All creatures great and small

One of the best things about research in the archives at the RHS Lindley Library is that you never know what you will find or where it will take you

Looking through the Garden Committee minute books from the 1820s recently, one word leapt out at me, sparking a hunt for information that has taken me well away from my usual horticultural haunts. That word was ‘eagle’.

Among routine references to plants acquired and gardeners hired, the minutes for the Garden Committee meeting of 2 June 1823 state: "Captain Sabine’s offer of the Eagle brought by him from Maraham be accepted and that a proper place be proposed for the bird." Edward Sabine was the younger brother of Joseph Sabine, the Secretary of the Horticultural Society. He was a keen astronomer, geophysicist, ornithologist, explorer and soldier who regularly sent plants back to the Society from his travels.

Research has revealed that the eagle in question was a male Harpy Eagle, which was fortunate as the female of the species is twice as large and fierce as the male. The Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja) is the most powerful raptor to be found in the Americas and is one of the largest eagles in the world. It inhabits tropical lowland rainforests in Central and South America.

Our eagle was presented along with a vulture to Edward Sabine in 1822 by Robert Hesketh, the British consul in the town of Muranham (spelt in a variety of different ways) on the banks of the Amazon in Brazil. Edward Sabine was travelling on board HMS Pheasant making measurements with a pendulum with the aim of establishing the exact shape of the earth. He was accompanied by the Society’s plant hunter George Don and it was the custom on reaching port to seek out British ex-patriots to receive information and support to help them collect specimens to send home. Robert Hesketh appears to have been a particularly useful contact. In the RHS Lindley Library, we keep a collection of letters which Edward wrote to Joseph during his travels and on 3 September 1822 he wrote: "He has presented me with a Royal Vulture and a splendid Eagle both (chiefly the latter) rare and extremely interesting species. I hope we shall bring them home safely."

New York city limits

By the end of November 1822, the ship with its strange cargo had moved onto the Gulf of Florida from where Edward writes: "The birds are quite well as yet. The Eagle not so strong as at first but in good health. I shall endeavour to land him at New York to stretch his limits." Unfortunately, none of the letters tells us how Edward managed to exercise an eagle in New York, which by 1823 was a sizeable city with a population of about 150,000 people. It does seem that Edward was fond of the bird, saying: "It has become extremely tame and gentle." This appears to be a little over-optimistic as a later account tells us that the eagle killed the vulture at some point on the homeward journey!

Upon arrival in London in June 1823, the Horticultural Society decided to keep the eagle in the Ornamental Experimental Department of its Chiswick Garden. This was where new plant introductions were kept and it was possibly felt to be a suitably exotic location for a bird from the rainforests of Brazil. It was to be housed in a wooden cage with ‘a wire circular front’, which was designed by Joseph Sabine. After that point, there is no further reference to the eagle in the records of the Horticultural Society so we do not know which member of staff looked after it, how well it fared or even whether it was given a name. Heaven knows what the garden staff made of the bird. The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge includes a description of the bird emphasising the ferocity of the species' "strength sufficient to split a man’s skull with a single blow". Rather alarmingly it recounts that "after arrival, a cat was put into its cage and the eagle with one blow of its immense foot, broke its back".

In the wild, Harpy Eagles eat sloths and monkeys. Hopefully, the Chiswick gardeners did not persist with the diet of live cats. They probably had a reasonably ready supply of rats, mice and squirrels on which to feed the bird.

Finding a new home

The poor Harpy Eagle was not a universally popular attraction in the Chiswick Garden. The Gardeners Magazine published a report on the garden in April 1827 which spoke disparagingly of the eagle among other "objects of luxury" which were "all very good in their way, but most improper as main objects" for a garden.

On 31 August 1829, the Horticultural Society presented the eagle to the Zoological Society of London to join its new zoo in Regent’s Park which had opened the previous year. Perhaps the gardeners finally rebelled at the idea of entering the cage to feed him. The motivation for parting with the eagle may also have been financial. In late 1826 the Society was found to be the victim of embezzlement by its Assistant Secretary and overspending across the board had resulted in serious levels of debt. In response, wide-ranging cutbacks were made including cutting the wages of gardeners and eventually even selling off plants. In this context, a large hungry bird was a luxury that had to go.

We know that the eagle survived at London Zoo until at least 1837, the date of the entry in the Penny Cyclopaedia which describes it as still very much alive and includes an illustration. The Harpy Eagle was not the Horticultural Society’s only experiment in keeping exotic creatures. There is also the sad tale of the giant snail – but that is another story.

With thanks to Michael Palmer, Archivist of the Zoological Society of London

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