The earliest Strange Creatures: Europe’s first meetings with marsupials
By Jack Ashby, on 5 May 2015
There is a popular British colonial narrative in which Captain James Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770, as demonstrated by this Google autofill:
In reality, not even Cook thought this was true. Australia had been known by the French, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch (hence its original European name “New Holland”, which Cook himself used) for at least two hundred years before Cook landed in the southeast of the country on his ship HMS Endeavour. Obviously Indigenous Australians and their neighbours also had been there for around 50,000 years.
Our current exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals explores how newly discovered animals are communicated to the public back home. It is is centred around a painting that resulted from that voyage of Cook’s – a kangaroo by George Stubbs. This is the first painting of an Australian animal in Western art. As I wrote in the exhibition text:
This painting helped begin Europe’s relationship with Australian wildlife. Commissioned by legendary naturalist Joseph Banks, painted by celebrated animal artist George Stubbs, and based on findings from Captain Cook’s famous voyage, this kangaroo truly captured the country’s imagination.
Stubbs’ image became the archetype for representations of kangaroos for decades – reproduced and refigured prolifically. It may not be anatomically perfect, but this is how Britain came to know the kangaroo.
It is an emblem of the age of exploration at the historical threshold of the European occupation of Australia. Nothing was ever the same again.
Here I’d like to explore some of the meetings between Europeans and Australiasian marsupials that preceded Cook’s visit.
The earliest European evidence of Australia?
We know that the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and French had been sailing the west coast of Australia for some time on trade routes out of the Dutch colony in Batavia (Jakarta), though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when that started, possibily because such knowledge would have been protected trade secrets.
There are maps from 1566 produced by Frenchman Nicolas Desliens; and by Flemish explorers Gerard and Cornelis de Jode in 1578 which appear to include Australia’s northern shore, and its rough position relative to New Guinea (which was known in the 16th Century by the Portugese). We have no evidence that they landed.
The earliest European evidence of Australian mammals?
In Strange Creatures we make the claim that Cook’s 1770 voyage produced the first European depictions of kangaroos. First, a pencil sketch by the ship’s draughtsman Syndey Parkinson (reproduced in the exhibition), then the painting above by Stubbs. This claim is potentially challenged by this book cover from 1593:
The odd animal on the bottom right (in the relative geographic position of Australia, compared to the horse of Europe, the camel of Asia and the lion of Africa) is shown with babies in a neck bag, or a pouch. It is not described but this could be the first Western depiction of an Australian animal, and indeed a kangaroo, potentially based on sailor’s descriptions after visiting the north coast.
The earliest known encounter with a hopping marsupial
Marspuials also live in the Americas in the form of opossums. They were known well before kangaroos, but the first ever description of a hopping marsupial (but not a kangaroo, and not from Australia) was by the Spaniard Don Diego de Prado y Tovar in 1606. He described a dusky pademelon after visiting their native New Guinea as “an animal in the shape of a dog smaller than a greyhound, with a bare and scaly tail like that of the snake, and his testicles hang from a nerve like a thin cord; they say that it was a castor [beaver], we ate it and it was like venison”
This also fits the theme of one of the ten UCL researchers who contributed stories to the Strange Creatures exhibition from their own disciplines: UCL History’s Misha Ewen explains that the first priority of an explorer encountering a new species was curing their hunger, not furthering scientific discovery.
The first description of an Australian animal
The first confirmed meeting of an Australian mammal and a European was in 1629. The Dutchman Francisco Pelsaert described the tammar wallaby on the Abrolhos Islands (80km off the Western Australian coast from modern-day Geraldton). “there are large numbers of Cats, which are creatures of a miraculous form, as big as a hare; the head is similar to of a civet-cat, the fore-paws are very short, about a finger long. Whereon there are five small Nails or small fingers, as an ape’s fore-paw, and the two hind legs are at least half an ell long [~35cm], they run on the flat of the joint of the leg, so that they are not quick in running. The tail is very long, the same as a Meerkat; if they are going to eat, they sit on the hind legs and take the food with the fore-paws, and eat exactly the same as the squirrels and apes do.”
Later, two Dutch explorers encountered the now famous quokkas on Rottnest Island (off of modern Perth). First, in 1656 Samuel Volkersen described: “a wild cat, resembling a civet-cat, but with browner hair”. In 1696 William de Vlamingh gave the island its name (meaning “Rats’ Nest”, saying “of animals there is nothing but bush rats”.
Nicolaes Witsen reported on the voyage: “[Vlamingh] found no people but a large number of rats, nearly as big as cats, which had a pouch below their throat into which one could put one’s hand, without being able to understand to what end nature had created an animal like this: as soon as it had been shot dead, this animal smelled terribly, so that the skins were not taken along”.
The link with American opossums was not made then, but this is the first time the marsupialness of Australian animals is mentioned. Reading this now, it’s hard to predict how much the understanding of zoology would have been brought forward if the sailors had had less sensitive noses. For what it’s worth, my experience is that dead quokkas smell no more or less than any of their relatives.
The first British encounter with Australia, and its animals
So Cook was neither the first European in Australia or the first to meet its mammals. He wasn’t the first Brit either. In 1699 William Dampier described banded hare-wallabies, on an island in Shark Bay (coincidentally where I was two weeks ago week, surveying the same, now Endangered, species): “The Land-Animals that we saw here were only a sort of Racoons, different to those of the West Indies chiefly as to their Legs; for these have very short Fore-Legs; but go jumping upon them as the others do (and like them are good meat)”. Again prioritising information about their edibility.
The first European depiction of a hopping marsupial
Apart from the possible 1593 Strange Creature, to date none of these encounters had resulted in any visual representations of the animals, to really bring them to life for the people back home in the way that Stubbs’ kangaroo did later in 1772.
This changed in 1711 when Cornelis de Bruijn (Dutch) met a dusky pademelon in a Javan menagerie, brought from New Guinea. He produced the first confirmed illustration of a hopping marsupial, and it even shows the pouch. But as it’s not a kangaroo, or Australian, or a painting, we are safe in our claim that Cook’s voyage produced the first depictions of kangaroos, and Australian animals, for a European audience.
What’s interesting is that although Cook, and the legendary naturalist with him, Joseph Banks, almost certainly would have read descriptions of previous voyages around New Holland, they didn’t relate any of their observations of kangaroos to the animals previously described.
Reading those describitions, though, that isn’t very surprising. The absolute oddity, to an eightheenth century explorer, of a hopping marsupial was clearly beyond their descriptive ability. The constant comparisons to cats, dogs, rats and raccoons inevitably led to their discoveries being more or less ignored.
That is, until Cook wrecked the Endeavour on the Great Barrier Reef and brought the kangaroo to Europe, in the form of Stubbs’ fantastic painting.
Jack Ashby is Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology (and curated the Strange Creatures exhibition)
‘Strange Creatures: The art of unknown animals’ runs from until 27th June 2015. The Grant Museum of Zoology is open from 1–5pm Monday to Saturday. Admission is free and there is no need to book.
Jackson, S & Vernes, K 2010, Kangaroo: portrait of an extraordinary marsupial, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, N.S.W.
Whitley, G 1970, Early history of Australian zoology, Royal Zoological Society of N.S.W.