A Bird’s-Eye View of the Colonial City: A.G. Vorderman’s “Bataviasche Vogels” (1882-1885)

Editorial note: This post is part of our theme for March 2023, Science City, an exploration of the ways cities and science have interacted over time and around the world. Please also note that in this piece the ninenteenth-century Dutch spellings of the source material are used here for all species names—both Latin binomial and local (Malay/Javanese) ones—as the names recorded do not always correspond perfectly to present-day standards and may, in some cases, reflect local usage.

By Mikko Toivanen

In the evening of 26 August 1883, in the hours leading up to the climactic eruption of the volcano Krakatau in the Sunda Strait, great flocks of meliwies, otherwise known as the Dendrocygna arcuate or, in English, the wandering whistling duck, came swarming from the darkness toward the bright lights of the circus then set up on the central Koningsplein of Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies now known as Jakarta. An impressive disruption of the regular rhythms of the city’s animal life, this visitation foreshadowed the far more cataclysmic events later that night, when the island of Krakatau collapsed under the force of the eruption, and the consequent flooding caused massive damage along the adjoining coastal areas of Sumatra and Java.

This dramatic, biblical-style anecdote regarding the visitation of the ducks was recorded not in a romantic memoir or an evocative news report but rather as a contemporary detail in the midst of an otherwise mostly dry scientific text, the government physician and amateur ornithologist A.G. Vorderman’s “Bataviasche Vogels” (“The Birds of Batavia”), published in six parts in the journal Natuurkundig Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch Indië between 1882 and 1885. The text records the results of an ambitious urban research project: the author’s long-term survey of the species of birds inhabiting Batavia and its immediate surroundings. A close reading of this work provides fascinating insights into the colonial city as both an object of natural history and as a diverse habitat encompassing a wide variety of human-animal entanglements, while also bringing to light some of the many conflicts and contradictions inherent in the processes of colonial knowledge production.

Vorderman’s point of departure is a striking and, for the time, novel observation: that the city had, up until that point, been largely neglected as a site of scientific research into the natural environment. As Vorderman points out in his preface, the extant European descriptions of Java’s bird species had been largely produced in conjunction with the many exploratory tours of the island’s mountainous inlands, paradoxically leaving the fauna of the densely-populated and otherwise intensely-surveyed coastal cities largely uncatalogued. He had identified a category error of sorts: that the European naturalist, trained to think of the natural in opposition to the urban and drawn to the supposedly pure and untrammelled environment of the tropical colonies, had neglected to consider the colonial city as a rich and diverse biome in itself.

Photo of a bird market in Yogyakarta, circa 1910. A.R. Wagshal, “Vogel Passer, Djocja,” Leiden University Digital Collections.

It goes without saying that such an ornithological project, encompassing hundreds of species, could not be carried out by one man alone, even if that is largely the impression the reader gets from the text itself. While the bulk of the text is devoted to exceedingly detailed descriptions of individual specimens, Vorderman is noticeably shy about the details of how those specimens came into his possession. The passive voice is used everywhere: they were “brought to him” or “shot in [a location],” but by whom, we never learn—with one exception: a specimen “shot by Mr L. Wasch,” evidently a European hunter or enthusiast. Indeed, the few individuals actually named—fellow ornithologists or upper-class gentlemen from the author’s social circles—are all Europeans. By contrast, it appears likely that some, and perhaps the majority, of the hundreds of unnamed collectors were not.

Certainly, the wide range of localities (the place of capture is recorded for each bird)—from the harbor to the old and new towns, from European areas to the Chinese quarter and the many kampongs (villages or neighborhoods), even the outlying fields and morasses—suggests a wide network of collaborators, likely encompassing the street peddlers of live birds whose habits Vorderman records with a keen eye for detail. Off-handed comments throughout the text refer to the locals’ habits of capturing and trading birds, whether as pets or food, and their preferences for specific species, implying longstanding dialogue and cooperation. It is also clear that he actively sought out advice from indigenous collaborators. We learn, for example, that several informants failed to identify the species Anthus hasseltii, leading him to deduce that it must be rarely encountered in the city. Such co-construction of knowledge was not, however, acknowledged as authorship but instead hidden behind a veil of anonymity.

While Vorderman’s collaborators are largely left nameless, the names of the birds stand as evidence of the diversity of the networks he drew on, encompassing the full range of the city’s demographics. Throughout, Vorderman records both the Latin binomial and the “native” (inlandsch) name for each species; tellingly, there is no attempt to distinguish between the various languages of what was and remains a multilingual city, although at least two—Malay and Javanese—are represented. Moreover, for several species there are additional notes on the names used by the city’s mixed “Indo-European” community, or occasionally on names used by specific groups like sailors. Such a level of detail implies access to a socially and ethnically diverse pool of informants, and points out the hidden reservoirs of work and knowledge behind the façade of colonial science.

The practices of naming also occasionally elicit clashes between Western and local systems of knowledge. Sometimes this leads to trouble. For example, we learn that the locals refer to the Oriolus indicus by two different names—kapodang or tjilalolong—depending on the stage of its plumage. Or conversely, that the name kadassie is applied indiscriminately to both the Cacomantis merulinus and the Cacomantis sepulcralis. Such details seem to trouble the premises of Vorderman’s ornithological project. In the latter case, for no apparent reason, he chooses to render kadassie in inverted commas for one of the species, deciding, seemingly arbitrarily, that that usage is the “incorrect” one. The colonial city entailed numerous systems of knowledge and ways of knowing, some of which were only partially legible to the Western scientific gaze.

Beyond constructing a system of ornithological knowledge, Vorderman’s text also contains large amounts of incidental detail that paint a vivid image of the human-environment relationship in late nineteenth-century Batavia. The work quite literally populates the city, often on the level of individual parks, squares, and buildings, with the sounds and movements of bustling animal life, providing a strong, if perhaps accidental, argument for the author’s program of framing the city as a natural environment. We learn, for example, that the predatory gaok/Corvus macrorhijnchus appears at the Javanese apothecary around 6:00 p.m. to catch the bats that emerge from under the eaves of the Java Bank in the evening, while the bentet/Lanius shah can often be seen on the telegraph lines by the railway at the Koningsplein. Or that the wallet/Hirundo striolata prefers the outcropping roofs of old European houses for nesting, while the tjabak/Caprimulgus affinis nests on the piles of coal scattered around the Tandjong Priok harbor area.

A display with stuffed birds in the Zoological Museum in Buitenzorg, circa 1920. “Vitrine met opgezette vogels in het Zoölogisch Museum te Buitenzorg,” Leiden University Digital Collections.

Beyond mapping out the geography of Batavia’s bird life, Vorderman’s observations also provide a sketch of the social and cultural dimensions of the human-bird relationship. Several species are marked out as augurs of bad luck, the toehoe/Eudynamis orientalis, for example, prophesying death. Some of these superstitions are associated with the “native,” while others are described as being shared by the Europeans, suggesting an intermingling of beliefs at the edges of cultures. Other species have more positive connotations, being prized by different communities as trainable pets or as street food delicacies. Others yet are feared for practical reasons: the tetengket/Dacelo chloris as a killer of domestic hens or the boeroeng gredja/Passer montanus that ruins houses by picking holes in the whitewash. Such incidental descriptions are testament to the ways in which animal life adapted to and thrived in the human-shaped environment of the colonial city, and also, conversely, to how urban human populations learned to cohabit with and sometimes benefit from their winged peers.

It is important to note that the anecdotal evidence peppered throughout the text is of strictly secondary importance in Vorderman’s ornithological project, generally sketched out in a sentence or two in the opening for each entry before the rigorously systematic paragraphs, sometimes pages, of descriptive detail that follow. Its role seems to have been to provide entertainment and recognizable, colorful detail for local readers. An entangled sociocultural history of Batavia’s humans and birds was not what he set out to write, nor would an undertaking of that sort have made a lot of sense within the framework of European, late nineteenth-century, amateur science, based on detailed but detached observations and measurements, that he was working in.

Yet through the very framing of his survey, by training his naturalist’s gaze on the urban, where the human presence could not be ignored, Vorderman stumbled upon a new kind of science in the city that probed at the margins of the human and the non-human, the colonial and the natural, in ways that resonate up to this day. In its unexpectedly vivid, almost accidental detail, “Bataviasche Vogels” reveals much of the color of everyday life in a colonial capital but also the multi-layered relations of domination and exploitation—both concrete and discursive—that bound Batavia together as a community of living beings.

Mikko Toivanen is an assistant professor at the University of Warsaw specializing in global and colonial history, with a focus on the Dutch and British empires in nineteenth-century Southeast Asia. His current research deals with the development of urban cultures and notions of public space in colonial contexts. Toivanen defended his PhD on colonial tourism in Southeast Asia at the European University Institute (Florence, Italy) in 2019. His wider research interests include the global circulations of colonial knowledge, transnational exchanges, and mobilities between European empires as well as the history of Nordic colonial entanglements.

Featured image (at top): The first page of the second part of J.G. Vorderman’s “Bataviasche Vogels,” published in Volume 42 (1882) of Natuurkundig Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch Indië, page 32. Scan from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

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