by Clare Hawkins

Sir, I fear you will not be well pleased by the conclusion of my tale. But I will tell you it, for I see you are eager to hear of the creature. Where to start? A brandy and water, yes, if you please, sir. You are most generous. The voyage, of course, there I must begin.

The year was 1630 and I, a smart young man, schooled in letters and arithmetic by my uncle and ready to take my place in the world. My uncle had a little shop in Cheapside but a large ambition in his head. He secured for me a place in the household of Sir Thomas Herbert, an eminent gentleman much travelled in the service of the king. So, fresh-faced and joyous, therewith, I took up my position. I was not long in his employ, however, when Sir Thomas was ordered to go as the king’s ambassador to Persia and I along with him. I confess I was terrified witless at the prospect of a voyage upon the ocean to the other side of the world, but my uncle raged my fears away.

“What’s wrong with you, boy?” says he. “Are you fearful of adventure? There’s many a young man made a tidy fortune by travelling to the corners of the earth. Here’s the chance to gather wondrous curiosities, marvels, magical things from the lands of the Hottentots.”

Thus to Persia I was bound, along with eight of Sir Thomas’s household. We repaired to Portsmouth, where all was flurry and excitement; gentlemen, ladies, officers, soldiers, sailors and whores teemed in the place. We were to sail in a squadron of ships, across two great oceans, for many, many months. On board, with the vessel already bucking beneath me, I kneeled and begged the Almighty to bring me back safe to these shores again.

What ails you, my good sir? A little patience, please. I am coming to the matter. No, I will not meander into the details of our voyage, the perils and wonders of the ocean, but the isle, where we alighted on our journey, you must hear of that.

Ah, the isle of Prince Mauritz, Eden before the Fall, or at least so it seemed to my innocent eyes. Everything about it was strange: the trees and plants, the rocks, the warm blue-green lagoons, a world hot and wet, voluptuous in every way, a miracle of God’s creation. We anchored in a bay, edged with deep green forests, though wooden huts in a clearing were testimony to earlier settlers. There were other ships at anchor too, one flying the flag of Holland and one of France, but neither gave any sign of warlike behaviour towards us.

Boats ferried us ashore, over coral reefs, strange rocks with tangles of luminous fish and shell-like forms. The place was luscious with trees, draped with creepers and spotted flowers of vibrant hues. As soon as our feet touched the land, Sir Thomas ordered us to make a start and explore it. He called upon his secretary to assemble a party of armed men, to venture into the forested places beyond the shores. There were four soldiers, marines with pistols and swords, three stout sailors armed with clubs or slings, myself, and Sir Thomas.

Birds flitted in flashes of green, red, and blue in white-barked trees, tall and straight of trunk. Other trees held large fruits, clustered near their topmost curving leaves. One of the sailors, with a keen eye and a brawny arm, threw his club to dislodge the fruits. I ate one, of flesh so soft, sweet and ripe as to pain the tongue and mouth with its deliciousness. The soldiers then poured powder into their pistols and fired upwards at the birds, which did nothing but set them screeching and squealing in little flocks to fill the air above us.

‘And here, in a wide clearing amongst the trees, we found them. A flock of the strangest creatures we had ever seen, for silence fell upon us all. Big, plump, goose-sized bodies, most ugly to look upon, of dull brown plumage, with huge beaks, hooked at the end, pin-prick eyes and little stumps where there should have been wings. Their feet were like those of a dragon, scaly-fingered and sharp-clawed at the ends.

“That’s our fresh meat for tonight, boys,” said a sailor, while one of the soldiers drew his pistol from his belt.

The birds, about eight of them, were not troubled in the least by our presence, though we stood there with murderous intent and the wherewithal to destroy them in a few pistol blasts. They merely turned their heads, peering at us with their small eyes. One dawdled closer, as though it wished to welcome us into its company and was pleased to make our acquaintance. Then it waggled its head and clumsy beak in a form of greeting.

“These creatures are tame,” says Sir Thomas. “No need to waste our powder.”

The soldiers tucked their pistols back into their belts, drew their swords and came at the creatures. The first soldier swung his blade and took the head off the nearest bird and his fellow followed, slicing at the next creature, whose head flew up in the air then plopped to earth somewhere in the tangle of the forest floor. Two fat, black-feathered bundles lay still on the ground. The rest of the flock, instead of fleeing the massacre, trundled towards us, their huge beaks and little eyes inquisitive and anxious. So, without more than a sword and a club the rest were felled, until the clearing was filled with them. Before us lay enough dead flesh to feed the crews of half a dozen ships.

You are shocked, sir? But is not this the way of the world and of men, who must eat brute beasts created for this purpose?

That night, the cook had men pluck the carcases and gut them on deck, while sea birds circled above us, screaming. The odour in the flames was more akin to a cesspit than a savorous supper. Officers, gentlemen, mariners, soldiers and servants tasted the meat, and found it as vile as a twenty-year-old leather boot from a beggar’s foot. “My God,” spoke up Sir Thomas, “greasy stomachs may relish this, but not I.”

However, next day, Sir Thomas called me to his quarters and charged me with the duty of finding and capturing two of these strange bird-creatures to bring back to England.

“Such things are curiosities, as would amaze the eye and fascinate the enquiring mind,” Sir Thomas said. “Go you tomorrow and bring me some more, alive. Find out the name of these birds too, for someone must know how they are called. Take along with you some stout and willing men.”

The names were easier to discover than the birds to find.

“Dronte,” said a Dutchman I found fishing on a rock near the beach. Another of his countrymen replied to my question with a very strange utterance, like the clearing of the throat, Falchxfoochxell, that I could not by any means comprehend nor pronounce with my tongue. Then a third man that I came upon, a Portuguese mariner from one of the ships anchored in the bay, told me that these birds were called ‘duedo’, meaning ‘idiot’, an apt name, for only the stupidest creature does not flee from men intent on slaughtering it. Flying would be difficult without wings, I mused, wondering why, if the Almighty had meant these birds as a gift to man, He had not made them a trifle more pleasing to the stomach.

Well, I and my fellows searched as much of the island as we could, given that we were afflicted by terrible fluxes, on account of the wearisome clime and strange foods we put into our mouths. Ours was a fruitless search for many days. Sir Thomas, however, was not to be thwarted and instead grew more determined that he should capture a pair of these duedos. So at length, on a marshy stretch of land close to a lake, we discovered them, pecking peacefully, like fowls in a farmyard, looking up at us with that same foolish amiable manner as their dead cousins had done.

“Two alive and unharmed,” says I to the beef-armed mariner, who was making ready to descend upon the first of the brood. He strode towards it, and bending over, clutched it hard to his chest, as he might have embraced a fat lively whore. The bird paddled in the air with its feet and let out a pitiful hideous scream. The others, their hearts no doubt rendered soft and sorry by the distress of their fellow, flocked around. Thus it was easy to capture another. The screaming of the two birds halted as they were stuffed into the sacks we had brought for the purpose. And sir, I regret now that I did not stop the men who, for the sport of it, clubbed the remaining brutes to death.

* * *

Two mariners had fashioned an ingenious cage for the captives, woven of branches cut from the rampant foliage that grew all around us.

“They must be well nourished,” says Sir Thomas to me.

In truth, sir, I had no idea what these birds fed upon and so I gathered up assorted fronds, grubs, and fruits, such as there were in the clearing where we first found them. These I put in the cage and they gobbled them up readily enough, along with, to our astonishment, some stones and pebbles from the dirt outside.

And sir, it was I who was now charged with their care, Sir Thomas being bent upon his mission to Persia. He gave me a generous purse of gold and bade me set sail, promising greater rewards on the safe arrival of this curious cargo. But it was a difficult passage for the creatures, though they, unlike condemned men, had no powers, beyond their natural doltish state to know of their situation. Thus the Almighty, in His wisdom and mercy, protects all of his creatures, according to their rank in the great chain of being.

Well I tell you sir, I took as much care of them as I would of my lady’s lapdog. But in spite of my labours, one of the creatures took sick, lay languid in the cage, then rose no more. As there were no means whereby the bird could be preserved, we cast its body overboard. Then its mate nearly suffered a similar fate. A terrible storm blew up and tossed the ship about, threatening to break her up. Wind tore the top off the mizzen mast and two men upon the rigging were lost in the waves. The sailors grew sullen, whispering and cursing as they fought to keep the ship afloat. Seafaring men are much given to portents of evil, seeing ill omens everywhere.

“That bird is the Devil’s familiar,” says a mariner, within my hearing.

It was only God’s providence in calming the storm that saved the duedo that time, for I do believe it would have fallen foul of some mariner’s knife else. So sir, after our turbulent voyage, I arrived in the haven of Portsmouth safely, with the creature alive. I thought it politic to travel to London, and seek sanctuary in my uncle’s shop, which I knew had a cellar capacious enough to store this valuable booty. With a cloth flung over the cage, to save the poor brute from prying eyes, I loaded it upon a stage waggon bound for the capital, with myself as guardian.

I sent word to my uncle to expect my arrival and make ready his premises to receive a truly miraculous animal. When he saw the bird, carried in by the waggon driver and myself, my uncle was quite without the power of speech, an unusual state for him, I assure you sir.

“By God and all that’s holy,” he said, after many spluttering moments, “my boy, you have made our fortunes.”

I failed at first to see how this might be the case, though the plans in his head were soon made plain to me, once his rapture had cooled a little. He called upon an artist friend, to paint a likeness of the bird. It was a marvellous work, though to be truthful, it was a little more fantastical in the vibrancy of the plumage and the size of the head than the real creature, as is the habit of portraitists when depicting their noble subjects. The painting was hung outside my uncle’s shop, for the purpose of enticing the curious to part with a shilling, for a viewing of the beast. Sir, I have this portrait still, which I would, for a consideration in keeping with its value of course, be prepared to part withal. No sir?

Ah well, many gentlemen and ladies, and other folks with the means, came in a stream to admire the wondrous creature. Most esteemed it hugely, though some thought it a sham, others an abomination to the eye.

We did not make our fortunes, however, for the creature became by degrees listless, lacklustre, weak and wasted. I fed it, with my own hand, pushing chopped fruits into its mouth and stroking its feathers, as I would have the head of a sick child, but it looked at me with its dull little eye and expired. This set my uncle into a frenzy, blaming me for my poor care of the bird. For some days we propped it up in its cage, to give the appearance of the living animal, but once it had grown too rank, we had to cease this pretence. My uncle called in the services of a man who claimed to have skills in the art of preserving the dead. But he made such a botch of the job that the bird sagged, continued to putrefy and almost fell apart.

What of Sir Thomas, you ask sir? Well, when he returned, many months later, I did not risk to present myself to him personally. I sent the bird’s remains to him by messenger, with my sincerest best wishes, bewailing the demise of the last duedo, confessing that I had not the wherewithal to preserve it in a lifelike state. I heard no more of it, sir. So, as I have already humbly informed you, I cannot show you a living duedo nor any part of that creature’s mortal body. But, sir, is it not within your power, as a gentleman of means, to arrange a voyage of exploration to the isle? There you would, without a doubt, succeed in capturing a number of these birds that you so covet. Be assured, by these words of an old man, made wise by his travels through life’s journey, that the Almighty would not have fashioned such a creature to have it disappear entirely from the earth.

About the author

Clare Hawkins is a prolific writer of historical fiction, which she find an enjoyable and challenging escape from present realities. Her novel about the English Civil War siege of Colchester was a response to local interest and her fascination with the period. https://www.clarehawkins.co.uk/index.html

About the artwork

The illustration is Dodo by Cornelis Saftleven, painting, ca. 1638. In the collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands. In the public domain.