Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Is This Rare Book The World's Oldest Fish Story?

By Nancy Mattoon

Color Plate of Three Exotic Fish,
From Louis Renard's 1718,
Poissons, écrevisses et crabes...
(Image Courtesy of Uppsala University.)

Imagine if a new planet, teeming with life similar to that on Earth--plants, flowers, birds, insects, animals--were to be discovered. Botanists and zoologists would have a field day documenting all the new species to be found, and how they compared to the known quantities back home. This is very much like what happened in 18th century Europe as contact between the Old World and the New World increased. Tales of fantastic, undiscovered forms of life resulted in the almost obsessive collecting and recording of previously unknown species. And since this was long before the advent of photography, visual documentation took the form of scientific drawings and paintings.

This fish, called the Emperor of Japan, is described in Renard's book as:
"The most luscious and beautiful fish in the world...
covered with tiny...scales that glitter brighter than gold.

(Image Courtesy of Uppsala University.)

But, then as now, for every hard-working and exacting scientist, there's an opportunist sensing that where there are new discoveries there's a fast buck to be made. Such a man was Dutch Huguenot Louis Renard. Renard was a sometime spy for the British Crown, a seller of patent medicines, and a bookseller and publisher, chiefly known for the printing of maps. He had no training as a naturalist or scientist, and never left his homeland of Holland, where he was known to frequent Amsterdam's high-class brothels.

The King Crab:
"Very delicious and periodically common on island of Ambon".

(Image Courtesy of Uppsala University.)

Yet this bon vivant became the author and publisher of one of the rarest, most beautiful, and most curious catalogs of marine life in the East Indies ever published: Poissons, écrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires, que l'on trouve autour des isles Moluques, et sur les côtes des terres australes; or Fishes, crayfishes, and crabs, of diverse colors and extraordinary forms, that are found around the islands of the Moluccas and on the coasts of the southern lands (Amsterdam, 1718). It is one of the very first natural history works on fishes to be published in color. And despite many inaccuracies, it stands as a prime example of books produced in response to the tremendous interest in botanical and zoological specimens from the New World.

The 'Ican Tomtombo' (Thornback Boxfish) described as being
"inedible to Europeans on account of its oiliness and stench,
although the locals make a stew of it."

(Image Courtesy of University of Glasgow.)

Fishes, crayfishes, and crabs... is made up entirely of 100 plates composed of 460 hand colored engravings. In total, 415 fishes, 41 crustaceans, two insects, and one dugong, a sea mammal similar to a manatee, are depicted. Oh, and one other creature often heard of, but seldom, as here, drawn from life: a mermaid. The only text in the volume consists of captions for the pictures, often including brief recipes for best enjoying these tasty creatures of the sea. (Fillet of Mermaid not included.) The book went through three editions, all of which are exceedingly rare. Libraries at the University of Glasgow, the State Library of New South Wales(.pdf), and Sweden's Uppsala University have all discussed their copies online, and a digitized version of the book is available from the online site, Rare Book Room.

The Ambon crayfish, a little rock fish and a unicorn fish.
The unicorn is said to be numerous
around the island of La Rique,
and to taste delicious.
(Image Courtesy of Uppsala University.)

The source material for the two volumes, often bound together, that make up the work consisted of drawings belonging to Mr. Baltazar Coyett, the governor and director of the islands of Ambon and Banda ( Vol. 1) and to Mr Van der Stel, governor of the Molucca Islands, who had the fish drawn by the artist Samuel Fallours (Vol. 2). Dutch artist Fallours had discovered that drawings and watercolors of the local sea creatures of Ambon were popular souvenirs among the well-heeled European visitors to the islands. He'd already made a pretty penny peddling his pictures, inventing tall tales of his daring captures of the creatures to close the sale. Marketing the art in book form back in Europe was the next logical step.

The Triggerfish, Note Smiley Face On Fin.
(Image Courtesy of Uppsala University.)

Artist Fallours brought his drawings to Holland in 1715. They already contained a rather large amount of artistic license. For example, Fallours might paint a fairly accurate depiction of a tropical triggerfish, but then add the 18th century version of a "smiley face" to its fin, just to make it a bit more attractive. And certainly Fallours knew that a salesman never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. Hence the painting of "the sacred crab of Buting Island." This miraculous creature rescued a crucifix belonging to St. Francis Xavier from the sea, and was rewarded with the appearance of a cross upon his back. Honestly, the mermaid wasn't much of a stretch after Fallours sold that one...

St. Francis Xavier's Pal,
"The Sacred Crab of Buting Island."
(Image Courtesy of University of Glasgow.)

And speaking of the mermaid, here it seems even Louis Renard felt the need to do some convincing to win over skeptical readers. In a classic case of overkill, Renard wrote a "Declaration" for the second edition of the book (1754) attesting to the authenticity of all the species therein, and also of their coloration. He had the book printed under the auspices of a more reputable and prominent publisher, Reinier and Josué Ottens. To specifically confirm the existence of the mermaid, various testimonies, letters and certificates, signed by "respected and reputable" naturalists and priests, are reproduced in the book. Finally, Renard commissioned a preface for the edition by Aernout Vosmaer, a famed natural historian employed as a tutor by the Dutch royal family. (Like Renard, Vosamer had no education or training as a scientist, and at best was termed "an enthusiastic amateur.")

The Mermaid, Depicted Along With An Unusual Crustacean,
Perhaps to Make Her Seem A Bit More Believable.
(Image Courtesy of University of Glasgow.)

Vosamer's commentary on the mermaid is as follows: "The mermaid...deserves more attention than ever. Its very existence here is most decidedly confirmed; and those objections used to try to refute it appear to me to be very weak... If this monster...really is as it seems and as is usually described, and if its features are so similar to a human's, could it not just as easily also resemble a human in instinct, genius or sense - whatever you wish to call it? This would explain how, with greater skill than other animals, it has been able to avoid traps into which they fall; it could also explain why they show themselves so rarely. Could it not moreover be that its body - like a man's - more than that of other fishes, is prone to decomposition and that the difficulty in preventing this is the reason for it not being found in any collection?" Any similarity to 20th century rationales for the lack of fossil evidence of Bigfoot is purely coincidental...


  1. I own a second addition and am wondering how to sell it. Christies in NY want to see it. Meanwhile, how many of these books are known to exist, can you tell me??

  2. OCLC/KVK record c.16 copies in library holdings worldwide but no clear distinction is made as to 1st or 2d edition (same year, 1754, out of Amsterdam). Six copies of the 2d edition have come to auction since 1976. They sold from $14,900 (1981)to $32,400 in 2004.


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