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Intended as a business gift for Japanese royalty, one of the last living dodos survived the trip from Mauritius to Japan in 1647. Up until now, it had been assumed that the dodo was unable to withstand long sea voyages. A study of the 17th-century archives of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische compagnie - VOC) conducted by the University of Amsterdam (UvA) has, however, proven otherwise.

Photo: Ria Winters

Working with archivist Gijs Boink, UvA’s Ria Winters has found evidence that in 1647 a live dodo was shipped to Deshima, an island off the coast of Japan that housed a VOC office.

The 1647 sea voyage is the best-documented trip involving a live dodo to be exported from the island of Mauritius. The discovery that a dodo survived the trip to Japan consequently refutes the assertion that a live dodo could never have reached Europe by ship. 

It was possible to reconstruct the sea voyage in question using the daily records kept by the chief official at Deshima, which had been transcribed earlier by the Leiden Center for the History of European Expansion, and examining marine traffic from Mauritius to Batavia and Deshima.

But the conclusive piece of evidence for the dodo’s long sea voyage to a different part of the world was found in the VOC archives in the National Archives. The dodo, a white deer and a bezoar stone were registered both as ‘unappraised’ cargo aboard the ship Jonge Prins and as inventory in the warehouse on land. Exotic animals were popular with nobility around the world, and the VOC exported them as business gifts accordingly. At the time, the dodo was considered a showpiece bird and was therefore intended as a gift to the Japanese shogun. 

The last dodo?

The dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was a flightless giant pigeon that belonged to the unique native fauna of the island of Mauritius. The bird species became the symbol of extinction after it vanished from the face of the earth during the Dutch occupation of the island from 1598-1710. The dodo’s extinction is often associated with the presence of the Dutch, but it was mainly caused by the import of foreign mammals such as cats, rats, pigs and monkeys to the island. 

No one knows exactly when the last dodo lived. Various theories estimate the date of extinction between 1660 and 1690. The population had likely dwindled by 1650, making the ‘Japanese dodo’ one of the last of its kind. Although it remains unclear what happened to the dodo after its arrival, Japanese researchers affiliated with the imperial court centuries later certainly had an exceptional interest in the dodo. Japanese research conducted on Mauritius during the past century established the basis for the present-day Dutch research into the dodo.

Winters is continuing her research into the transport of exotic animals in the 17th and 18th centuries. Winters: ‘The Netherlands played a central and possibly leading role in shipping and trading exotic animals, including the dodo.' 

The results of Winters’ and co-author J.P. Hume’s research are published in the March issue of the scientific journal Historical Biology. Support was provided by Stichting DodoAlive and the Dodo Research Programme at the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED).

Publication details

R. Winters and J.P. Hume. The dodo, the deer and a 1647 voyage to Japan. In: Historical Biology: An International Journal of Paleobiology (2014), doi:10.1080/08912963.2014.884566.