François Levaillant

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François Levaillant

François Levaillant (later in life as Le Vaillant, "The Valiant") (6 August 1753 – 22 November 1824) was a French author, explorer, naturalist, zoological collector, and noted ornithologist. He described many new species of birds based on collection he made in Africa and several birds are named after him. He was among the first to use colour plates for illustrating birds and opposed the use of binomial nomenclature introduced by Linnaeus, preferring instead to use descriptive French names such as the bateleur (meaning "tight-rope walker") for the distinctive African eagle.


François Le Vaillant was born in Paramaribo, the capital of Dutch Guiana (Surinam), the son of a wealthy French merchant from Metz who had taken up a position as the French Consul. Growing up amid forests, he took an interest in the local fauna, shooting birds. When his father returned to Europe, in 1763, he studied natural history at Metz. He spent about two years in Germany and seven years in the Lorraine region. In 1777, a visit to Paris allowed him to examine cabinets of natural history and his interest in ornithology was greatly increased.

Cape travels[edit]

Map of southern Africa made for Louis XVI (1790)

He was sent by Jacob Temminck through the Dutch East India Company to the Cape Province of South Africa in 1780,[1] and collected specimens there until July 1784[1] when he made his way back to Holland. He made three journeys, one around Cape Town and Saldanha Bay (April to August 1781), one eastwards from the Cape (December 1781 to c. October 1782) and the third north of the Orange River and into Great Namaqualand (June 1783 to c. May 1784).[1] Researchers have to some extent adjusted the dates supplied by Levaillant. During the first expedition his ship was attacked and sunk by the English leaving him with little more than a collecting gun and some money.

An illustrative map of his travels was published around 1790 for King Louis XVI. Measuring nine feet wide and six feet high, the map depicts the travels and the landscape met with. The cartographic elements of the map were made by Perrier with the insets of animals and landscapes by Van Leen. The birds were by Reinold. Sixty two pictures of fauna and flora were stuck onto the map. One of the animals depicted is the now extinct bluebuck.[2]

Return to Europe[edit]


On his return he published Voyage dans l'intérieur de l'Afrique (1790, 2 vols.), and Second voyage dans l'intérieur de l'Afrique (1796, 3 vols.), both of which were translated into several languages. He also published Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d'Afrique (1796–1808, 6 vols.) with drawings by Jacques Barraband, Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis (1801–06), Histoire naturelle des cotingas et des todiers (1804) and Histoire naturelle des calaos (1804). Levaillant’s illustrations often influenced scientific names given by, among others, Vieillot, Stephens and Wilkes.[3]

He was in Paris during the time of the French Revolution and was taken prisoner in 1793. He was however released after the overthrow of Robespierre after which he retired to an estate at La Noue, near Sézanne.[3] Le Vaillant died in poverty in La Noue, near Sézanne (Marne). Le Vaillant married thrice. He had ten children three of whom were illegitimate. He was a grand uncle of the French poet Charles Baudelaire.


Over 2,000 bird skins were sent to Jacob Temminck, who had financed the expedition, and these were later studied by his son Coenraad Jacob Temminck and included in the collection of the museum at Leiden. Other specimens were kept in the cabinet of Joan Raye, heer van Breukelerwaert. This collection was bought by the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie in the late 1820s, which is now the Naturalis in Leiden.[4]

Traveller and ethnographer[edit]


As a traveller in Africa, Le Vaillant tended to describe the African people without prejudice. He shared Rousseau's idea of the "Noble savage" and condemnation of civilization. He described the beauty of Narina, a name that he used for a Khoekhoe woman in Gonaqua, after a flower, a somewhat unusual relationship that would become less socially acceptable in the later colonial period.[5] He was infatuated with Narina, and she stopped painting her body with ochre and charcoal and lived with Le Vaillant for many days. When he left, he gave her many presents but she was said to have sunk into deep melancholia. He named the Narina trogon after her. She was a precursor to Sarah Baartman the Hottentot venus.[6] He also perceived Dutch settlers in a negative way.[7] A brave experimenter, he allowed a Hottentot medicine man to diagnose him when he fell ill and wrote of the successful treatment and cure.[8] By travelling around southern Africa, observing the wild and reflecting upon himself and mankind, it has been claimed that Le Vaillant was the pioneer of a genre of travel writing while also inventing the idea of a wildlife "safari" although he did not use that word of Arabian origin.[9]


Illustration by Jacques Barraband for Le Vaillant's Histoire Naturelle des Perroquets

Le Vaillant was opposed to the systematic nomenclature introduced by Carl Linnaeus and only gave French names to the species that he discovered. Some of these are still in use as common names, such as bateleur, the French word for tightrope walker, for the way the bird moves its wing. Other naturalists were left to assign binomial names to his new discoveries, some of these commemorate his name:

Le Vaillant was among the first to consider the use of coloured plates of birds in his descriptions. He mounted his bird specimens, preserved with arsenic soap,[10] in lifelike positions and the illustrators showed them in near realistic poses. He ensured that the fiscal shrike was shown along with an insect impaled on thorn. His descriptions of bird behaviour were also considered to be pioneering. He used the name bateleur, French for tight-rope walker, for the distinctive African eagle Terathopius ecaudatus and the distinctive movements of the wing that the bird makes in the air are said to be much like the adjustment that a tight-rope walker would make with a balancing pole. He called the African fish eagle Vocifer for its distinctive and loud yelping calls made while throwing back its head. He was also the first to use musical annotation to describe bird song. A very careful observer of behaviour, he was among the first to notice that the rosy-faced lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis) nested within the nests of the sociable weaver (Philetairus socius). It has been suggested that he may well have been a major influence in the style and art of John James Audubon.[11][12]

An analysis of Le Vaillant's collections made by Carl Sundevall in 1857 identified ten birds that could not be assigned definitely to any species, ten that were fabricated from multiple species and fifty species that could not have come from the Cape region as claimed.[13]


Frontispiece from Voyage dans l'intérieur de l'Afrique
  • François Le Vaillant: Voyage de M. Le Vaillant dans l'Intérieur de l'Afrique par Le Cap de Bonne Espérance, dans Les années 1783, 84 & 85. Paris Leroy, 1790, 2 volumes.
  • François Levaillant: Second voyage dans l'intérieur de l'Afrique, par le Cap de Bonne-Espérance, dans les annees 1783, 84 et 85. Paris H.J. Jansen et Comp., An III (1795), 3 volumes. vol.1, vol. 2, vol 3
  • Histoire naturelle d'une partie d'oiseaux nouveaux et rares de l'Amérique et des Indes : ouvrage destiné par l'auteur à faire partie de son ornithologie d'Afrique. Paris 1801. 1. vol. [1]
  • Histoire naturelle des perroquets, Paris Levrault, Schoell & Cie, An IX-XII (1801–1805), 2 volumes. vol.1 Gallica Internet Archive, vol. 2 Gallica Internet Archive
  • Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis et des rolliers, suivie de celles des toucans et des barbus, Paris, Denné le jeune & Perlet, (1801–1806), 2 volumes. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
  • Histoire naturelle des promérops et des guêpiers (et des couroucous et touracos, faisant suite à celle des oiseaux de paradis), Paris Levrault, (1806) 1807, (1816 ou 1818) 3 volumes.
  • Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux d'Afrique. Paris, Delachaussee, XIII-1805-1808. 6 volumes (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
  • Partie Méridionale de l'Afrique depuis le Tropique du Capricorne jusqu'au Cap de Bonne Espérance contenant les Pays des Hottentots, des Cafres et de quelques autres Nations / dressée pour le Roi sur les observations de M. Le Vaillant par M. de Laborde, ancien premier valet de chambre du Roi, gouverneur du Louvre, l'un des Fermiers généraux de Sa Majesté (Map illustrating the travels of Le Vaillant)

in English translation:


  1. ^ a b c Rookmaaker, L. C. (1989). The zoological exploration of southern Africa, 1650-1790. Rotterdam: A. Balkema. p. 249. ISBN 9789061918677. 
  2. ^ Glenn, Ian (2007). "Francois Levaillant and the mapping of Southern Africa". Alternation. 14 (2): 25–39. 
  3. ^ a b Swainson, William (1833). "Memoir of Le Vaillant". In Jardine, William. The Naturalist's Library. Volume 12. Ornithology. Birds of Western Africa. Part 2. London: Henry G. Bohn. pp. 17–31. 
  4. ^ van den Hoek Ostende, Dekker & Keijl (1997-12-30), "Type-specimens of birds in the National Museum of Natural History, Leiden", NNM Tech. Bull., 1: 3–92, ISSN 1387-0211 
  5. ^ Huigen, Siegfried (2009). Knowledge and Colonialism: Eighteenth-Century Travellers in South Africa. Brill. pp. 119–145. 
  6. ^ Crais, Clifton C.; Scully, Pamela (2009). Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. Princeton University Press. 
  7. ^ Lloyd, David (2004). "François le Vaillant and the myth of the noble savage" (PDF). Scrutiny2. 9 (2): 53–62. doi:10.1080/18125441.2004.9684190. 
  8. ^ St. John, James Augustus (1832). The lives of celebrated travellers. Volume 3. New York: J. & J. Harper. pp. 262–326. 
  9. ^ Glenn, Ian (2005). "The man who invented safaris". New Contrast. 33 (2): 64–70. 
  10. ^ Rookmaaker, L. C.; Morris, P. A.; Glenn, I.; Mundy, P. J. (2006). "The Ornithological Cabinet of Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur and the Secret of the Arsenical Soap". Archives of Natural History. 33: 146–58. doi:10.3366/anh.2006.33.1.146. 
  11. ^ Glenn, Ian (2009). "Levaillant's Bird Books and the Origins of a Genre" (PDF). Alternation. 16 (2): 91–101. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 October 2013. 
  12. ^ Sclater, W.L. (1931). "François Le Vaillant, 1753–1824: an early French Ornithologist". Ibis. 73 (4): 645–649. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1931.tb08555.x. 
  13. ^ Sundevall, C.J. (1857). "Om le vaillant oiseaux d'Afrique. Kritisk framställning af fogelarterna uti äldre ornithologiska arbeten". Kongliga Svenska Vetenskaps-Akademiens Handlingar. 2 (3): 23–60. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Olsen, Penny (March 2009). "The independent ornithologist" (PDF). The National Library Magazine. 1 (1): 18–20. Retrieved 18 January 2011. 
  • Quinton, JC; Robinson, AM Lewin; Sellicks, PWM (1973). François Le Vaillant, Traveller in South Africa, and His Collection of 165 Water-colour Paintings, 1781-1784. Cape Town: Library of Parliament. 
  • Rookmaaker,, LC; Mundy, P; Glenn, I; Spary, E (2004). François Levaillant and the Birds of Africa. Johannesburg: Brenthurst Press. 

External links[edit]

Media related to François Levaillant at Wikimedia Commons