On September 20, 1414, envoys from Bengal presented China’s Yong-le emperor­ (r. 1403-24) – the third ruler of the Ming dynasty – with a giraffe. The emperor was quite accustomed to such gifts from foreign lands: his collection included, among many others, a rhinoceros from Champa, bears from Siam, parrots and peacocks from Java and ostriches from Aden. A portion of the imperial grounds was demarcated to house these creatures.

But the giraffe of Bengal appears to have impressed the king so much that he had the reputed calligrapher and painter Shen Du (1357-1434) paint its picture. The long-necked ungulate was unlike anything the monarch or his courtiers had ever seen. Some Ming officials and writers – several of whom were not even particularly supportive of their ruler’s openness to foreigners – went so far as to compose poems in the giraffe’s praise and designated it as the legendary creature, qi-lin. The qi-lin as Cambridge University-based historian Sally Church explains “is somewhat like the ‘unicorn’ of the West – a mythical animal that from ancient times has been seen as an auspicious sign.” The giraffe from Bengal was clearly a sensation in China.

The history of animals as emissaries goes back to the earliest human empires. For centuries, rare animals have been valued as high-status gifts along with other luxury items. For instance, horses –several of which were included in the giraffe delivery as well – were viewed as superior gifts among Asian, African, and European kingdoms alike.

Our giraffe who had crossed the Indian Ocean at least twice – it had been brought to Bengal from East Africa – also seems to have been sent with the hope of serving a specific geopolitical purpose. According to Church, who has studied Shen Du’s painting and its context, foreign relations between Bengal and China were a recent occurrence in the early fifteenth century, a product in fact of Yong-le’s reign.

The Ming emperor had broken with tradition in encouraging diplomatic and tribute missions with other kingdoms primarily to encourage trade relations. His government even ran what Church calls a “taxi service” that transported “Chinese sailors, military officers, diplomats, doctors and service personnel, they also brought back to China…numerous foreign envoys who came to pay tribute to the emperor and to trade”. It was during his rule that the famous explorer, Zhen He (1371- c.1435), commanded six of the seven expeditions along various Indian Ocean coasts.

Tribute Giraffe with Attendant. Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This desire to encourage trade between the two regions motivated the Ming connections with Bengal’s then ruling Ilyas Shahi dynasty (1342-1415), specifically with Sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah, in the early fifteenth century. But for the Sultan’s son and heir Saifuddin Hamzah Shah – the man who presented the giraffe to Yong-le – the special gift carried the potential for gaining recognition from and establishing friendly relations with the powerful Chinese emperor in the hope of strengthening his own shaky domestic position after his father’s death in 1410.

In addition to forging diplomatic ties, animal-gifts also created excitement and wonderment about the creatures themselves and the places they came from. This was particularly true of the early modern era – 1450 to 1750 – when global connectedness increased more than ever before. Take for instance, the case of a rhinoceros that was brought from Gujarat in western India to Portugal in 1515, a hundred years after the giraffe went from eastern India to China. After travelling for 120 days across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, the rhino became the most celebrated animal of its time: crowds gathered to witness the sight when it arrived in Lisbon.

The single horned pachyderm was a gift from Sultan Muzaffar II (r. 1511-1526) of Gujarat to Goa’s first Portuguese governor, Alphonso d’Albuquerque as part of trade negotiations. Albuquerque, considered the founder of the Portuguese empire in India, in turn passed on the animal to his own patron, King Manuel I (r. 1495-1521).

An armoured rhino

The rhino from Gujarat met a sad demise but it was immortalised in German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) woodcut image of it. Dürer had not seen the beast himself; his woodcut print which depicts the rhinoceros as a creature covered in what appears to be armour plating rather than skin, an extra horn, and facial hair among other anomalistic features, was based on his imagination drawn from poems and sketches that had begun to circulate in western Europe very soon after the rhino’s arrival.

Neil McGregor, art historian and former Director of the British Museum, includes Dürer’s image – “one of the most famous images of Renaissance art” – in the Museum’s publication, A History of the World in 100 Objects. For McGregor, several crucial changes taking place in Europe in the early sixteenth century converge in the rhino’s journey and the popularity of Dürer’s portrayal. This was a time when Spain and Portugal had aspirations of future expansion in Asia. Improved navigation techniques made links with Asia a reality and along with that the amazing ability to transport a living being weighing something like two tons on a ship.

For those who were not lucky enough to have an in-person viewing, thanks to yet another new technology, wood-block printing, the image could be mass produced to widely satisfy the curiosity about the exotic creature. Dürer’s imaginary rhinoceros soon became a reality – the misrepresentation sold 4,000-5,000 copies during the artist’s lifetime – and it was considered the animal’s most popular representation until the eighteenth century.

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

Animal gifting exchange to further diplomatic goals, followed by greater public curiosity in the age of mass printing, leads us into an era that is most familiar to us today: that of scientific interest in the natural world. In India, this is represented most closely by the third Mughal emperor, Nuruddin Jahangir (r.1605-1624). Jahangir was what one might term a naturalist of some dedication, and a well-rounded one at that: not only did he have a deep interest in flora and fauna of all kinds but also a sharp aesthetic sensibility.

He combined the two preoccupations by having the artists in his court paint the creatures’ likeness to accompany his observations in his memoir, the Jahangirnama: “The astonishment one has at hearing of them would increase by seeing them,” he claimed.

Jahangir’s interest in nature and natural phenomena was part of his wider passion for collecting all things exotic. However, it is clear from the Jahangirnama that the natural world held a particular draw for the emperor. His agents tapped into the local and Indian Ocean networks to acquire extraordinary birds and animals. One particularly capacious source were the Portuguese who had been well-ensconced on India’s western coast for a century by the time that Jahangir took over the Mughal throne in 1605. It was from their base in Goa that the Portuguese maintained access to the various routes that connected the diverse shores of the Indian Ocean and their links to Europe.

Purchasing rarities

An entry from March 1612 in the Jahangirnama is an instance of how the Mughal emperor went about acquiring things: he had stationed an official named Muqarrab Khan at Goa specifically to conduct business transitions with the Portuguese as well as “to purchase any rarities he could get hold of for the royal treasury…Without consideration for cost, he paid any price the Franks asked for whatever rarities he could locate.” One well known acquisition from Muqarrab Khan’s efforts was a North American turkey – “larger in body than a peahen and significantly smaller than a peacock”.

Jahangir’s fascination with exotic animals, or the natural world more generally, did not stop at mere royal collection. He was a keen observer and an exceptional notetaker. Jahangir’s memoir is replete with minute details. Be it the birth of a baby elephant or the description of a wagtail’s nest; a snake’s body expanding upon eating a rabbit; or a zebra brought to the court most likely from Africa (“a wild ass…for all the world exactly like a tiger…but this one was black and white”), nothing escaped the emperor’s eye or pen.

Anyone who reads the memoir will be struck by the five consecutive entries from June to September 1618 where he reports in painstaking details on a pair of saras cranes named Laila and Majnun (think crane cam!) – right from their mating habits, the laying and hatching of eggs, and care of the chicks. Jahangir is in fact celebrated by ornithologists as his bird-descriptions – including one of the earliest painted studies of the now extinct Mauritian dodo – hold a place of prominence in the account.

A painting depicting the dodo ascribed to Ustad Mansur dated to the period 1628-'33. Credit: Ustad Mansur, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jahangir’s scientific curiosity deserves more recognition not just because of his intricate reporting but also because he is one of the few who took the early steps towards observational experiments. It is easy to envision that he would have enjoyed a conversation with his contemporary, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the English statesman and philosopher who is renowned for his then-unconventional ideas on the study of nature through systematic observation.

For instance, curious about the quality of air in various places, Jahangir had sheep skinned and hung up in two different towns in Gujarat to monitor how quickly they would rot. On one occasion, when he found himself in possession of two male markhor goats, and since no females of the species were available, Jahangir had them crossbred with Barbary goats from Arabia. The kid goats thus produced delighted him so much that he asked for them to always be kept nearby and even named each of them.

Another example, and one that is even closer to the definition of an experiment, comes from the end of his reign when he received the gift of a lion who seemed amicably attached to a goat. Struck by the situation’s unusualness, he had the goat removed from the lion’s presence, only to find that “the lion cried out and showed great distress”. Then Jahangir had another similar looking goat and an ox brought before the lion but the previously affable feline tore them to pieces. The beast’s calm and happiness were restored only when the first goat, its buddy, had been returned to its presence. “Never before had any animal, tame or wild, been seen that kissed its mate,” the entry in the memoir recounts.

One can imagine how the increased global exchange of animals among aristocrats, their public display, and then popular fame through early technologies of mass reproduction, set the stage for even greater interest in the study of the natural world. While when Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, first appeared in November 1859, it may have been hard for the lay public to engage with his radical theory of natural selection, the question the title implied: where do the bewildering variety of creatures – the giraffes, the rhinos, the turkeys and dodos – come from, would have been utterly clear to many.

Aparna Kapadia is a historian of South Asia at Williams College in the US. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.