Explorer, naturalist, and ornithologist extraordinaire François Levaillant was born on 6 August 1753 in Paramaribo, the capital of Dutch Guiana (Surinam). His father, originally from Metz, was a rich merchant and served as French Consul. His parents had a great interest in collecting objects related to natural history, and because of their interest, they frequently traveled to various parts of the colony taking him with them.
Initially, Levaillant began collecting insects and caterpillars. By the age of ten, he had a collection, which he arranged according to his own system in order to identify insects. Later when he focused on birds and used a similar system to identify them, giving only French names to species that he discovered and refusing to use the systematic nomenclature introduced by Carl Linnaeus. Thus, some of the names he used remain in use today as common names for birds.
In 1765, 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.
In order to obtain birds, Levaillant eventually spent about two years in Germany and about seven years in the Alsace and Lorraine region. During that time, he not only killed immense numbers of birds but also spent an inordinate amount of time observing birds and animals. He sometimes spent all day and all night observing them. In addition, by this time, Levaillant spoke three languages: Dutch fluently and German and French very well.
In 1777, he arrived in Paris. He was initially interested in the wide array of colorful of birds that he discovered there. However, he soon found merely cataloging and classifying the skins and skeletons of birds, was repulsive. He also found many inaccuracies by closet spectators. For that reason, and because he fondly remembered his time as a boy in the forests of Dutch Guiana, he decided to obtain feathered inhabitants from unexplored regions of the earth and left Paris in July 1780.
In Amsterdam, Levaillant became acquainted with Jacob Temminck. Temminck was the treasurer of the Dutch East India Company and also a collector of natural history objects. Levaillant examined Temminck’s impressive bird collection and aviary. It was during this time that he also prepared for his expedition and then embarked in December 1780 for the Cape of Good Hope. He arrived at the Cape in March of 1781.
While at the Cape, Levaillant made comments about the awfulness of his surroundings. These comments were summed up by another historian:
“Though a large proportion of the houses were spacious and handsome, the streets, in spite of their great breadth, appeared disagreeable even to a Frenchman, on account of the badness of the pavement, and the stench which everywhere offended the nostrils, arising from the heads, feet, and intestine of slaughtered animals which the butchers of the company were in the habit of casting forth in heaps before their doors, and which, … the authorities allowed to putrefy upon the spot. The effluvia proceeding from these abominations Le Vaillant with reason regarded as one of the active causes of those epidemics which usually prevailed in the city during those season in which the violent south-east wind had not blown. While this cleansing wind was performing its operations, the streets were almost rendered impassable.”
Levaillant stayed at the Cape until July of 1781 when war broke out between England and Holland. Dutch vessels at the Cape were then ordered to go to Saldanha Bay so that the British could not find them. Levaillant requested permission to go with them to Saldanha Bay. Soon after his arrival there a rather interesting event happened when he was invited on a hunting trip.
The area where the hunting party went was rich with partridges, hare, and small game, such as gazelle. Levaillant and his hunting party had been unsuccessful all day, but near the end of the day Levaillant thought he might bag something. He had become separated from his companions, and while hunting, he fired his gun at intervals hoping to arousing game. It worked because at one point, he startled a gazelle. His dog immediately pursued the gazelle as it bound out of sight into a thicket, but stopped in its track at the thicket and began to ferociously bark.
Levaillant thought for sure he had the gazelle cornered. He hurried to the spot expecting to see the gazelle, but there was none and he became impatient and began beating the bushes. Suddenly, Levaillant found himself face-to-face with a panther “whose glaring eyes were fixed upon him, while its outstretched neck, gaping jaws, and low, hollow growl seemed to announce its intention of springing.” Levaillant thought all was lost, but his courageous dog saved his life by keeping the panther at bay, until Levaillant could retreat from the thicket and run away.
Although Levaillant escaped the panther, the next thing that happened was not so fortunate. The British detected the Dutch vessels in Saldanha Bay, and a British squadron under Commodore George Johnstone, seized five ships on 21 July 1781. The captain of the sixth ship that Levaillant was aboard immediately ordered the ship be blown up so that it did not fall into British hands, and, in the process, Levaillant lost all his property. Fortunately, however, the Boers obtained everything Levaillant needed for his expedition, and they also did everything in their power to promote his expedition.
Besides traveling between April and August of 1781 in and around Cape Town and Saldanha Bay, Levaillant undertook two additional expeditions. The first trip was eastwards from the Cape to the country of Caffres beginning in December 1781 and lasting until October 1782. His next expedition was north past the Orange River and into Great Namaqualand and lasted from June 1783 to May 1784. He then traveled to Europe on 14 July 1784 and returned to Paris in 1785.
Upon his return to Europe, Levaillant began to immediately prepare his journals for publication. He then published the two-volume Voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique in 1790 and the three-volume Second voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique in 1796 covering his time in Africa. One person wrote:
“[T]he history of his travels is essentially a truthful book. It is a sincere faithful record of his impressions, of things in the light in which he viewed them; and the author delineates himself so unreservedly and so unconsciously in his eagerness, buoyancy, enterprise, vanity, warmth of affection, and unregulated enthusiasm, that it is easy to estimate the colouring effects of the medium through which all objects are viewed. There is a graphic power and life in Levaillant’s descriptions, that give all his writings the charm of romance.”
Some of Levaillant’s books were also created while the French Revolution raged, and, in 1793, Levaillant was unable to escape the effects of the revolution and was arrested. Fortunately, however, he, similar to many others, was released when Maximilien Robespierre was overthrown and the Terror ended. After the revolution Levaillant wrote the Natural History of Parrots (1801-1805), the Natural History of Birds of Paradise (1801-1806), the Natural History of Contingas (1805), and the Natural History of Calaos (1804). His ornithological books described the appearance and habits of birds and also detailed his adventures while pursuing them. Levaillant also retired to a small property located at La Noue, near Sézanne, and it was there that he died in poverty some thirty years later on 22 November 1824.
- St. John, James Augustus, The Lives of Celebrated Travellers, Volume 3, 1859
- The English Cyclopædia, Volume 6, 1858