The peculiar bird spotted by a ship sailing towards India in 1700

The East India Company ship Martha under Captain Thomas Raynes (or Raines) set sail from England in April 1700, destined for Bombay. It zig-zagged across the globe on the prevailing winds, via the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, and Bahia de Todos os Santos (All Saints’ Bay) on the Brazilian coast, before heading towards Southern Africa, across to Sumatra, and then onwards to India. By January 1701, the ship had reached the Malabar coast, sailing to Bombay via Cochin, Karwar and Goa. After reaching Bombay, the Martha made a journey to the port of Gombroon (Bander Abbas), before heading back to Bombay and then on to Surat.

Title page of Samuel Goodman’s journal. Credit: British Library (IOR/L/MAR/A/CXLVI)

India Office Records and Private Papers holds the journal of this latter part of the Martha’s voyage, written by mate Samuel Goodman. It is a daily account of the voyage, mostly detailing navigational information, and wind, weather and sea conditions – if you were on a sailing ship in the early 18th century, this is what you would expect to be occupying the mind of the ship’s senior crew. The text is interspersed with an occasional sketch of the coastline as seen from the ship.

Page from Goodman’s journal showing sketches of the coastline around the Cape. Credit: British Library (IOR/L/MAR/A/CXLVI, f.38v)

But on the morning of Sunday (‘Soonday’) October 27, 1700, having not long left the Cape of Good Hope, heading towards India, Goodman observed something that must have been so out of the ordinary that he choose to record it in detail. He came across a group of peculiar birds – black and white creatures with fins and no visible legs, with a yellow streak on their heads. He even made a sketch of one of the birds and captioned it the “Sea Duck”.

Entry from the Journal of the Martha for October 27, 1700, with a sketch of the ‘Sea Duck’. Credit: British Library (IOR/L/MAR/A/CXLVI, f.43v)

Goodman wrote: “I saw beetwene 15 and 16 fishes or fowells ass it may bee termed, the[y] Came close too the ships side, the[y] had A head and neck And A yallow bill like A Duck And Ass well formed Ass A land fowel Is, And A bodey ass bigg Ass A midling Duck two fins like A turtell, butt A fishes tayle Ass you may see by the figer the[y] lay a pretty while upon the surface of the Watter Soe thatt I had A full vew And Saw them oute of the watter as the[y] playd too and froo: and one particuler thing I Observed Ass the[y] Came Close to the side the would stare you in the face: the[y] had all of them too yallow strakes upon there heds, the back parte wass blacke And the belley all White butt had Noe Leggs: wee Could not distinguish them from A Blacke duck butt by the fishes tayle and There finns.”

Sketch of the ‘Sea Duck’. Credit: British Library (IOR/L/MAR/A/CXLVI, f.43v)

So what animal did Samuel Goodman see playing in the waters off the Cape? His physical description of the birds, as well as the description of their behaviour, lead us to believe that Goodman’s “Sea Duck” wasn’t a duck at all , but actually penguins.

This article first appeared on the British Library’s Untold Lives Blog.

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