Global Greed and the Gluttonous Dodo


Landscape with Birds, Roelandt Savery, 1628

by Natalie Lawrence

In the halls of London’s Natural History Museum, there is a large and eye-catching painting of a bulbous and inelegant ‘DoDo’, surrounded by a couple of parrots, a pair of ducks and a lizard. This painting was gifted to the museum in 1759, painted by Roelandt Savery in the 1620s, when dodos probably still existed. It’s an image that has been replicated many times, and resonates with many people’s conceptions of a dodo, reinforced by depictions such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Wonderland, the illustrations by Arthus Rackham and John Tenniel, and the Disney film version. The dodo has long been a portly, greedy creature in the public imagination.

The dodo was not always fat, though. Nobody alive is able to say for sure what a dodo was really like: the last one had died by the end of the 17th Century. Most images made while dodos still existed, including the Natural History Museum dodo, were made by people who never actually saw them. Palaeontological evidence suggests that they were actually reasonably sprightly creatures.[1] However, save a few sailors’ sketches of streamlined, pigeon-like bird, most of the 17th Century accounts suggest that the dodo was overweight.

Let’s go back to when the dodo was first ‘discovered’. In 1598, the first Europeans to officially land on the island of Mauritius were a ship full of Dutch sailors blown off course on their way to the East Indies by storms. 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 trees full of parrots, fresh water, docile dugongs, giant tortoises and numerous birds so unafraid that they could be taken ‘plentifully with their hands’.[2]

Most striking of all were the large and unfamiliar birds that the Dutch thought must be the ‘cirne’ or swans after which they knew the island had been referred to as Ilha do Cerne (‘Island of Swans’) by Portuguese travellers. These birds had ungainly proportions, with large bodies ‘like penguins’ or an ‘ostrich’, yet ridiculously small wings like a ‘dove’, and few feathers, rendering them hopelessly flightless. Needless to say, after weeks at sea and a near-death experience, the sailors were hungry. The parrots were the most tender, but the sailors also ate plenty of the ‘swans’. They described the dodos as ‘reasonable of taste yet tough’, with ‘a stomach large enough to provide two men with a delicious meal’.

In the years following, many Dutch ships sailing between Europe and the exotic east stopped at the island for supplies. Mauritius became a Dutch island; the dodo a Dutch bird. Unsurprisingly, not many of the birds actually made it back to Europe, alive and well. Only a few heads, legs or stuffed specimens made it into European curiosity collections, and a few live birds were even sent as diplomatic gifts from the Dutch to places such as Surat, where they ended up in royal menageries.

Naturalists in Europe, though fascinated by the dodo, could therefore only publish accounts made up of piecemeal sources. One eminent naturalist, Carolus Clusius at Leiden University, published the first natural history account of the Dutch dodo in the Exoticorum libri decem (Ten Books of Exotics, 1601), based only on a dodo foot, a gastrolith or gizzard stone, and some of the accounts of the first sailors to land on Mauritius. It was not very satisfactory, especially for Clusius. In the natural histories and travelogues published after Clusius, the dodo became an increasingly engorged gourmand. It was ‘rotund’ and ‘extream fat’, so large that could barely lift its body as it walked on its thick, short legs. In another prominent natural history of the time, 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.[3]

Edwards’ DoDo, Roelandt Savery, 1620s

Why did this happen? One reason was the interpretation of the limited first-hand sources describing live dodos. The first printed travelogues based on the original 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’ or 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 had become a deformed beast that sickened sailors with its fatty indigestible meat, simultaneously over-nourishing and unsavoury. It was a monster, a flightless mammal-bird with unnatural proportions.

There may be a darker, underlying reason why the gluttonous dodo emerged from these accounts. The dodo was one of many sources of fuel for the vast and growing global machine that was the Dutch East India Company, the first truly global, militarised trading enterprise. Throughout the 17th Century, piles of valuable and exotic rarities were brought to Europe from all over the world by the Dutch East India Company and a few other organisations. This bounty came at a cost: the company’s power and ruthlessness caused chaos and destruction in many of the places they had financial interests. Massacres, small-scale wars with native populations, and sometimes destruction of whole areas were part of the price of keeping monopolies over the production of spices and other valuable overseas assets and trades. Added to that many sailors who went abroad with the Company never returned. Europe was growing rich on blood money.[4]

The embarrassment of riches in Europe meant that in strongly Protestant countries such as the Netherlands, ostentatious consumption was frowned upon. Wealth had to be hidden, spending had to be done tastefully, and with an eye to one’s fate in the afterlife. Images of gluttony circulated as moral warnings against the dangers of sinful greed.[5] The increasingly engorged dodo came to symbolise this rapacious trade. It represented the greed and excess in its very flesh. Inevitably, like so many other island species, the bird rapidly became extinct around the 1680s, primarily because of the land mammals introduced by Europeans.[6] Its disappearance was mirrored by the demise of the Dutch East India Company, which began to collapse under its own bulk. In Europe, the bird having never existed there in the first place, its inflated images lived on as if nothing had happened.

The dodo is a bird whose image became a monstrous emblem of greed, and who was ultimately its victim, which has now become an emblem of extinction and the effects of thoughtless human activity. But the fattening of the dodo and its vilification as a greedy glutton are also important aspects of this story. We still vilify fatness, fears of over-consumption have certainly not left us, though they have lost their religious ‘fire and brimstone’ undertones. If anything, these fears have become darker and more powerful, anxieties which simmer just beneath the surface of Western thought. We are constantly bombarded with images of our worsening global situation: the fuel crisis, future food security, anthropogenic extinction and climate change, heightened by an escalating population.[7]

The situation we are all in is the result of humanity, being too greedy and too rapacious, however unwittingly. Collectively and individually, we have played the gluttons with the world’s resources for too long, and our consumption is set to grow. We are just starting to become aware of the real and concrete effects of this, and to get an inkling the horror at what we’ve allowed to pass.

In some ways, the realisation is too terrible to come to terms with. We fall back on a handy method that has hardly changed throughout human history: we use scapegoats, monsters that can be rejected, just like the early modern writers did. We no longer create emblematic animals onto which we can project our fears. Instead, we have selected humans bearing traits, representing what we abhor in all of us, to detest. Just as dodos were historically disparaged for their fatness, we now vilify conspicuous greed and the embodiments of it. The 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. Obesity, whatever its actual cause, has been made into a creeping monster in our midst. We make token efforts to erase it through weight-loss shows, diet fads or talk of withholding free medical care for those who suffer from obesity-linked issues.[8] These are today’s soothing distractions of superiority, which divert our attention from the real global issues we have to face.

This is not to say that there is not a global obesity problem, obesity rates in the West have skyrocketed over the past 50 years.[9] But life expectancy and quality of life have also increased, and Body Mass Index is a debateably useful measure.[10] But there is a paradox in the often-repeated statement ‘we are all getting fat’, often written or uttered by those who are clearly not, which cannot be completely explained by a recourse to the rational.[11] You can drive a gas guzzling 4×4, fly long distances to boutique yoga retreats, consume niche dietary panaceas that are laboriously and inefficiently produced, eat soya grown on land that used to be Amazon rainforest, drink artisan coffee that is just as bad and buy new clothes every season.[12] But as long as you are thin, vegan and recycle, as long as you don’t consume conspicuously, you have the moral high ground above those who allow their consumption to manifest on their bodies. This was the dodo’s sin, it became an engorged creature that embodied consumption, and ironically, was consumed out of existence.














About the Author:

Natalie Lawrence is a historian of science and writes about animals, nature and monstrosity. She tweets @the_manticore_.