Annie Trentman ’22: Book VI, Chapter XV (About a Rare Fowl or Bird that Captain Urdaneta Gave the Author of These Stories)

Book VI, Chapter XV

About a rare fowl or bird, much worthy of being seen, that Captain Urdaneta, who was mentioned in a previous chapter , gave the chronicler and author of these stories, of which he did not know the name.

 Translated by Meredith (Annie) Trentman ’22

As I was making a clean copy of these stories from the first part of my history for its second printing, it followed that there arrived to this city of Santo Domingo the Adelantado of Guatemala, Don Pedro de Alvarado, accompanied by Captain Andrés de Urdaneta and Martín de Islares; because according to what the adelantado said, he planned to sail the South Sea in that same year, to China and other parts; these gentlemen, as I said in the previous chapter, have spent some time in the Spice Islands and are people of good understanding, and I communicated with them in those days the adelantado spent in the city. I gained much knowledge from these people; because this captain, in addition to understanding very well the art of the sea and the stars, spoke well; as a wise man, he gave a good account of those lands and islands and of the Spice Islands and what he saw in those years or time he spent there. Without a doubt the Emperor will be well served by his experience and person; the adelantado, as he organizes his fleet, can get great advice about where he plans to go or send his ships.

This captain gave me a feather crest or plumage that is a great thing to see and for which to praise God who created it; it is from a fowl or bird, which not even his companion Islares could name, nor do I know how to describe or convey the beauty and uniqueness of these feathers among all those I have seen in my life, the most gallant and elegant. Anyway, it is something that has to be seen rather than understood from my description, because undoubtedly it seems to me that of all the things I have seen it is the one which has left me without hope of offering an understanding of it through my own words. Those gentlemen said that this bird and others like it are very dear to those princes and principal persons of the Indies of the Spice Islands; and that one of these birds is worth fifty or sixty ducats there; and from other very far lands they take them whole, dead, pickled, and preserved with their feathers, the flesh removed, which must be very little, because it is smaller than a thrush; it is among those people a very precious and rare merchandise, and they are not affordable to any others except kings or captains or people in high places; even though some are able to pay for them, only those people I have mentioned dare to wear them as a headdress. This is a bird, and from what I can comprehend, it is the size of a dapple or slightly bigger than a thrush; but since it is dry and its flesh has been removed, it seems smaller. So it seems to me that were it alive it would be bigger rather than smaller. It’s main plumage on the body and tail is very handsome and a beautiful tawny color, and the tail has about ten very long and straight feathers, about a xeme[1] long: above the sprouting of the tail it has two other feathers about four spans in length, and where they are thickest (which is near the sprouting of the tail and a little more toward the front), the feathers are coarse like a clump of thick pins, from there to the end or tips they lose volume until they look like two threads, and they are a dark tawny color, tending towards black. Held between the fingers, they are rough, like a saw; they don’t have a single hair like other feathers, except the small ones near the sprouting; the rest of the length of them is rough, and thin, as I’ve said: each feather from these two places is like a thread. The chest and the back are, as I’ve said, tawny, and I don’t know how to describe the feet because they don’t have any: the truth is that feeling with the fingers, one can sense or feel something akin to two stumps of bones, where they should form legs and feet. The head is very large, like that of a dapple, and the feathers on it of an orange-tinted yellow; the craw is a rare and beautiful golden green; a stream of very thick and short plumage of a velvety black appears a little higher, from where the beak begins, which is as big as that of a magpie, straight and fanned. The wings are what I cannot describe or even write about plainly; it seems to me they are not in a way that makes it possible for this bird to fly, because even though each wing has many feathers about two and a half spans in length or more, and every one of them has the hair or hairs that other birds have that allow them to retain air, they are rare in these birds and interspersed with the other type of hair, like the teeth of a scapular comb that are very thin and subtle, and every feather of this type has the tawny spine or back through and through. The hairs that accompany it (which I say are as sparse as those of a comb) are very white, and every hair or little hair of these white ones is another very thin feather, such that it seems they keep each feather in the form of fern leaves, as if it is one big leaf made up of many tiny leaves. These subtle feathers become smaller, until they reach the very end of the main spine on which every tawny feather is joined. There are other feathers on each wing and wingtips (where typically other birds have feathers called knives), and these are made in the manner I have said; but they are of a yellow color mixed with white, such that together they look more like a very bright yellow, but each one by itself looks white. In conclusion, I confess that there will be no artist able to paint it because of what I have said; but as I read this alongside the bird, it seems to me that I’ve managed to say something; I have written this looking right at it, and giving thanks to God who created these birds. I consider it the rarest in plumage and beauty of all I have ever seen, and the bird I have admired the most. This bird is of such artisanal craftsmanship that one can and should believe that there’s no end to the art that led to its creation: none of His works can a painter or sculptor or orator express so naturally, nor can human ingenuity perfectly give a sense of what they are like.

I conclude that for His Imperial Majesty to be the best dressed and turned-out in order to best show his excellent gallantry at a great and solemn occasion, such a feather crest would be enough against all the gold and pearls and precious stones of the world. Indeed, I would dare offer this bird or plumage to His Majesty, but I understood from the same captain who gave it to me that he had brought others and gave them to the Emperor, or at least are in his chamber. And since I don’t know how long it will take my story to reach the Spice Islands, I wish to place what I have to say about this bird with the other repositories in this Book Six; and even if it remains here it will not be inappropriate because it will not stand in the way of other higher quality topics to be written about when their time comes.          

After writing this, I have seen certain portraits of Suleyman Ottoman (rex turcorum or Suleiman the Magnificent) with a sallet like a tiara, with four golden crowns with many very precious pearls and stones, and at the top of it lies a feather, from either this bird or something similar, like I have described, as a headdress: it follows that, since such a great prince placed such a feather there, that the value I have expressed above is justified, and is even highly priced in Turkey.

I later gave this bird to a friend of mine who passed through this city on his way to Peru. So, it can be said that after death this bird walked and flew and sailed further than it did while alive, without comparison. Later, in the month of September of the year 1543, a Portuguese hidalgo came to this city of Santo Domingo on this island of Española, a commander of the Order of Christ, and brought another bird like the one I have described, and he gave it to his friend Melchiór de Torres, who lives here. This commander told many remarkable stories and noted peculiarities about this and similar birds, and they were things that should not be believed: in particular he said that these birds left the earthly paradise, I do not think he saw them leave there, nor did whoever told him so. He said that he had been in Calecut and in the Spice Islands, from where he had brought the bird and it was dead when he got it, as were the ones Captain Urdaneta had obtained.

[1] A xeme is the measure of the span between the tips of the thumb and index fingers. [EE]

Image: Lithograph by John Gould, published in London in the mid-1800s