Sunday, February 3, 2019, 14:16 by David Dandria
On February 5, 1862, the P & O Steamship Euxine left Alexandria bound for Marseilles, with a stopover in Malta. On board was a special and unusual cargo in the charge of one Alfred Russel Wallace, identified simply on the passenger list as “Mr Wallace”.
This unusual cargo consisted of two live male birds of paradise that Mr Wallace had purchased in Singapore for £100 and was “determined to bring them to England by the overland route under my own care”, as he wrote in his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-utan, and the Bird of Paradise. They would be the first two examples of these wonderful birds to reach Europe.
Birds of paradise are exotic birds, the males of which have flamboyant and colourful plumage; they are found in southeast Asia, mainly in the Malay Archipelago and Indonesia. When the first Europeans sailed to this part of the world in search of rare and precious spices such as cloves and nutmeg, Malay traders gave them skins of birds which were so strange and beautiful as to excite their admiration. The traders called these birds in Malay “Manuk dewata” (Birds of God) and the Dutch traders started calling them in Latin avis paradiseus (paradise birds).
An early description of the birds by John van Linschoten in 1598, states that “no one has seen these birds alive, for they live in the air, always turning toward the sun, and never lighting on the earth till they die; for they have neither feet nor wings, as may be seen by the birds carried to India”. This fanciful description arose from the fact that when these birds were captured by natives for despatch to India, their feet were cut off for ease of transportation; in fact, one species still bears the scientific name Paradisea apoda (footless paradise bird), given by Carl Linnaeus in 1760, at a time when no perfect specimen had been seen in Europe, and practically nothing was known about them. This species is now known as the Greater Bird of Paradise and is one of the most spectacular members of the family.