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‘The Tahiti Sandpiper is my Night Watch’'

In 1800, French explorer Nicolas Baudin led an important scientific expedition to Tenerife, Mauritius, Australia, Timor and South Africa. He returned with hundreds of exotic bird species. PhD candidate Justin Jansen reconstructed this ‘catch’ in a weighty book and talked to us about the wonderful finds.

‘It’s not a book to sit and read from cover to cover,’,laughs Jansen (43). His dissertation, a hefty tome the weight of three packs of sugar is lying on the table in front of him. It wasn’t meant to be a regular book for that matter. Jansen set the goal of finding out as many as possible of the bird species collected by Baudin during his expedition, and he succeeded: no fewer than 1,055 birds adorn the nearly 700 pages of Jansen’s dissertation, from ground parrot to fairy wren.

The collection is scattered

Baudin and his colleagues also brought back with them a number of birds that were then unknown to European scientists. Jansen: ‘These birds are in a way prototypes that can be compared to later finds, to see if they belong to the same species. I have described 180 of these types of specimens in my book, and have even corrected a number of inaccuracies. In Naturalis, the Black-faced Woodswallow was said to be a type specimen. However, it appeared that three other birds were in Paris and Edinburgh.’

Rembrandt's masterpiece

For a number of stuffed birds, it wasn’t clear that they came from the Baudin expedition. By linking a bird to Baudin, you add a lot of historical and financial value to an object. ‘It’s like a signature on a masterpiece by Rembrandt,’ says Jansen. ‘Suddenly you know who the painter is and what the historical context of the object is. As with a Rembrandt, you see the expert touch: the way in which a bird is stuffed two hundred years ago gives away its maker. The best taxidermists are true artists. The extinct Tahiti Sandpiper in Naturalis is my Night Watch.’

For his dissertation, Jansen literally followed in the footsteps of Baudin and his birds. He travelled to places where expedition members went ashore; he visited museums that exhibited or stored Baudin birds in Le Havre, Edinburgh, Vienna and London. The external PhD candidate combined all this with his busy job at the Dutch Rijkswaterstaat, where he is Data Manager for  technical documentation on tunnels and other large infrastructural projects. ‘I did it but it  took  a lot of self-discipline. It was extremely tough, and I won’t be doing it again! Now I should spend some time with my girlfriend.’

Who was Nicolas Baudin?

Nicolas-Thomas Baudin (1754 – 1803) was a French explorer, cartographer, biologist and hydrologist. After a career in the French army, he initially went on scientific expeditions with Austrian ships. In 1792, he commanded a ship himself for the first time: with the Jardiniere he sailed to the Indian Ocean and China. The French expedition of 1800-1804 – about which Jansen writes in his dissertation – was primarily meant to map the coast of New Holland (present Australia). There were many other scientists on board the Géographe and the Naturaliste,  including biologists, astronomers and climatologists. Baudin died in 1803 on Mauritius, before the ship returned to France.

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