Monday, 23 July 2012

OhNo Dodo

                  Mr William Huskisson had argued with the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. Huskisson was a Member of Parliament who had resigned from the Duke’s Cabinet over an issue of parliamentary reform in 1828. In 1830, both of the men were passengers on the first train at the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. This was the first ever inter-city railway in the world, and September 15th 1830 was the first day that trains ran on the twin-tracks between the cities. The train carrying Wellington and Huskisson stopped to take on water at Parkside, near Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire, and several passengers, including Huskisson got off to stretch their legs. Huskisson spotted Wellington and went over to attempt a reconciliation. The Duke bent his head, welcomed Huskisson and shook his hand but then shouted a warning. Huskisson looked round and saw Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive approaching on the other track. He panicked, tried to climb up into the Duke’s carriage, but grabbed the door instead, which swung open, dangling him in the path of the oncoming train. Huskisson scrambled, slipped and fell down onto the line. Rocket ran over his leg, horrifically mangling it; in his agony he cried out, “I have met my death – God forgive me”. Huskisson was carried up onto Stephenson’s train, which was driven by Stephenson himself, and taken to nearby Eccles. Later in the same day, after making his will, he died at the Vicarage there. He was the first man in history to be killed by a train.  

Huskisson falls under Stephenson's Rocket

 On September 14th 1853, Hugh Edwin Strickland, a geologist and naturalist, was examining the newly opened Manchester, Sheffield and Nottinghamshire Railway line at Retford, when he stepped out of the way of a oncoming good’s train and directly into the path of an express train on the opposite track, killing him instantly. He was 42. 

Strickland and Melville - The Dodo and its Kindred 1848

Five years previously, Strickland had co-authored with A G Melville the idiosyncratic book The Dodo and its Kindred, or, to give it its full title, “The Dodo and its Kindred; or the History, Affinities, and Osteology of the Dodo, Solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands of Mauritius, Rodriguez, and Bourbon (1848)”. 

Mascarene Islands

The islands of Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon, and other smaller, nearby volcanic islands are known as the Mascarene Islands, after the Portuguese explorer Pedro Mascarenhas, who discovered them in 1512 (although other Portuguese navigators may have visited them as early as 1502). The Portuguese called Mauritius Cerne (meaning ‘swan’) until 1598, when Jacob van Neek renamed it in honour of Prince Maurits van Nassau. The sailors found large, swan-sized birds on the island and called them walghvogel, dronte, dodaars, and dodo


The etymology of the word Dodo is vexed; some say it is an onomatopoeic rendering of the bird’s call, others that is comes from the Dutch doudo – ‘simpleton’, dod-aarsen – ‘fat-arse’ or dodoor – ‘sluggard’. Sailors’ journals tell that they preferred to eat doves and parrots rather than the walghvogel – ‘disgusting bird’ - but it seems that this is because they had to boil the legs for such a long time to render them edible that they ended up tough and stringy. 

Harvesting food on Rodriguez - from Leguat's Voyages 1708

Later reports say that the breast and belly were very tasty indeed, and record fifty birds at a time being taken onboard ships for food. In 1627, Sir Thomas Brown visited Mauritius and mentions seeing the Dodo, as does Benjamin Harry in 1681 but a Frenchman, François Leguat (more of whom tomorrow), was at Mauritius in 1693 and this meticulous observer makes no mention of the bird, so it seems it was extinct by that date. The Dutch left Mauritius in 1712 and the French took charge of it. There is no further mention of the Dodo in any of their records. 

Dodo - frontispiece to Strickland and Melville The Dodo and its Kindred 1848

Strickland and Melville look closely at the written records of the Dodo and list in detail pictorial representations of the bird, with a very interesting investigation of the physical remains of the bird in various institutions but one extremely interesting section of their book concerns the extinction and the appearance of the Dodo. 

We must figure it to ourselves as a massive clumsy bird, ungraceful in its form, and with a slow waddling motion,” and then go on to compare it to a newly-hatched duckling, “…the Dodo is (or rather was) a permanent nestling, clothed with down instead of feathers, and with the wings and tail so short and feeble, as to be utterly unsubservient to flight.” Then, in a telling passage, they write, 
There appear, however, reasonable grounds for believing that the Creator has assigned to each class of animals a definite type or structure from which He has never departed, even in the most exceptional or eccentric modifications of form.” 
This was the standard scientific position in the 1840s – that God had created each of the species in an immutable form. That an entire species could become extinct was unbelievably difficult for the Victorians to comprehend – it contravened their doctrine of immutability; God had made all the animals for a purpose, so how could a species entirely cease to exist. And if God had ‘… assigned to each class of animals a definite type or structure’, then why would He then alter that ‘type or structure’? It is vital to remember one thing here – the date. 

This was 1848, ten years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. There were hints and suspicions of evolution doing the rounds, but as yet no fully worked out theory (and I’ll come back to what a scientific ‘theory’ is on another day). Strickland, Melville and the rest of the Victorian scientific establishment were at pains to discover where to place the Dodo in scheme of Creation. 


There were even suspicions that the Dodo had never actually existed in the first place and that it was all just a hoax, that the bird was mythical. The available evidence was sifted and considered, and the reality of the Dodo was confirmed. It had been a flightless bird of about three feet in height, weighed up to about fifty pounds and was clumsy, lumbering, stupid and far too trusting. It had lived on a highly forested, isolated island, without any natural predators, and when it had been discovered, it had been harvested for food by sailors, its habitat was systematically destroyed and the balance of its nature disrupted by the introduction of rats, dogs, cats and other predators. 


In less than a hundred years of coming into contact with mankind, the entire population of the Dodo had been wiped out. Carl Linnaeus was being, I think, a little too insensitive when he assigned to it the Latin name Didus Ineptus. The poor Dodo was not inept – it was just tragically unfortunate.

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