The first time a European ship
landed in Australia, as far as anyone can prove today, was in 1606. In
the history of colonialism, Australia is often considered a relatively
late European “discovery.” But a manuscript from the 13th century shows
that, indirectly, Europeans had contact with this faraway continent for
hundreds of years before they first landed there.
In the manuscript of De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting With
Birds), a treatise on falconry, a group of Finnish scholars recently
stumbled across four images of a white bird. The manuscript is held in
the Vatican Library, and the most used English translation doesn’t
include these images.
The manuscript images, though, predated
that one by 250 years. Dalton identified the bird as either a Triton or a
subspecies of yellow-crested cockatoo. It would have come, she writes,
from the northeast part of the Australia mainland, from New Guinea, or
from nearby islands.
According to the
manuscript, the cockatoo was a gift from the sultan of Egypt to the Holy
Roman Emperor. The bird would have traveled for many years overland to
reach Europe, Dalton’s analysis revealed. Though Europeans may have only
had a fuzzy idea of the lands of Oceania, the vast trade networks of
the Middle Ages connected them long before European sailors made it
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Why an early Italian drawing of a cockatoo rewrites what we know about trade routes
A rare manuscript suggests cockatoos have been in Europe longer than we thought. Photo: Guillaume Souvant/AFP
Drawings of an Australasian cockatoo discovered on the pages of a
13th-century Italian manuscript suggest trade Down Under was flourishing
as far back as medieval times, researchers said on Tuesday.
Four images of the white cockatoo feature in the Holy Roman Emperor
Frederick II of Sicily's De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting
with Birds), which dates from between 1241 and 1248 and is held in the
The coloured drawings pre-date by 250 years what was previously
believed to be the oldest European depiction of the bird, in Andrea
Mantegna's 1496 altarpiece Madonna della Vittoria.
Heather Dalton, an honorary research fellow at Melbourne University,
published an article about the cockatoo in Mantegna's painting in 2014,
which was seen by three scholars at the Finnish Institute in Rome. They
were working on De Arte Venandi cum Avibus and realized they had found
much older depictions.
An image from The Art of Hunting with Birds.
A resulting collaboration between Dalton and trio revealed that
Frederick's bird was likely to have been either a female Triton or one
of three sub-species of Yellow-Crested Cockatoo. This means it
originated from Australia's northern tip, New Guinea or the islands off
New Guinea or Indonesia.
Essentially, it indicates that trade off Australia's north was taking
place much earlier than previously thought, and linked into sea and
overland routes to Indonesia, China, Egypt and beyond into Europe,
"Although our part of the world is still considered the very last to
have been discovered, this Eurocentric view is increasingly being
challenged by finds such as this," she said.
"Small craft sailed between islands buying and selling fabrics, animal
skins and live animals before making for ports in places such as Java,
where they sold their wares to Chinese, Arab and Persian merchants.
"The fact that a cockatoo reached Sicily during the 13th century shows
that merchants plying their trade to the north of Australia were part of
a flourishing network that reached west to the Middle East and beyond."
According to the National Library of Australia, the first documented
landing by a European in the country was in 1606. There are claims of
earlier landings by the Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Arabs and Romans,
but there is little credible evidence.
Dalton said the Latin text next to one of the images revealed that the
cockatoo was a gift from the fourth Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt to Frederick
II, who referred to him as the 'Sultan of Babylon'.
She pieced together the journey a cockatoo would have taken from
Australasia to Cairo and then on to Sicily –which would have been
primarily overland and taken several years.
The findings are published in the current edition the Parergon Journal.