Until modern manufacturing introduced mass production, nails were hand made and so valuable. If a nail could be re-used, it would be. But when nails were used to make a door, they were bent over at the ends, called ‘clinching’, to increase their hold on the planking. Such a nail could not be pulled out and re-used –it was dead, dead as a doornail. The phrase is a very old one – the poem Piers Plowman, from about 1360, has the line,
“That fey withouten fait is febelore then nougt, And ded as a dore-nayl”[That they without faith are feebler than nought, And dead as a doornail].
Shakespeare uses it in Henry VI Part II (Act 4 Scene 10), when Jack Cade says,
“…if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more,”
and right at the beginning of Chapter One of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is
“…Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
|George Clark - Report on the excavation of Dodo bones, from The Ibis !866|
In 1865, inspired by Strickland and Melville’s The Dodo and its Kindred, a Mauritian schoolmaster, George Clark, excavated some subfossil Dodo bones from the swamp of Mare aux Songes in Southern Mauritius. His reports inspired contemporary interest in the Dodo, and Lewis Carroll introduced one as a major character of his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, also from 1865 (it is said the Dodo represents Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson. Due to a stutter, he introduced himself as Do-Do-Dodgson). The expression ‘dead as a doornail’ began to be changed in popular parlance to the similarly alliterative ‘dead as a Dodo’.
|Tenniel's Dodo - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland|
It is probably from Tenniel’s illustration from Alice that the Dodo is instantly recognizable to most people today. We all know what happened to the Dodo.
But have you heard of the Solitaire?
Yesterday I mentioned the Mascarene Islands, which, in addition to Mauritius, included the islands of Rodriguez and Bourbon (now called Réunion). Rodriguez lies about three hundred miles to the east of Mauritius, and is about fifteen miles long by about six miles wide. The island was uninhabited until 1691, when a group of French Protestant refugees led by François Legaut landed there and remained for two years. Legaut and nine other volunteer colonists were Huguenots, who boarded the small frigate La Hirondelle in Amsterdam, bound, as they thought, for the island of Bourbon. Nobody thought to tell them of a change of plan – Bourbon was under French control, and the organiser of the party, the Marquis Henri du Quesne (under sanction of the Dutch East India Company), wanted to avoid a confrontation with the French, so he had Leguat and eight of his followers abandoned on the uninhabited Rodriguez instead.
|Leguat's Map of Rodriguez - Voyages - 1708 - Look closely and you will see the Solitaires all around the island.|
They stayed there for a year, and then tried to escape in a small boat, which was damaged on a reef, killing a man. In 1693, they tried again and navigated the three hundred nautical miles in an open boat to Mauritius, where initially they were welcomed by the Dutch authorities. An argument with an avaricious Governor altered all this, and Leguat and his companions were imprisoned in terrible conditions on a tiny islet far offshore (another man died attempting to escape), before they were shipped to Batavia for trial. The Dutch Council there eventually found the three remaining survivors innocent, and they returned to the Netherlands in 1698 (remember the crew of the Pandora, and their treatment by the Dutch at Batavia).
|Title Page - F Leguat - Voyages 1708|
Leguat moved to England and wrote a fascinating account of his adventures, published in English and French simultaneously, in two volumes, in 1708. Legaut was a meticulous recorder of detail and it is largely from his work that we have knowledge of the Rodriguez Solitaire. He devotes over three pages of description to the bird, which he calls the Solitaire, possibly because he had heard of the Solitaire that lived on the island of Bourbon, although he had never been there, so had not seen it.
|Le Solitaire - from Leguat Voyages 1708|
The Rodriguez Solitaire was, as the name implies, a solitary bird, and strongly territorial. The Solitaire was, it seems, more slender than the Dodo, with longer neck and legs, a shorter beak and more developed wings, but similar enough to belong to the same family. As with its Mauritian cousin, the Rodriguez Solitaire was wiped out by man, and by pigs, cats and rats introduced by man onto its isolated home. Joseph-François de Cossigny looked to bring back a live specimen in 1755, but none were to be found. Gone in less than 60 years.
|Frontispiece - F Leguat - Voyages - 1708|
|Detail of the above frontispiece|
On Bourbon (now Réunion) was another flightless bird called the Solitaire. Bourbon lies about 120 miles southwest of Mauritius, and the first account we have of it is in An Account of a Voyage to the East Indies of the Pearl (1613), in which John Tatton writes of,
“… a great fowl of the bigness of a Turkie, very fat, and so short winged that they cannot flie, beeing white, and in a manner tame; and so are all other fowles, as having not been troubled nor feared with shot. Our men did beate them down with sticks and stones”.
Five years later a Dutch navigator, Bontekoe, records “…Dod-eersen, which have small wings, and so far from being able to fly, they were so fat that they could scarcely walk,” Fifty years later (1668), the Frenchman Carré writes of
“I here saw a kind of bird which I have not found elsewhere: it is that which the inhabitants call the Oiseau Solitaire, for, in fact, it loves solitude, and only frequents the most secluded places … the flesh is exquisite; it forms one of the best dishes in this country, and might form a dainty at our tables.”
A British Naval officer reports ‘curious birds’ on Bourbon in 1763, although we cannot be sure of what species, but a comprehensive scientific survey of Bourbon in 1801 by Bory St. Vincent makes no mention of the bird, so we may safely assume that they were extinct by then.
If mankind had so little regard for the living birds, it will come as no surprise to you to learn that the dead ones were treated with an even more cavalier attitude. By the time Strickland and Melville were writing (1848), there were only three physical remnants of the Dodo in museums.
The British Museum had a foot, a cranium was in a museum in Copenhagen, and the relics of a stuffed Dodo that, in 1656, was listed in a catalogue of Tradscant’s Museum. This was bequeathed to Elias Ashmole, and was part of his collection that formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. In 1755, the Trustees of the museum undertook an inventory, and ordered the neglected, decaying specimen to be destroyed. Only the head and a foot were saved from the flames, which remain in the Ashmolean.
|Dodo's head at Oxford (top) and a reconstruction|
Strickland and Melville dissected this head and compared it to specimens of the Rodriguez Solitaire, establishing their kinship. The second part of their book is an osteological report on their findings, but it’s not easy going. Take this example, taken at random: -
“The sub-crescentic supra-orbital tract is rough, and perforated by periosteal vascular foramina; a series of larger size extend from the notch on the antorbital process to the supra-orbital foramen or notch, and indicate its inner boundary; hence the supra-orbital plate appears formed, as it were, by a separate ossification of the periosteum extending outwards to protect the eyeball.”
And there are over fifty pages in a similar vein.
|Contemporary advert for The Dodo and its Kindred|
Hugh Edwin Strickland carried on an engrossing conversation on the theme of the Dodo in the pages of Notes and Queries magazine from February 1850, until his untimely encounter with the express train at Retford in 1853. Further studies have placed the Dodo in the Columbidae family – it was a gigantic type of pigeon.