and even that the Dodo in that work was Carroll’s self-portrait, as his stammer caused him to introduce himself as ‘Do-do-dodgson’.
Tenniel’s image in Alice (along with many others) derives from the famous painting, later reproduced in multiple engravings, by the Dutch artist Roelant Savery (1576–1639), which Hugh Strickland used as the frontispiece for his 1848 The Dodo and Its Kindred, Or The History, Affinities, and Osteology of the Dodo, Solitaire, and Other Extinct Birds of the Islands Mauritius, Rodriguez, and Bourbon.
The bird looks glum, as though the rock on which the artist has left his name is its own tombstone. In fact Savery, and his nephew Jan, quite frequently depicted the dodo, and one of the questions posed by Strickland in his fascinating and comprehensive book is whether they and the other (mostly Dutch) painters who portrayed the birds in this brief window of opportunity (which coincided neatly with the Dutch Golden Age) actually saw a live one, as opposed to skins or stuffed specimens.
One problem with trying to get one back to Holland may have been that nobody was sure what the dodo (unlike Clara the rhinoceros) actually ate. Some thought fruit, some insects, some carrion: though that many of them were found on examination to have gizzard stones suggests that they may have had trouble digesting their food.
The image below, from a 1646 Dutch work, may show the dodo with its food: but as Strickland says, the lump ‘would pass equally well for a testaceous mollusc, or for an arboreal fruit, so that the problem of the Dodo’s food seems as far from a solution as ever’.
I must do justice to Alexander Gordon Melville (1819–1901), who wrote the second part of the book, on the osteology of the surviving dodo and other remains, but I have to admit that the first part is much more fun.
The humour and zest which Strickland brings to his account make it all the more tragic that he died young: a martyr both to his scientific enthusiasm and to the Age of Steam, he was killed aged only 42, hit by a passing train as he was examining newly revealed geological strata in a railway cutting near Retford, Nottinghamshire, in 1853. (We have also reissued his 4-volume translation of Agassiz’s bibliography of works on geology and zoology.)
Another Oriel College man, Strickland came from a family prosperous enough that he was able to pursue his interests rather than work for his living. He has an extraordinary connection with the Shakespeare scholar and bibliographer J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps: they both tried to marry daughters (or possibly the same daughter) of the eccentric (to put it mildly) Sir Thomas Phillipps, who insisted on massive financial settlements: he demanded that Strickland pay off his debts, as well as hand over a large amount of cash, and was highly indignant when Strickland’s father offered a settlement only(!) £40,000. Halliwell, when faced with a similar demand, just eloped, and faced years of calumny and vituperation until his father-in-law died.
Anyway, back to the dodo. Strickland provides details of a large number of accounts and sightings by travellers who stopped at Mauritius on their way across the Indian Ocean. The first of these was published in 1601 in Dutch, after the voyage of Jacob Cornelius Van Neck in 1598. This plate, reproduced by Strickland, shows the crew making themselves at home, even listening to an improving sermon, while the dodo and turtle appearing to be discussing the way the neighbourhood is going downhill.
The source of the name ‘dodo’ is unclear. The Dutch called the birds ‘Walckvögel’, ‘disgusting birds’, from the toughness of their meat; in French, we find ‘oiseau de nausée’. (In fact, it seems that this refers to the toughness of the leg meat (not surprising when you consider the weight they had to support): the breast meat was much more palatable, and indeed sought after…) ‘Dodo’ was long thought to derive from the Portuguese ‘dodou’ meaning stupid (cf. the ‘booby’, which can fly but is apparently easy to catch on land), though the Portuguese themselves called dodos penguins (fotilicaios) when they first encountered them. Another, ruder etymology connects to a Dutch phrase meaning ‘rather plump at the rear end’. Or the name may echo their call, but sadly, we will never know whether that is true.
As well as telling you everything you could want to know about dodo sightings, Strickland also considers the solitaire of Rodriguez, an even more mythical bird from an even more remote island. Rodriguez is about 300 miles east of Mauritius, and was first settled (as far as is known) by a party of French Huguenots led by François Leguat, whose two-volume account of his travels is one of the works later edited by the Hakluyt Society.
Leguat gives a detailed description of the solitaire, which sounds nothing like the dodo, and looks in the illustrations to his book more like a goose.
It too is now extinct, but modern investigations seem to agree with Strickland that the two birds are related and that both belonged to the wider pigeon family. Strickland suggested this, and explained the extreme size of both birds by the lack of natural predators which enabled them to increase in bulk and diminish in mobility as they evolved. Their closest living relative is apparently the rather lovely Nicobar pigeon.
I wish I had the space to quote much more for this wonderful book – apart from Strickland’s analysis, and the images, it is fascinating to read the words of the travellers, trying to make sense of the extraordinary things they are seeing by making comparisons with familiar birds, plants, etc. And, coming soon, another tragedy: the great auk.