14 September 2014

The sailor from Amsterdam

Some days ago, in need of fresh air, I decided to pick a book that had nothing to do with plants, animals, illegal trade or CITES.

I went to the library and chose a book in Spanish entitled Fifty short-stories, the perfect choice to clear my mind for some days.

So there I was, sipping my ginger tea and enjoying the million stories that the book had to offer when I bumped into ApollinairesLe matelot d’Amsterdam (1907).

And here I was again, confronted with a crime which is as ancient as colonization itself: illegal wildlife trade.

Unfortunately, I am unable to find the English title or translation of the story, but I guess it would be something like “The sailor from Amsterdam”.

The story in the end is secondary: a scorned man who decides to assassinate his aristocratic lover with the help of a kidnapped sailor. Animals were not obviously the center characters of the story….or at least probably not for Apollinaire. For me they are the only characters in fact.

So let us go back to the poor sailor who was fooled into this murder trap: Hendrijk Wersteeg. As Dutch as he could be, Wersteeg was one sailor of many who enrolled as crew in one of those brigs that sailed the seas back in the XVII century. The brig had just returned from Java loaded with spices and other hidden treasures…It was probably was part of the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC).

Wersteeg, as I am sure many other sailors, took advantage of his trip to the East Indies and allowed himself to benefit from the business opportunities at hand. So, never one to miss a trick, he brought with him a monkey and a parrot from Java. Two exotic treasures that he was sure to sell for a good price in Southampton, where the brig stopped before the final destination, Amsterdam. There, his fiancé whom he had not seen in three years, awaited him.

Was the monkey a grizzled leaf monkey or a Javan gibbon? 

Was the parrot a Mustached Parakeet or a Yellow-throated hanging parrot?

Peu importe: here we have the elements that people engaged in the fight against illegal wildlife trade encounter everyday: exotic animals, poor people trying to have a better life, rich people trying to show their status, illicit trade, border-crossing, economic gains, use (and abuse) of natural resources, ecosystem and local economies damage…

Unintentionally, I guess, Apollinaire reflected an accepted practice at that time without knowing that many centuries afterwards it would become one of the biggest illicit business at international level.

The time of the so-called “Great Discoveries” was also the beginning of the count down for many species…

This short-story has lightened up my curiosity: are there other short-stories or novels reflecting unintentionally the beginning of wildlife trade at international scale? Do you know any of them? If so, let me know. I will be happy to publish a review, and who knows, maybe make a compilation in the future.

As for the monkey and the parrot in Apollinaire’s story….let’s say that the monkey followed the same fate as his “owner”: he was shot to death. The parrot could scape and spent the rest of his life in a cage repeating the last words of the dead lover: “I am innocent!”… Aren’t we all?

NOTE: As always, pics taken from ARKive and pbase to illustrate the post with no commercial purpose whatsoever. My gratitude to Blanca Ballester for the wonderful gift and the awesome translation from French to Spanish.

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