The monstrous body


Scary Monsters II: global greed and the gluttonous dodo

Monsters are not just things that lurk under the bed. They are powerful images that have always been used to represent the things we might not want to face in ourselves, as individuals or as communities. Different monsters have represented different fears or anxieties in  different societies and ages. They are often vast and greedy, grotesque and misshapen things, and for good reason. This is the story of one such monster: the fat and flightless dodo. The space that the dodo’s engorged form took up and its ravenous appetite embodied worries about over-consumption in seventeenth-century Europe, fears that have far from subsided.

We are all familiar with the image of the rotund, ungainly dodo, with its soft rolls of feathered flesh, bulb-ended bill, ridiculously shrunken wings and a somewhat surprised look in its little eyes. But this was not how the dodo existed or how images of it began. Rather, this is what the dodo became and remained in our minds’ eyes. Modern reconstructions suggest that the dodo was probably far sprightlier than popular images suggest. We will never know for sure: it became extinct only 80 years after it was first recorded.

Dutch sailors blown off course 1598 were the first Europeans to describe the island of Mauritius, known until then only as Ilha do Cerne (‘Island of Swans’) by Portuguese travellers. They had been part of a trading mission to east Asia for the Dutch East India Company, the new, ravenous global power of the age. The sailors’ journals show that they encountered a tropical paradise, replete with fresh water, docile dugongs, giant tortoises and numerous birds so unafraid that they could be taken ‘plentifully with their hands’.

Most striking were the large and unfamiliar birds that the Dutch thought must be the ‘cirne’ or swans after which Portuguese travellers had named the island. The sailors were overjoyed with the prospect of fresh meat, a rare treat on long voyages. They described birds that were ‘reasonable of taste yet tough’, with ‘a stomach large enough to provide two men with a delicious meal’. Most strange were the birds’ ungainly proportions, their large body size ‘like penguins’ or an ‘ostrich’, with wings far too small like a ‘dove’, and few feathers, rendering them hopelessly flightless.

By and large, this hefty feathered biped was known only from traveller’s tales and a few rough sketches made by sailors…

In the years following, many Dutch ships en route between Europe and the exotic east stopped at the island for supplies. Unsurprisingly, not many of these birds made it back to Europe. Few sailors suffering months of malnutrition, anaemia and general boredom had the self-control to keep their hands off a meaty fowl tethered on board ship. A few heads or legs or even stuffed specimens made it into European curiosity collections. But, by and large, this hefty feathered biped was known only from traveller’s tales and a few rough sketches made by sailors stopping over briefly in Mauritius en route to the Indies. Such partial and second-hand depictions are notoriously open to interpretation.

The first printed travelogues based on the original sailors’ reports described ‘great foules’ called ‘Wallowbirds, that is to say lothsome or fulsome birdes’, of which the meat was ‘so tough that we could not cook it done, but had to eat it half-done’. The term ‘Wallow bird’ and the Dutch ‘Walghstock’, Walg-vogel’, stem from the Middle Dutch, walghe (nausea) and Middle English wealg (insipid). Another described ‘a Fowle… of the bignesse of a Swanne, and most deformed sape’, and another ‘dod-eersen’, that had small wings, but could not fly… so fat that… when they ran/walked, they dragged the bottom along the ground’. Its meat was ‘offensive and of no nourishment’ to ‘delicate’ palates, only good for ‘greasie stomackes’. From being a welcome meal and unusual creature, the bird rapidly became a deformed beast that sickened sailors with its fatty indigestible meat, simultaneously over-nourishing and unsavoury.

In the natural histories and travelogues published a few years later, the dodo became increasingly associated with the engorged gourmand. It was ‘rotund’ and ‘extream fat’, so large that its bottom dragged on the ground as it walked on its thick, short legs. In one of the most prominent natural histories of the day, Jacobus Bontius’s Historiae naturalis, the ‘gape’ of the dodo’s ‘sharp, pointed and hooked’ beak was described as ‘hideous, greatly broad, as if formed for gluttony’. It could devour anything, even iron horseshoes due to its ‘strong and greedy’ appetite. These images were mirrored in the artistic depictions of the bird, such as Roelandt Savery’s famous image in the Natural History Museum in London.

Why did this engorgement happen? Because of the very reason the dodo was known at all: it became a victim of its own fame. The seventeenth century was an age of exploration and gobalisation, in which piles of valuable and exotic rarities were brought to Europe by trading enterprises such as the Dutch East India Company. But this bounty came at a cost. The Company’s power and greed caused prolific destruction. It was highly commercial, militarised and ruthless. The embarrassment of blood-soaked riches accumulated in Northern Europe caused ostentatious consumption to be frowned upon. Coveted rarities and naturalia were collected by aristocrats in vast halls of wonders, such as Rudolf II’s Wunderkammer in Prague. But for the mercantile classes, to be greedy, and conspicuously so, was to be sinful.

Fears of over-consumption have not left us. If anything, they have become darker and more powerful…

The increasingly engorged dodo in paintings and works of natural history was an image of gluttony that came to symbolise this rapacious global trade that ate up sailors’ lives, ships, lands and military resources. Almost nobody had seen a live dodo, but the tubby image of the greasy, nauseating bird that was generated from snippets of travel tales and indistinct sailors’ sketches was pervasive. It was an honourary Dutch bird, from a Dutch-owned island, fuelling the Dutch ships that traversed the globe in search of riches. And it represented the greed and excess of that trade in its very flesh.

The bird’s extinction in the 1680s, not a century after it was first encountered was due partly to hungry sailors and partly to the ground mammals they released on Mauritius. The death of the dodo was mirrored by the demise of the Dutch East India Company itself, which began to collapse under its own greedy bulk, flabby bureaucracy and creeping global spread.

These fears of over-consumption have not left us. If anything, they have become darker and more powerful, an anxiety that sits not far beneath the surface of any developed nation. We are constantly bombarded with images of our global situation of damaging over-consumption: fuel crisis, impending famine, anthropogenic extinction and climate change. The things that have happened because we have, collectively and individually, been too greedy and too rapacious.

Just as dodos were historically disparaged for their fatness, we now vilify conspicuous greed and the embodiments of it. The prolific crimes of obesity and thoughtless consumerism have become moral sins. Being thin and eco-conscious have become signs of virtue, and social status, demonstrating the ability to exercise control. These troubling issues lurk at the back of our minds, and often, rather than face them, we still create monstrous images as scapegoats. The obese become the monsters in our midst that we wish to erase through weight-loss shows or the withholding of medical care. These are today’s soothing distractions of superiority which avoid the real global issues we have to face.


This is part II of a trilogy of articles by Natalie Lawrence on the natural history of monsters.

Read part I: Hic Fuerunt Dracones, on mapping the landscape of monstrosity.
Read part III: The Chimaera, on the collapsing space of the wunderkammer.

Cover image: One of the most famous and often-copied paintings of a Dodo specimen, as painted by Roelant Savery in the late 1620s. The image came into the possession of the ornithologist George Edwards, who later gave it to the British Museum, hence the name. via Wikipedia


The Learned Pig


Natalie Lawrence

Natalie Lawrence is a freelance natural history writer and science presenter with a special interest in all things monstrous and beastly. Following an undergraduate degree in zoology and masters in history of science, she completed her PhD on the natural histories of exotic monsters in the early modern period at the University of Cambridge in 2016. She currently lives in London with her partner, who kindly gave her a beautiful cabinet to house her natural history collection, in the hope that this would prevent the collection taking over every inch of living space. Good idea… didn’t work.