- Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris
Louise E. Robbins’ Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris is difficult to classify. As its subtitle suggests, it is a history of the exotic (i.e., non-native species) animals in eighteenth-century Paris, which ranged from the famous rhinocerous, elephants, and zebra in the Royal Menagerie (open to the public) at Versailles through the rather moth-eaten lions and tigers of the animal shows at fairs and on the boulevards to the hundreds of monkeys, parrots, parakeets and songbirds kept as household pets. [End Page 1069] Despite the latter, it is not a book like Katherine Kete’s The Beast in the Boudoir1 primarily concerned with the psychology of pet-keeping; Robbins’ exclusion of domestic animals like dogs and cats precludes that. Nor, despite Robbins’ history of science training and her careful delineation of the craze for natural history in the period (a craze which prompted nobles to maintain private menageries, fashionable Parisiennes to attend scientific lectures and the reading public to make Buffon’s encyclopedic six-volume Histoire naturelle a best seller) is it, like Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World,2 a history of man’s changing relationship to his natural environment. Instead it is, simply but surprisingly, a solid contribution to the vast field of the history of the political culture of eighteenth-century France and the cultural causes of the French Revolution. Robbins convincingly shows that, then as now, people often endowed animals with human thoughts and emotions and used them as metaphors when thinking and writing about their own society. She argues that such animal metaphors were at the centers of the complex discourses about consumerism, luxury, colonialism and empire, slavery, human rights, democracy and despotism which dominated the cultural history of the period.
But this is cultural history with a difference, cultural history as it should be—that is, with a solid underpinning of traditional social history research. Robbins never forgets that her animals were living breathing beings before they were centers of discourse. Therefore she traces how they came to Paris, who sold them, who bought them, and how Parisians reacted to them and interacted with them. Her most difficult task was discovering how the animals got to France. The journeys of the inmates of the Royal Menagerie are well documented; Robbins quotes letters tracing the futile attempts of the hapless French Consul at the Cape of Good Hope to fulfill his orders to find and transport to Paris a mate for the king’s zebra. But it is less clear how the thousands of pet monkeys, parrots, and parakeets came to France. Robbins plausibly argues that they were cargoes in the Triangle Trade like slaves and sugar. In Africa and the Caribbean ships took on monkeys and exotic birds both as official (although often unrecorded) cargo and as the purchases of individual sailors hoping to resell them profitably in France. As with slaves, few animals survived the voyage. Those who made it to Paris were supposed to be sold by members of the Oiseleur’s Guild, which theoretically had a monopoly on exotic fauna. But Robbins uses guild records to show that, as with other new popular consumer goods like stockings and umbrellas, the guild with the legal monopoly could not meet the demand, and numerous illegal distribution networks sprang up. Robbins also makes effective use of newspapers. They enable her to describe the animal shows and animal combats of the fairs and boulevards which exposed Parisians to large exotic beasts like lions and tigers. They also allow her to trace, through an ingenious analysis of advertisements for lost pets, how far down on the social scale exotic pet ownership went. The answer is, quite far, at least to the level of prosperous artisans. A hatmaker and a button-maker were among those who advertised for their missing pets.
Despite these social history aspects of her work, Robbins is...