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Capturing Paradise: Alfred Russel Wallace's Red Bird of Paradise

Paul Fox

The European imagination has long sought to recapture the Eden lost when Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise. Perhaps no living thing has evoked this sense more than the bird of paradise. By the nineteenth century the bird was coveted by national museums and private natural history collectors alike.

bird of paradise
Wallace's specimen of Paradisea rubra features in the Darwin to DNA exhibition in the Melbourne Museum.
Museum Victoria, Ornithology Collection.
Photographer: Rodney Start.

One of these collectors was Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) who, in 1854, ventured to the Malay Archipelago of South-East Asia in search of natural history specimens. While there, he gained the insight regarding natural selection which was to make him the co-author, with Charles Darwin, of the theory of evolution. During 1860 Wallace collected twenty-four red birds of paradise from the island of Waigeo, which today is part of Indonesia. At least one of these was forwarded to Professor Frederick McCoy, director of the National Museum of Victoria, but not directly from Waigeo. It went first to John Gould, one of the London suppliers of McCoy's natural history ark. Whatever was new to natural science passed by the knowing eye of this great naturalist. Best remembered today for the plates in Birds of Australia (produced in seven parts between 1840 and 1848), Gould was the pre-eminent ornithologist of his day and he made it his business to send McCoy 'things new to science'. Despite the expense of Wallace's specimens - described by Gould as 'awfully dear'- in 1862 McCoy received from him one adult Paradisea rubra, and a young female and male specimen.

Although the story so far portrays as protagonists the natural scientist in Waigeo, John Gould in London and Professor McCoy at the National Museum in Melbourne, there is another side to it. The indigenous peoples who inhabit Waigeo know the red paradise bird very differently from the way Europeans imagine it. Unless one knows where to look the paradise bird is not easily found. Nor is it easily captured. As Wallace discovered, it was never still long enough for his gun to land it easily. This was not for the want of trying. Wallace's account of his time on Waigeo, as told in his The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-utang and the Bird of Paradise (1869), is full of failed attempts. Initially one was shot by his companion; later Wallace shot two specimens himself.

To obtain what he sought, in the end Wallace had to rely on some of the indigenous people, a group which he tells us numbered no more than twenty people. To catch a red paradise bird, 'particular trees in the forest on which these birds were accustomed to perch' were sought out by these men, who accepted Wallace's payments of 'hatchets, beads, knives and handkerchiefs'. (The birds were local trade items.) To attract the bird, large red Arum fruit were fastened onto a stout forked stick with a fine but strong cord. This in turn was fastened to a branch and the cord arranged in a noose 'so ingeniously' that when the bird came to eat the fruit its legs were caught. By pulling the end of the cord, which was hanging to the ground, the bird was brought down from its forest perch. This is the most likely way the specimen Gould forwarded to the Museum was obtained.

ceremonial headdress
A ceremonial headdress made of bird of paradise wings and cockatoo, parrot and pigeon feathers acquired by the National Museum from New Guinea in 1906.
Source: Museum Victoria Indigenous Collections.

In the living bird, Wallace admired 'the brilliantly contrasted head and neck', 'the deep metallic green of the throat', and the tail-cirri, 'black, thin and semi-cylindrical' drooping 'gracefully in a spiral curve' from the living bird, but he 'never saw its red lateral plumes fully expanded'. He was therefore unable to 'form any judgement of their beauty'. Perhaps because specimens could never convey fully the magic of a bird likened to paradise, he brought live paradise birds to London in 1862, the first seen in Europe. For those unable to see these birds alive in the great metropolis of Empire, taxidermists and natural history artists (such as Joseph Wolf, whose drawings illustrate Daniel Elliot's 1873 Monograph of the Paradiseidae) attempted to breathe life into these husks of paradise.

Yet Paradisea rubra is more than a European emblem of paradise lost and regained. It is a defining species in the drawing of 'Wallace's Line', named for a collector whose field observations led him to divide the geography he traversed into two distinct zoological regions. To the west and north was Indonesia and South-East Asia, to the east and south was Australasia. The red bird of paradise was found only to the east of the Indonesian Island of Lombok. In this way the scientific imagination took flight observing a bird likened to paradise.

Paul Fox was the Thomas Ramsay Science and Humanities Scholar at Museum Victoria between 1989 and 1991 when he researched the history of the Museum's collections, and developed Drawing on Nature, a cross-cultural exhibition which toured Victoria, Melbourne and Sydney. His book Clearings: Six colonial gardeners and their landscapes will published shortly by Melbourne University Press. He is a fellow of the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne and a member of the Landscape sub-committee of Heritage Victoria. He currently works for Australia Post.

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