In the 17th-century, diplomatic missions were fraught with peril. Take the case of Sir Dodmore Cotton, ambassador to Persia in the court of Charles I. In 1627, Sir Dodmore set off to visit the court of Abbas The Great, Shah of the Safavid empire. It took the British convoy ten months by sea to reach the Persian Gulf. Then, just as the visit was getting underway, the ambassador died as did his partner on the mission, Sir Robert Shirley. Leaderless, the expedition eventually returned to England. Among those who lived to tell the tale of this two-year adventure through parts of present-day Africa, West Asia and India was a young merchant called Thomas Herbert.
On his return, Herbert would marry, join the court of Charles I as Groom of the Bedchamber and write about his travels. His travelogue, Some Years Travels Into Divers Parts Of Africa And Asia The Great, was widely read and he’d later publish more elaborate editions. Historians believe he embellished these later accounts, including in them descriptions of places he’d never visited.
But he needn’t have taken the trouble, given how incredible his own experiences were. The expedition that launched Herbert’s diplomatic career included such destinations as the Cape of Good Hope, Madagascar, Goa, Surat, Sri Lanka, Persia (present-day Iran and Iraq) and St Helena. In Some Years… he writes about everything from the incredible architecture of Persepolis to the royal intrigues of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s court. [Excerpts and drawings from this travelogue and others here.] But perhaps the most fascinating account is that of his encounters with the dodo on the islands of Mauritius, accompanied by sketches of the bird.
“…her body is round and extreme[ly] fat, her slow pace begets that corpulence; few of them weigh less than 50 pound; better to the eye than the stomach…Let’s take her picture: her visage darts forth melancholy, as sensible of Nature’s injury in framing so great and massive a body to be directed by such small and complementall (ornamental) wings, as are unable to hoist her from the ground, serving only to prove her a bird…her head is variously dres[sed], the one half hooded with downy blackish feathers, the other perfectly naked, of a whitish hue, as if a transparent lawne (a lightweight sheer fabric) had covered it; her beak is very hooked and bends downwards…her eyes be round and small, and bright as diamonds; her clothing is of finest down…her legs thing, black and strong, her talons or pounces sharp, her stomach fiery hot, so as stones and iron are easily digested in it; in that and shape, not a little resembling the African ostrich.”
Before Herbert made his rudimentary sketches, a legendary artist of Emperor Jahangir’s court had already immortalised the bird. Ustad Mansur indulged the monarch’s love for the natural world with wonderfully realistic paintings of animals, plants and birds in the Mughal miniature tradition. [Listen to Pavitra Rajaram’s lecture on the design legacy of the Mughals for Sarmaya Talks.] Mansur’s painting of the dodo is believed to among the earliest ever made from a living specimen.
The last sighting of the dodo is believed to have been made in 1662. It has been speculated that Sir Thomas Herbert’s travelogue, published in 1666, was the first book in which the word ‘dodo’ appeared. That gives us an idea of how rapidly the bird was hunted into extinction by visitors to the islands, not to mention the invasive species they brought with them. Even as the traveller sat down to record his impressions of this unusual flightless bird, it had vanished from the earth—making Herbert’s sketches and notes on the dodo all the more precious as we study them now, four hundred years later.
Thomas Herbert (1606-1682), YorkCivicTrust.co.uk