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Friday, January 21, 2011

The remarkable story of Tupaia's pet bird

From Peter Brown,
New Illustrations of Zoology
 ... plate VII. (London, 1776).
Courtesy National Library of Australia.

 Tupaia’s lorikeet

A heartwarming story from his biography, Tupaia, the remarkable story of Captain Cook's Polynesian navigator.

While it was not unknown for a sailor to make a pet of a bird, fowl were much more commonly stewed and eaten, in an effort to give variety to the shipboard diet. Sydney Parkinson, draughtsman on the Endeavour, recorded in Botany Bay that they ‘saw a great number of birds of a beautiful plumage; among which were two sorts of parroquets, and a beautiful loriquette: we shot a few of them, which we made into a pie, and they ate very well’. So, when Tupaia adopted a lorikeet he had winged, he not only broke with tradition, but he saved a bird from the pot.

Peter Brown, the man who painted Tupaia's bird after it arrived in England, was a natural history artist of Danish descent who exhibited at the Royal Academy, and was botanical draughtsman for the Prince of Wales. He is most famous for his book, New Illustrations of Zoology ..., which includes the earliest published illustration of an Australian bird, described as a ‘Blue-headed and bellied Parrot’ that had been brought to England from Botany Bay, New South Wales, by Joseph Banks. The caption also records that the painting was made on ‘November 3 1774’ — evidence that Tupaia’s bird was still alive on that date.

After arriving in England, Banks gave the lorikeet to Marmaduke Tunstall, a wealthy collector and sponsor of natural history expeditions, who had established a museum and a menagerie of live animals at his home in Welbeck Street, London, and at the same time told Tunstall that the bird had belonged to ‘the unfortunate Tupia, a native of Otaheite’. In 1776 Tunstall moved the entire museum — which, according to his memoir, included ‘a large collection of curiosities brought by Capt. Cook from Otaheite’ — to his estate at Wycliffe in North Yorkshire.

In 1791, a year after Tunstall’s death, the collection was sold to his friend, George Allan of Darlington, for the highly discounted sum of £700 (the birds alone had cost Tunstall £5,000). In 1822 it was purchased by the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle for display in a new town museum. Did it include Tupaia's bird, now dead and stuffed?  No one knows, for that is where the story stops.  The Tunstall collection is now held by the Great North Museum: Hancock, in Newcastle, England, but whether Tupaia’s bird is still there is impossible to tell.  None of the staff can find it.

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