Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011


He arrived at the island as a shipwrecked mariner.
Dodo: best cooked slowly over a low heat
He was half-crazed by dehydration and hunger, having endured nine days adrift in a longboat drinking only his own urine.
Now, as he stepped ashore on a small islet off the east coast of Mauritius, Volkert Evertszoon rubbed his eyes in disbelief.
The islet was home to an extraordinary flightless bird that waddled along the beach in the most undignified fashion and could be easily caught by grabbing its feet.
Volkert and his fellow survivors from the crippled vessel, Arnhem, could scarcely believe their luck. Here, on the shores of Ile d’Ambre, was enough food to keep them alive for months.
Ile d'Ambre: dodo's last home
What neither he nor his shipmates realised was that they would go down in history as the last eyewitnesses of the hapless dodo, a bird that would very soon be extinct. Indeed, it is more than likely that their feasting on the Ile d’Ambre’s dodos, in February, 1662, led to the bird’s tragic demise.
Dutch ships: sailors preferred dodo meat to salt pork
‘They were larger than geese but not able to fly,’ wrote Volkert. ‘Instead of wings they had small flaps, but they could run very fast. One of us would chase them so that they ran towards the other party who then grabbed them; when we had one tightly held by the leg it would cry out, then the others would come to its aid and could be caught as well.’
Volkert and his men were fortunate to find dodos on the islet. Ever since this peculiar bird had first been sighted in Mauritius in the 1590s, it had been ruthlessly hunted down for food.
It did not make for a tasty feast: the dodo was often known as the ‘loathsome bird’ on account of its disgusting taste. But it was extremely easy to catch, and the sailors who hunted them were so hungry that anything was better to the putrid salt-pork they had on board ship.
One ship’s commander even declared them to taste palatable if cooked for a long time. ‘Their belly and breast were of a pleasant flavour,’ wrote Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, ‘and easily masticated.’
Culinary delights were far from the minds of Volkert Evertszoon and his men when they stepped ashore on the Ile d’Ambre.
Perhaps the last dodo
painted from life, in 1638
They were delighted to find so many dodos, a bird that had become a rarity ever since Dutch settlers had introduced pigs to the Mauritius. Pigs were the dodo’s most voracious predator: the probable reason why the bird had survived on Ile d’Ambre, but nowhere else in Mauritius, is that it was one of the only remaining islets that didn’t have any pigs.
Volkert was amazed that the birds were so tame. ‘[They] were not shy at all,’ he wrote, ‘because they very likely were not used to see men pursuing them, and which [be]came us exceedingly well… having neither barrel nor ammunition to shoot them.’
A Mughal dodo: perhaps
the most accurate depiction
The birds seemed no less intrigued by these shipwrecked mariners. ‘[They] … stared at us and remained quiet where they stand, not knowing whether they had wings to fly away or legs to run off, and suffering us to approach them as close as we pleased.’
Here was a feast indeed: Volkert and his men drove the dodos together into one place ‘in such a manner that we could catch them with our hands.’
No sooner had they caught one that all the others ‘on a sudden came running as fast as they could to its assistance, and by which they were caught and made prisoners also.
Volkert and his men lived comfortably for the three months they stayed on the islet before being rescued by the English ship, Truro.
In his account, Volkert does not record whether he and his men killed all the dodos on the islet.
Volkert's book: a feast
for dodo lovers
It is quite likely that they did: although the Dutch hunter, Isaac Lamotius, recorded seeing dodos in 1688, it’s unclear if he is referring to the same bird. By the time he was writing, the flightless Red Rail was known by the same Dutch name: dodaers.
Unless and until new evidence emerges, the most plausible explanation for the dodo’s demise is that Volkert and his men ate it into extinction.

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30
And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

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