71. A Rare Bone of a Dodo

Mauritius, 17th century
Size: 13.5 cm

The arrival of the Dutch fleet off Mauritius in 1598 spelled the imminent extinction of the Dodo. They were fat, had forgotten how to fly, and were far from fleet of foot. The last record of a living species dates from 1681. The reasons for their demise were, of course, more complex than the insatiable appetite of hungry Dutch sailors. They were exported as curiosities, among others by the English traveller Peter Mundy, who sent one to Surat, which is portrayed in a painting by Mansour for the Emperor Jahangir, dated 1625. In Europe they appeared in the paintings of Roelandt Savery and Cornelius Saftleven. Elias Ashmole obtained a complete stuffed specimen from the Tradescant collection, but in 1755 it was deemed sufficiently decayed to be emptied into the dustbin. Apparently by the cleaning lady.

Almost all the bones in the world’s museums survive because of an English schoolmaster, Mr. George Clark, who, in 1865 identified some Dodo bones at the edge of a swamp called ‘La Mare aux Songes’, near now what is the International Airport. As a competent amateur naturalist he was able to recognise what he had found, and persuaded the local plantation owner, Mr. de Bissy, on whose land the swamp lay, to lend him a few slaves. These were made to walk through the swamp and locate the bones with their bare feet. To be fair, each successful bone recovery merited a reward.

My chance encounter one day with this particular bone was for me an exciting moment. I didn’t imagine that such a thing could happen, but nor did I feel able to buy it; its value being now equal to that of the bone of a revered saint in olden days, perhaps even more, since we still believe in the Dodo. Had it been a sanctified relic, and had this been long ago, I would, I suppose, have felt obliged to order a sumptuous casket to house it. With this in mind, I decided to commission Michael Cooper to sculpt a Dodo, providing a visual context for what otherwise might be mistaken for a turkey’s bone, and thus suffer the fate of Elias Ashmole’s rare specimen. Being of a sentimental nature, Michael has provided his Dodo with an egg, which nestles neatly under its body. Hope for the future, he tells me. More worryingly, I think he really believes it might hatch.