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Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 62 [39]

The First Kangaroos in Europe

An 1812 print depicting Joseph Banks as President of the Royal Society

I should begin by saying I have rather stumbled into this post after reading some correspondence between the middle-aged, overweight and very powerful Joseph Banks, in the earliest years of the nineteenth century, and a friend who was urging him to send a pair of live kangaroos to Napoleon, at that point First Consul of France, as a placating gift.

What must it have been like, I found myself wondering, for live kangaroos to undertake – not that they had any choice about it – such a journey, from Port Jackson to London? The voyage at that time could take up to twelve months. How and where were they housed while on board? What were they fed? Surely there was no way they could have grass, in any form. How did they survive? The mortality rate among convicts on the Second Fleet (1789-90) was so high (36% on one of the ships) that it’s come to be called the Death Fleet. How could it be any better for non-human prisoners?

The first kangaroos in Europe (in which, contra Brexit, I am including Great Britain) arrived either as skin and bones (only and quite literally) or pickled in barrels. Their stories, and the stories of the earliest live arrivals in the years that followed, are sad but intriguing.


Banks, who was 25 when he set out on the Endeavour with Captain Cook, returned to London with the skull and skin of a kangaroo shot at Endeavour River in what would eventually be Queensland. It was these, and a number of sketches made by Sydney Parkinson (who had died during the voyage), that (the skin stuffed) formed the basis of the famous first painting of a kangaroo by the renowned horse painter George Stubbs, a painting attributed with having profoundly influenced England’s early image of the kangaroo.


The next kangaroos to arrive in England – there was no other opportunity – did so with the returning First Fleet in 1789. Banks, who had done so much to make that fleet happen, had hoped to receive a live kangaroo or two, but things in the colony had been too chaotic for that to be organised. By the sounds of it a few more skins arrived, and presumably some bones, and a pickled roo or two. A receipt for a set of ‘natural history curiosities’ sent to Banks by Captain Arthur Phillip listed:


1 Can containing a Stuffed Kangurroo & Several Skins

1 Keg of Gum, 1 Keg containing a Young Kanguroo, and the Fox Bat in Spirits

1 Case Bottle of plants in Spirits of Wine

4 Cases of Seeds & Plants

1 Small Box of Gum


The curious ‘CUNQUROO … being the first that was ever brought to Britain’ exhibited in Edinburgh in 1790 by one Alexander Weir, a taxidermist, was no doubt reconstituted from ingredients such as these. So too, most likely, the kangaroo given by Banks, as long promised, to an old French acquaintance, Pierre Broussonet, in July 1789, though John Simons (in his Kangaroo, Reaktion, 2013) seems to think otherwise and speculates on the creature’s fate, arriving as it would have ‘only a few days before the storming of the Bastille’ (94).


Kangaroos, in any case, and in any form, became highly sought after acquisitions and live arrivals wouldn’t necessarily have been recorded, though one can’t see live survivors not leaving a trace. It’s possible that is to say, that a first live arrival came with the returning First Fleet – I find this very unlikely, and very hard to establish – but more likely he/she/they came with the returning ships of the Second Fleet, though they’d have to have spent some time in China on the way, picking up tea.


In November 1791, a live kangaroo was exhibited in London, at the then rather exorbitant admission price of one shilling. A visitor to the exhibition later annotated the flyer, to the effect that the animal involved died ‘in 1796 or 1799’. A heroic survivor. What was his/her life like? ‘Was it’, John Simons asks, ‘one of the kangaroos living on Banks’ estate at Revesby’ (143)?


By the end of the century, a decade later, Banks seems to have acquired – and distributed – more than a handful of specimens. By 1793 there were kangaroos, for example, ‘in the royal menagerie at Windsor Great Park’ (145), and in Queen Charlotte’s collection at Kew Gardens.


Banks did not send kangaroos to Napoleon, though Napoleon and Josephine, fascinated by things Australian, nevertheless managed to get some anyway, the first of them the only survivor of three returning on the ill-fated (for Baudin) expedition of Nicholas Baudin of 1800-1803. (The expedition turned back early ‘because the quadrupeds and emus were very sick’: Baudin himself died at Mauritius on the way.)


Baudin had been commissioned to collect two of every animal species he could. The ships teemed with his specimens. Some officers and crew were forced to give up their cabins to the animals. That any of the animals survived at all is quite extraordinary. All the way the kangaroos were fed, as were all the other unfortunate specimens, on bread soaked in wine.


In France, under Josephine’s care, the black swans apparently thrived; the kangaroos, on the other hand, – the first, and those given to Josephine afterward – did not do so well.

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