Parrots and sailors are inextricably linked in most people’s view of the Age of Sail. This combination has been assisted by many works of fiction, from the bird that perched on Long John Silver’s shoulder in Treasure Island, to James Turner’s green parrot in Swallows and Amazon. So how prevalent was bird ownership among seamen?
The association between the two seems to have begun very early, with sailors in the fifteenth century acquiring parrots on early voyages along the coast of Africa. Columbus was quick to spot the potential of the exotic birds he encountered in the New World, returning with five long-tailed macaws from his 1492 voyage, and sixty parrots from his next trip. Not only did they make fabulous gifts for his patrons, they were also tangible evidence of his discoveries.
The Age of Enlightenment gave fresh impetus to interest in exotic birds back in Europe, with gentlemen throughout the continent showing a keen interest in new and unusual species. Parrots had the advantage of being portable, needing little space, and had a suitably dazzling appearance. A good specimen could fetch up to ten pounds in Britain. Given they could be bought for a fraction of this sum in the tropics, and fed on leftover food during the voyage home, they represented a considerable financial bonus for a returning sailor. Many ships arrived back home laden with birds. One French ship is reported to have left Brazil with over six hundred live parrots on board.
So was a parrot a pet, or a valuable cargo? The answer seems to have been both. Many sailors had a dual relationship with their parrots, enjoying them as cherished pets during the tedium of a long ocean passage, but still willing to part with them once home. Accounts speak of seamen taking considerable enjoyment in their animals, teaching their birds to perform tricks and organising races between birds. Pierre Loti, the French naval officer and novelist, wrote that his crew “...most tenderly loved and even kissed extravagantly...” their parrots. Yet in many cases they were content to pass them on when they returned home. The motivation to sell may not have been simply financial. Once paid off at the end of a voyage, most sailors lost their accommodation onboard ship, and many port boarding-houses would not have permitted animals.
One way of enhancing the value of a bird was to teach it to speak. Parrots are intelligent creatures, capable of acquiring a considerable vocabulary in a relatively short time, although this could prove dangerous. There are several instances of parrots learning some of the more choice obscenities favoured onboard ship, and then shocking their new owners by the impressive stream of vulgarity they could produce.
There is evidence of parrots became more permanent residents of ships, with some even becoming a mascot for the vessel. Thomas Cochrane refers to such a bird on board the Hind, in his autobiography. This bird had free access to the deck, where it caused considerable confusion by imitating orders. Cochrane relates how a lady in a boatswain’s chair was dumped in the sea when the parrot yelled “let go!” to the seaman hauling her onboard. The French corvette Astrolabe had a black cockatoo that was much prized, in spite of it destroying the captain’s most valuable marine barometer.
All of this points to the close association between sailors and parrots being based on fact. Some became treasured pets that accompanied their owners for many years. Perhaps the best travelled bird was Cocky Bennett, a cockatoo owned by the Australian mariner Captain Ellis. He accompanied his owner on no less than seven complete circumnavigations during the second half of the 19th century.
I wish to acknowledge that I drew heavily for this week’s blog on a recent (and excellent) article by Megan Hagseth - “Seadogs and Their Parrots” in the Mariner’s Mirror (104:2), published by the Society for Nautical Research.