Explorers 5. Levaillant

I love reading about these early European explorers of Southern Africa, so I decided to write short sketches on some of them. Here’s my fifth, perhaps the most flamboyant and famous of the bunch. His accounts, like mine, may occasionally need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but his contributions were definitely huge. His main researcher – Ian Glenn, Levaillant expert – rates him highly as South Africa’s first explorer, first real ornithologist, first travel writer, anthropologist, humanitarian and first investigative reporter! That’s an impressive list – and all for soundly explained reasons. He might even have added accurate, talented cartographer too! Glenn lays the blame for his adverse reputation on Anglo-centric and Afrikaner-centric misunderstanding and mis-translation – some likely deliberate; certainly plenty of deliberately censoring some of his writing to leave out observations critical of European conduct and admiring of the Africans’ decency, knowledge and skills.

François Levaillant (1753-1824) – explorer, author, naturalist, and ornithologist extraordinaire was born in Paramaribo, the capital of Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) on the Atlantic coast. So he was the first fellow-colonist to write about exploring the Cape. My previous explorers were from old countries: Sweden, Scotland and Holland, but Levaillant was born in a colony and grew up in that freer society. His French father, originally from Metz in NE France, was a rich merchant and served as French Consul. His parents had a great interest in natural history, and the family frequently traveled to various parts of that beautiful South American Dutch colony.

As a youngster, Levaillant began collecting insects and caterpillars, which he arranged according to his own system. Later when he focused on birds he used a similar system to identify them, giving only appropriate and descriptive French names to species that he discovered and refusing to use the systematic nomenclature introduced by Carl Linnaeus. Some of the names he used remain in use today as common names for birds.

When Levaillant was twelve, his family left Dutch Guiana and traveled to Europe. They landed at the Netherlands and eventually went to Metz where Levaillant began to study the art of preserving animals. Prior to this time, Levaillant had dried and preserved the skins of birds, but in Metz he began to discover how taxidermy allowed birds to be stuffed so that they looked life-like.

Levaillant then spent about two years in Germany and about seven years in the Alsace and Lorraine regions near the French-German border. During that time, he not only killed immense numbers of birds but also spent an inordinate amount of time observing birds and animals. Dutch-speaking Levaillant now spoke three languages: The Dutch he grew up with fluently and his father’s French and now German very well.

Back in Paris he fondly remembered his time as a boy in the forests of Dutch Guiana and, deciding to obtain feathered inhabitants from unexplored regions of the earth, he left Paris for Amsterdam, where he became acquainted with Jacob Temminck, treasurer of the Dutch East India Company and also a collector of natural history objects. Levaillant examined Temminck’s impressive bird collection and aviary. From Amsterdam he embarked for the Cape of Good Hope.

He arrived in South Africa in March 1781 and described many new species of birds – several are named after him. Levaillant was one of the last people ever to see a Bloubok or Blue Antelope as one of his hunters killed one of the last ever recorded specimens near Swellendam. I wonder if he ate Blaauwbok steak? For birds he preferred to use descriptive French names such as ‘bateleur’ (meaning ‘tumbler or tight-rope walker’) for this distinctive African eagle, and ‘vocifer’ for the fish eagle, for its loud ringing call. A collage of his drawing of the bateleur and a photo of one flying make up the featured picture. For his books he was among the first to use colour plates for illustrating birds and wisely used much better artists than himself. Compare his bateleur to this toucan:

Read his description of just three cuckoos – of the 2000 birds he collected – and compare to any British explorers’ dry accounts:

– Levaillant’s Didric cuckoo call

I found a great many of the golden cuckoos described by Buffon under the name of the green-golden cuckoo of the Cape. This bird is undoubtedly the most beautiful of its species, for its plumage is enriched with white, green, and gold. Perched on the tops of large trees, it continually repeats, and with varied modulation, these syllables, di, di, didric, as distinctly as I have written them; for this reason I have named it the Didric.

– Levaillant’s Criard cuckoo call

I killed also several pretty birds; and among others . . a cuckoo which I named the Criard, because its (loud and) shrill cry may indeed be heard at a great distance; this cry, or, to express myself more correctly, this song, has no resemblance to that of our cuckoo in Europe, and its plumage also is entirely different.

– Levaillant’s Pit-Me-Wrou cuckoo call

Pit (Piet) having brought me the bird, which was a female, I ordered him to return instantly to the spot where he had killed it, not doubting that he would find the male; but he begged me to dispense with his services upon this occasion, as he durst not venture to fire at it. I however continued to insist upon his obeying; but what was my astonishment when I saw him with an affected air, and in a tone almost lamentable, declare that some misfortune would undoubtedly ensue; that he had scarcely killed the female, when the male began to pursue him with great fury, continually repeating Pit-me-wrou, Pit-me-wrou! The syllables it seems to pronounce are three Dutch words, which signify Peter my wife; and Pit imagines that the bird, calling him by his name, requested him to return his mate.

On his return he published Voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique (1790, 2 vols.), and Second voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique (1796, 3 vols.), both of which were best sellers across Europe, translated into several languages. He also published Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d’Afrique (1796–1808, 6 vols.) arguably the best bird book ever. Certainly the best at the time and for a long time after – available, if you can get it, at around R650 000.

Levaillant’s famous map (below) was almost 9ft wide by 6ft high. The geographical part of the map was designed by Perrier, the five inset drawings and the animals by Van-Leen and the birds by Reinold. His books were hugely popular – in part perhaps because he didn’t mind embellishing! He told a good story, and he himself was a good subject, never mind his pet baboon Kees! In his map Levaillant also portrays himself as having gone further east and north than in reality.

– in the middle of the King’s Map is Levaillant, nattily dressed and holding a rifle; Ian Glenn called this his ‘selfie’

On his way north Levaillant slept at the well-known ‘Heerenlogement’ or ‘Gentlemen’s lodging’, a cave or rock overhang, where he chiselled his name (‘F. Vailant’) into the rock. With its unfailing nearby spring, the wild but hospitable camp was so named by travellers along the old route through the Sandveld, about 300km north of the Cape of Good Hope in the direction of Namaqualand. Explorers, including Van der Stel, Thunberg, Masson, Zeyher and Paterson, camped on the level area below the rock-shelter. There are also faded paintings in red ochre made by San travelers many years before European vistors. From an overhead rock-crevice grows a gnarled wild fig, Ficus salicifolia var. cordata, which is probably the same hoary old tree described by Levaillant during his visit there in 1783.

Controversy: Fifty years later an analysis of Le Vaillant’s collections made by Sundevall identified ten birds that could not be assigned definitely to any species, ten that were fabricated from multiple species and fifty species that could not have come from the Cape region as claimed. His reputation has understandably suffered as a result of these errors (or fabrications? or was he misled?), but recent re-evaluations, such as by Peter Mundy and especially, Ian Glenn, have argued that he deserves the high reputation as the first great modern ornithologist, and as the father of African ornithology. Here’s his book, the first – or anyway best-to-date-by-far – book on African birds; Ahead of its time, it set trends followed to this day and was truly the ‘Bewick’ (1797), the ‘Audobon’ (1838) or the ‘Roberts’ (1940) of its day!

– Levaillant’s travel book and bird plates collage –
– le mangeur de serpents – ‘muncher of snakes’ –

Levaillant retired to a small property located at La Noue, near Sézanne. Persistent rumours had him ‘dying in poverty in an attic’ in 1824, aged 71. Ian Glenn’s research shows that though Levaillant may have been short of cash at times, he never lived in an attic and at his death he left a not in-substantial country estate to his heirs.


Almost everything written about Levaillant – especially in English – will have some errors, this post included! So the book to read if you really want to know about Levaillant is Ian Glenn’s The First Safari – jacana media (I’ve ordered mine from raru.co.za).

Later: It arrived! It’s wonderful! Twenty five years of researching this amazing and often misrepresented explorer led Ian Glenn to publishing a beautiful hard cover, dust-jacketed, old-fashioned, matt-paged (not glossy – yes!), real book full of fascinating findings. Do read it – there’s even a surprise 1781 Swanepoel in it! **


Some sources: http://www.vanriebeecksociety.co.za; wikipedia; http://www.pletthistory.org; http://www.somerset-east.co.za; http://www.francoislevaillant.com; http://www.bidsquare.com; Ian Glenn; Levaillant’s book on african birds; http://www.geriwalton.com; Levaillant was alright; http://www.capeorchids.co.za/history.htm; cuckoo calls: xeno-canto.org; https://www.geni.com/people/Johannes-Swanepoel/6000000001873039608#;


** When le Vaillant arrived at the Cape the local ‘magistrate’ gave him an experienced local guide to show him around. As I have repeatedly said in this amateur ‘explorer’ series of mine, none of these explorers would have achieved much had they not had local guides. This chosen guide had experience – he had acted as guide in 1776 for a Mr Swellengrebel, son of a Cape Governor, but he now happened to be in prison, sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a lady. And yet he was released – it does seem temporarily – in 1781 to show the young le Vaillant around. Why?

Turns out le Vaillant had connections in high places; and the prisoner had ‘only’ killed a Hottentot lady. The name of the lucky prisoner who got a furlough from his life sentence: Swanepoel.



  1. Jon Taylor says:

    Viva Levaillant


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