London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Of the Street-Sellers of Foreign Birds.
THIS trade is curious, but far from extensive as regards street-sale. There is, moreover, contrary to what might be expected, a good deal of "duffing" about it. The "duffer" in English birds disguises them so that they shall look like foreigners; the duffer in what are unquestionably foreign birds disguises them that they may look foreign—more Indian than in the Indies.
The word "Duffer," I may mention, appears to be connected with the German , to want, to be needy, and so to mean literally a needy or indigent man, even as the word has the same origin—being derived from the German , and the Dutch —a beggar. The verb means also to dare, to be so bold as to do; hence, to , or , would signify to resort to any impudent trick.
The supply of parrots, paroquets, cockatoos, Java sparrows, or St. Helena birds, is not in the regular way of consignment from a merchant abroad to in London. The commanders and mates of merchant vessels bring over large quantities; and often enough the seamen are allowed to bring parrots or cockatoos in the homewardbound ship from the Indies or the African coast, or from other tropical countries, either to beguile the tedium of the voyage, for presents to their friends, or, as in some cases, for sale on their reaching an English port. More, I am assured, although statistics are hardly possible on such a subject, are brought to London, and perhaps by -, than to all the other ports of Great collectively. Even on board the vessels of the royal navy, the importation of parrots used to be allowed as a sort of boon to the seamen. I was told by an old naval officer that once, after a long detention on the west coast of Africa, his ship was ordered home, and, as an acknowledgment of the good behaviour of his men, he permitted them to bring parrots, cockatoos, or any foreign birds, home with them, not limiting the number, but of course under the inspection of the petty officers, that there might be no violation of the cleanliness which always distinguishes a vessel of war. Along the African coast, to the southward of Sierra Leone, the men were not allowed to land, both on account of the unhealthiness of the shores, and of the surf, which rendered landing highly dangerous, a danger, however, which the seamen would not have scrupled to brave, and recklessly enough, for any impulse of the minute. As if by instinct, however, the natives seemed to know what was wanted, for they came off from the shores in their light canoes, which danced like feathers on the surf, and brought boat-loads of birds; these the seamen bought of them, or possessed themselves of in the way of barter.
Before the ship took her final departure, however, she was reported as utterly uninhabitable below, from the incessant din and clamour: "We might as well have a pack of women aboard, sir," was the ungallant remark of of the petty officers to his commander. Orders were then given that the parrots, &c., should be "thinned," so that there might not be such an unceasing noise. This was accordingly done. How many were set at liberty and made for the shore—for the seamen in this instance did not kill them for their skins, as is not unfrequently the case—the commander did not know. He could but conjecture; and he conjectured that something like a were released; and even after that, and after the mortality which takes place among these birds in the course of a long voyage, a very great number were brought to Plymouth. Of these, again, a great number were sent or conveyed under the care of the sailors to London, when the ship was paid off. The same officer endeavoured on this voyage to bring home some very large pine-apples, which flavoured, and most deliciously, parts of the ship when she had been a long time at sea; but every of them rotted, and had to be thrown overboard. He fell into the error, Captain—— said, of having the finest fruit selected for the experiment; an error which the Bahama merchants had avoided, and consequently they succeeded where he failed. How the sailors fed the parrots, my informant could hardly guess, but they brought a number of very fine birds to England, some of them with well-cultivated powers of speech.
This, as I shall show, is of the ways by which the London supply of parrots, &c., is obtained; but the permission, as to the importation of these brightly-feathered birds, is, I understand, rarely allowed at present to the seamen in the royal navy. The far greater supply, indeed more than per cent. of the whole of the birds imported, is from the merchant-service. I have already stated, on the very best authority, the motives which induce merchant-seamen to bring over parrots and cockatoos. That to bring them over is an inducement to some to engage in an African voyage is shown by the following statement, which was made to me, in the course of a long inquiry, published in my letters in the , concerning the condition of the merchant-seamen.
When the seamen have settled themselves after landing in England, they perhaps find that there is no room in their boarding-houses for their parrots; these birds are not admitted into the Sailors' Home; the seamen's friends are stocked with the birds, and look upon another parrot as but another intruder, an unwelcome pensioner. There remains but course—to sell the birds, and they are generally sold to a highly respectable man, Mr. M. Samuel, of Upper ; and it is from him, though not always directly, that the shopkeepers and street-sellers derive their stockin- trade. There is also a further motive for the disposal of parrots, paroquets, and cockatoos to a merchant. The seafaring owner of those really magnificent birds, perhaps, squanders his money, perhaps he gets "skinned" (stripped of his clothes and money from being hocussed, or tempted to helpless drunkenness), or he chooses to sell them, and he or his boarding-house keeper takes the birds to Mr. Samuel, and sells them for what he can get; but I heard from very intelligent seamen whom I met with in the course of my inquiry, and by mere chance, that Mr. Samuel's price was fair and his money sure, considering everything, for there is usually a qualification to every praise. It is certainly surprising, under these circumstances, that such numbers of these birds should thus be disposed of.
Parrots are as gladly, or more gladly, got rid of, in any manner, in different regions in the continents of Asia and America, than with us are even rats from a granary. Dr. Stanley, after speaking of the beauty of a flight of parrots, says:—"The husbandman who sees them hastening through the air, with loud and impatient screams, looks upon them with dismay and detestation, knowing that the produce of his labour and industry is in jeopardy, when visited by such a voracious multitude of pilferers, who, like the locusts of Egypt, desolate whole tracts of country by their unsparing ravages." A contrast with their harmlessness, in a gilded cage in the houses of the wealthy, with us! The destructiveness of these birds, is then, reason why seamen can obtain them so readily and cheaply, for the natives take pleasure in catching them; while as to plentifulness, the tropical regions teem with bird, as with insect and reptile, life.
Of parrots, paroquets, and cockatoos, there are imported to London in the way I have described, and in about equal proportions. They are sold, wholesale, from to each.
There are now only men selling these brilliant birds regularly in the streets, and in the fair way of trade; but there are sometimes as many as so engaged. The price given by a hawker for a cockatoo, &c., is or , and they are retailed at from to , or more, "if it can be got." The purchasers are the wealthier classes who can afford to indulge their tastes. Of late years, however, I am told, a parrot or a cockatoo seems to be considered indispensable to an inn (not a gin-palace), and the innkeepers have been among the best customers of the street parrotsellers. In the neighbourhood of the docks, and indeed along the whole river side below Londonbridge, it is almost impossible for a street-seller to dispose of a parrot to an innkeeper, or indeed to any , as they are supplied by the seamen. A parrot which has been taught to talk is worth from to , according to its proficiency in speech. About of these birds are sold yearly by the
|street-hawkers, at an outlay to the public of from to|
Java sparrows, from the East Indies, and from the Islands of the Archipelago, are brought to London, but considerable quantities die during the voyage and in this country; for, though hardy enough, not more than in survives being "taken off the paddy seed." About , however, are sold annually, in London, at each, but a very small proportion by street-hawking, as the Java sparrows are chiefly in demand for the aviaries of the rich in town and country. In some years not above may be sold in the streets; in others, as many as .
In St. Helena birds, known also as wax-bills and red-backs, there is a trade to the same extent, both as regards number and price; but the streetsale is perhaps per cent. lower.