31 July 2012 by Julienne du Toit

The Frenchman and the secretary bird

To whom do we owe the very great pleasure of birdwatching? Some say that person would be François le Vaillant, an eccentric French traveller, explorer, hunter and social observer who came to South Africa in the late 1700s.

The secretary bird, or eater of snakes, as Le Vaillant described it. Photo Chris Marais

The remarkable bird on South Africa’s coat of arms is not our national bird, the blue crane. Instead, it’s a stylised secretary bird – a creature that might have been better named Le Vaillant’s snake-kicking eagle.

François le Vaillant, an eccentric Surinam-born explorer, came to South Africa in 1780 at the behest of a man high up in the Dutch East India Company, specifically to describe birds in this remote and exotic outpost.

It is Le Vaillant who 1st described the secretary bird (exciting huge interest in ornithology in particular and in South Africa in general). He was also 1st to describe a host of other birds, including the Narina trogon (named for his Gonaqua paramour) and Klaas’s cuckoo (named for his Khoikhoi servant and travelling companion). According to Wikipedia, he was the 1st colonial biologist to name bird species after local people. 

Ian Glenn, professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town, translated Le Vaillant’s Travels into the Interior of Africa via the Cape of Good Hope from French into English for the Van Riebeeck Society. He also recently wrote about the remarkable Le Vaillant in a publication by the Institut Français, inserted into weekly newspapers in July this year.

Birding now generates about R2-billion a year in South Africa, and it was Le Vaillant, Glenn points out, who “turned a generation of young European readers into ornithologists” with his illustration and graphic description of the snake-killing secretary bird.

He was only in South Africa for 4 years, but Le Vaillant certainly made them count. He swept around parts of the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape with a retinue of Khoikhoi people, a baboon called Kees (his food taster and resident clown), an inordinate amount of chocolate in his wagon, and wearing a foppish hat with a large ostrich feather.

He swept around parts of the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape with a retinue of Khoikhoi people, a baboon called Kees (his food taster and resident clown), an inordinate amount of chocolate in his wagon, and wearing a foppish hat with a large ostrich feather.

Glenn says: 'Le Vaillant was the 1st traveller to South Africa who saw nature and human nature not as the Dutch or the British, but as the French influenced by Rousseau. Before him, nature was a problem of farming and trade and killing pests; after him nature is a place of liberty, revelation and adventure.'

When he returned home with hundreds of wildlife and bird specimens he expected to be covered in glory. Instead, the French Revolution had just begun and he nearly had his head chopped off.

Why hasn’t anyone made a movie about this eccentric man? I can see Johnny Depp in the lead role...

Category: Culture & History


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