Of all the epic nomenclature failures in the history of “the New World” – think Columbus’s blithe dubbing of the Lucayan, Taíno, and Arawak peoples he confronted in 1492 as “Indians” – no case has been more bizarrely bungled than the turkey.

The genus Meleagris comprises two species: meleagris gallopavo (the wild turkey, which ranges from Mexico to Canada, and was first domesticated thousands of years ago by the ancient Mayans) and meleagris ocellata (the ocellated turkey, which persists mainly in the forests of Yucatan).

These wattled waddlers – they fly as irregularly as peacocks – are so intrinsic to the American landscape that Benjamin Franklin argued forcefully they should replace the Bald Eagle (“a Bird of bad moral Character”) as the US national symbol: “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native. He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

But losing out to the raptor is only one debacle in the annals of this hapless fowl. The story gets much worse, because no creature has ever been so mistakenly named in every language of the world, except for the indigenous American (it is perfectly reasonably nalaaohki pileewa, or “the native bird” in Miami-Illinois Algonquin, for example).

The Malaysians call it “Dutch chicken” (ayam belanda) and the Cambodians refer to “French chicken” (moan barang). In Egyptian Arabic it’s “Roman chicken” or dik rumi, but across in the Levant it becomes dik habash, “the Ethiopian chicken”.

Subcontinental waddlers

Nestled deep in this thicket of epithets, an enigma lurks, which I have made a tradition of dissecting at Thanksgiving meals. In this quarantine year, with my Indian American family members locked down in scattered isolation, I will explore it with you instead. Our quest centres on this simple question: why do so many languages and cultures identify these North American natives as “the birds from India” (oiseaux d’Inde, or simply dinde in French).

I believe one important clue is what the Turks call it themselves: Hindi (or simply, “from India). Another is the terms used by the Dutch and assorted Scandinavians, which are all variations of kalcun, indicating the specific origin of Calicut on India’s west coast.

Here, we should note many people have considered these same exact facts, and dismissed the idea there’s anything complicated to be ferreted out. Their logic goes this way: Columbus thought he’d arrived in India, and just as Native Americans were called Indians, that’s why so many Europeans referred to “the Indian bird”.

Separately, an entire host of commentators theorise that Europeans had become used to buying guinea fowl – the family Numididae is native to Africa, and looks vaguely similar to Meleagrisfrom Turkish merchants as “turkey-cocks”, so when these American birds showed up in the 16th century, the English just stuck to the name they were familiar with.

But what if English did indeed encounter “the turkey” from the country of the same name? Could it be that the French, Dutch, Russians – and many assorted others including the Turks themselves – were merely stating the facts when they named this new fowl after the land from where they learned about it for the first time?

US President "pardons" a turkey in 2018, Credit: Leah Millis/Reuters

Both possibilities are eminently plausible, because we know other profoundly significant flows of plants, animals, products, ideas and technologies weren’t linearly trans-Atlantic. On one end, from the onset of the 16th century, criss-crossing Carreira da Índia (India run) armadas linked Lisbon to Brazil to East Africa to Goa.

Separately, considerable back and forth connected the Estado da India – the Portuguese state headquartered on the banks of the Mandovi river from 1510 – to the Mughal courts in Fatehpur Sikri, Agra and Allahabad, as well as the Deccan Sultanates, all of which were integral parts of the Persianate cosmopolis that spilled to the gates of Europe via the Safavids and Ottomans.

All the best dinner table mysteries come supplied with visual clues, and ours is most beautifully furnished with an exquisite 1612 miniature painting from the court of Jahangir. The “conqueror of the world” had deputed Muqurrab Khan – described in the emperor’s autobiography Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri (or Jehangirnama) as “an old retainer of this dynasty” – to trade with the teeming, wildly globalised port of Goa to acquire natural curiosities, and he had returned with this bird (two years earlier his prize had been a pair of dodos.)

Jehangir writes with great fascination and glee:

  “One of the animals was larger in body than a peahen and significantly smaller than a peacock. Sometimes when it displays itself during mating it spreads its tail and its other feathers like a peacock and dances. Its beak and legs are like a rooster’s. Its head, neck, and wattle constantly change color. When it is mating, they are as red as can be – you’d think it had all been set with coral. After a while these same places become white and look like cotton. Sometimes they look turquoise. It keeps changing color like a chameleon. The piece of flesh it has on its head resembles a cock’s comb. The strange part about it is that when it is mating, the piece of flesh hangs down a span from its head like an elephant’s trunk, but then when it pulls it up it stands erect a distance of two fingers like a rhinoceros’ horn. The area around its eyes is always turquoise-colored and never changes. Its feathers appear to be of different colors, unlike a peacock’s feathers.”  

The delighted ruler called for his most prized court artist to paint the new curiosity. This meant Mansur, who the great BN Goswamy described in his The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works 1100-1900 as “truly a man of extraordinary talents [who] finds mention as Ustad Mansur, a master in his own right. And when this is followed by the majestic-sounding title that the emperor conferred upon him – Nadir-al Asr, meaning the Rarity of the Times – one knows that he had reached the peak of his skills, and of fame.”

Goswamy adds: “As a painter of flora and fauna Mansur was without a rival. A wonderful range of flowering plants apart, paintings of falcons and hawks, partridges and cranes, floricans and barbets, hornbills and pheasants and peafowls bear his name. Each is a masterly study. If a zebra was brought in from Abyssinia, it was Mansur who was called upon to draw a ‘portrait’ of the uncommon beast; if a turkey cock was brought in by a noble from Goa, and the emperor went into a paroxysm of delight at the sight of this ‘strange and wonderful’ bird, ‘such as I had never seen’, it was Mansur again who was asked to paint it ‘so that the amazement that arose from hearing of [the likes of them] might be increased’. Clearly, it was this master painter’s uncanny powers of observation and his mastery of brush and palette that made him the emperor’s first choice.”

Mansur's painting of a turkey. Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Was a descendent of Jahangir’s prize passed on to Isfahan and Istanbul, sparking the belief of an Indian origin? Did copies of Mansur’s painting wing from court to court like 17th-century Instagram? Could it be that other specimens passed through Goa into the European trade, possibly via Kerala (the Portuguese controlled Kochi from 1503-1663)?

Whatever the case, as Neha Vermani describes in her fascinating essay on The turkey’s journey from the Atlantic to the early modern Islamic world, by the time Jean-Baptiste Tavernier began travelling in Safavid territories in the 1630’s he was able to record the presence of “poulet d’Indes.” Vermani also reports that, slightly earlier still, the extraordinary Tarih-i Hind-i Garbi – a Ottoman translation about Columbus’s discoveries – describes the fi diyar na hind tavagu, or “the chicken of the land of India”.

Not only is this genealogy of “the Indian bird” relatively clear, it also suitably explains why the first English travellers to North America recognised the “turkey cocks” that crossed their paths. Which brings us to the tradition of Thanksgiving – often ruefully (and aptly) referred to as Thanks-taking by the victims of the American experiment – which actually has little to do with the Pilgrims and their bounty, and was actually instituted by writ of Abraham Lincoln to assuage the nation after the carnage at Gettysburg. Though the cherished holiday’s foundational myth is set in Plymouth in 1621, turkeys had arrived in England at least 70 years earlier.

An extended dialogue

Earlier this week, to find out what he thought about all this, I wrote to Jonathan Gil Harris of Ashoka University, whose rollicking, singular The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & other Foreigners who Became Indian unravels a host of fascinating transcultural histories, including that of Mandu Firangi, a foreign artist in the Mughal court of Akbar (who was Jahangir’s father), in an era when the court artists “began an extended dialogue with European art, thanks to a sudden influx of prints that arrived in India with Portuguese traders and missionaries”.

Harris – whose most recent book is the utterly delightful Masala Shakespeare – reminded me of Twelfth Night, written by Shakespeare wrote in 1601, where Fabian ridicules Malvolio by declaring, “Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him. How he jets under his advanced plumes!” About my transmission theories about how the turkey got its name, he said, “The Maritime Silk Road led from the western Indian ports to Hormuz, Basra, and Muscat, though much of the Portuguese Indian Ocean trade was shipped from Hormuz around the Cape of Good Hope to Lisbon. Still, goods from Goa could have been transported to Istanbul via the Red Sea ports and Cairo. And a lot of Mughal items travelled overland to Istanbul via Persia. There was certainly traffic in miniatures!”

This description of “the back doors” to Europe, brought to mind Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow’s Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East to West, a slender, finely wrought polemic against “ideologues of purity who believe that societies can only function when they boast of a homogenous, home-grown culture that has developed from the core of a certain nation: one tradition, one religion, one people.” In a chapter entitled “The Making of Europe”, they argue that it’s ahistorical and fallacious to presume “Europe has always been powered by its central and western parts.”

Turkey, mid-18th century. Probably acquired by George III after 1800. Credit: Royal Collection Trust

I wrote to Hoskote to ask him about my turkey thoughts, and he quickly responded, “It has so much to do with the fact that the Mughals and the various European powers were both part of the same large process of globalisation across the 16th century. The silver that was minted into the Mughal rupee was mined in what had once been the lands of the Inca and came to India via the Philippines; textiles from Mughal India went the other way, and are to be found in Malacca and in Manila. The turkey came to the Mughal court from Portuguese-ruled Goa in the early 17th century, drawn from the circulations of trade and exploitation and incipient empire in North America.”

Hoskote added: “I well remember the day in the autumn of 2003, when Nancy [his wife, the curator and critic Nancy Adajania] and I were in a Turkish-owned grocery store on Schillerstrasse, off München Hauptbahnhof – we spent three months in Munich on a residency that year – and our eyes fell on a package of sliced turkey marked, in Roman script as Turkish is, of course, ‘Hindi’. We fell about laughing when we realised that this was, in fact, turkey – and into both our minds, simultaneously, there flashed the wonderful image of Mansur’s turkey, rendered for Jehangir, precisely the one that you are writing about. The circulations went around and across the way in multiple directions and along multiple lattices, through trade and diplomatic channels. Your theory is more than plausible.”

Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.

Corrections and clarifications: This article has been edited to include a citation to Neha Vermani’s essay “The turkey’s journey from the Atlantic to the early modern Islamic world” on the Folger Shakespeare Library site that had been omitted earlier. The error is regretted.