The turkey’s journey from the Atlantic to the early modern Islamic world

In the year 1612, Jahangir, the fourth emperor of the South Asian Islamic-Mughal dynasty, was presented with a bird he had never seen or heard of before—the turkey.

But it wasn’t known by that name yet. In fact, turkeys (native to the Americas) would be called many different names as they passed through early modern trade networks, highlighting the ways in which commodities, ideas, words, and people floated freely.

Jahangir’s turkey was among the rarities that Muqurrab Khan, a high-ranking Mughal official, had purchased for the emperor from Portuguese traders at port city of Goa, located on India’s western coast.

The Portuguese, along with the Spanish, operated trading operations in the Indian and Atlantic oceans. Their cargoes carried exquisite goods –gemstones, spices, fruits, vegetables, textiles, and animals – from and to the ‘new’ world (North and South America), Southeast Asia, and South Asia.

The details of the miniature painting (shown above), commissioned on the occasion of Muqurrab Khan’s return to Jahangir’s court, make it amply evident that Jahangir, penning the following description in his memoirs, the Tuzuk-i Jahangiri, was lavishing attention on the turkey. He writes:

“One of the animals was larger in body than a peahen and significantly smaller than a peacock. Sometimes when it displays itself during mating it spreads its tail and its other feathers like a peacock and dances. Its beak and legs are like a rooster’s. Its head, neck, and wattle constantly change color. When it is mating, they are as red as can be—you’d think it had all been set with coral. After a while these same places become white and look like cotton. Sometimes they look turquoise. It keeps changing color like a chameleon. The piece of flesh it has on its head resembles a cock’s comb. The strange part about it is that when it is mating, the piece of flesh hangs down a span from its head like an elephant’s trunk, but then when it pulls it up it stands erect a distance of two fingers like a rhinoceros’ horn. The area around its eyes is always turquoise-colored and never changes. Its feathers appear to be of different colors, unlike a peacock’s feathers.”

These enthralling features lend themselves to multiple appellations in the Persian language that was used across the Islamic world. As the turkey travelled to these courts in the 17th century, it was variously called Feil Murgh (Elephant-Chicken), Murgh-i Marjon (Coral Chicken), and the most evocative of them all, Buqalmun. The term buqalmun, short for abuqalamun, Arabicized from the Greek Hupokálamon, originally corresponded to a type of cloth that was made in Greece and which reflected various colors when posed at different angles to sunlight. Consequently, in classical Persian poetry, buqalamun was figuratively used in the sense of a multi-coloured spread.

Ironically, in Turkish, the official language of the Ottoman court, the bird that would eventually come to bear the common name “turkey” was referred to as fi diyar na hind tavagu i.e., chicken of the land of India. This information appears in a 16th-century Ottoman text that was a thrice-removed translation of Columbus’s 1492 expedition to Haiti (Hispaniola) – Tarih-i Hind-i Garbi (A History of the India of West). Neither the anonymous author of this text nor any of his Ottoman or Safavid and Mughal peers had ever traveled to these “new” lands that Columbus, in his quest to find a faster route to India, had mistakenly reached and christened as “New” or “West” India.

Columbus brought back from Haiti for the king of Barcelona a bird “whose flesh was more delicious than the flesh of a peacock”—gallipavos. While the provenance of the Spanish word gallipavos (literally meaning chicken-peacock) for the turkey can be traced to the Swiss naturalist Conard Genser, the geographic confusion arising out of Columbus’s expedition to “New” or “West” India resulted in European names for the bird that suggested “Indian” affiliation.

The French traveler Tavernier described the introduction of the turkey that he calls poulet d’Indes (“Indies chicken”) into the Safavid territories, which he visited between 1632 and 1668. He noted that the first “India chickens” he saw in Europe were brought from the West Indies by the Dutch, who took the bird first to Holland and then to other European countries. The Armenians of Jolfa, Isfahan (in present-day Iran), who went to Venice for trade then brought these turkeys to the Safavid territories.

Italian records of the new world also seem to have served as the foundation for the Ottoman text Tarih. As historian Thomas D. Goodrich notes, the author of Tarih was assisted in his endeavor by a Spanish person who knew Italian, for while the text is based on Italian accounts, some proper names in Turkish are transliterations of Spanish rather than Italian pronunciations. Such a collaboration does not sound outlandish because by 1580 there were a number of refugees from Spain in Istanbul, both Muslims and Jews, and Italian was commonly known in the Mediterranean world. Therefore, it is not surprising that the first time the author of Tarih mentions the bird, he does so by transliterating the Spanish word gallipavos and subsequently referring it as the chicken of India.

It was only in 1755 that lexicographer Samuel Johnson described the bird in his dictionary of English language as “A large domestick fowl brought from Turkey”. However, as the celebrated French historian Fernand Braudel has cautioned us, Turkey during this period did not refer to the present-day country but roughly to the Muslim Mediterranean and African world that was an active entrepôt for exchange and further movement of Atlantic goods across the globe.

The 16th-century Ottomans, unaware of the misleading future association of the bird’s origin with their regions, drew all their information about the turkey from Tarih. Reproducing Columbus’s encounter with gallipavos, Tarih says:

“There is a kind of hen that has no feather at its throat and in appearance of its flesh seems red, but when it sees a man it takes on various colorings. On a place near its breast something like a black kutas (a cluster of bristles) hangs. On its bill is a superfluous piece of flesh that it lengthens or shortens. Its flesh is quite tasty.”

The 18th-century Persian translation of the Tarih carries a painting whose inscription reads:

“There is a graceful bird which they call gallipavos, whose flesh is tastier than the peacock’s.”

wild turkey
Depiction of wild turkey in the 18th-century Persian translation of the 16th-century Ottoman Tarih. Folio 6v, MS Accession no. 1985.270, the Edwin Binney, 3rd Collection of Turkish Art at the Harvard Art Museum.

While none of the aristocratic cookbooks produced under the aegis of Mughals, Safavids, and Ottomans mention use of the turkey for culinary purposes, this inscription underscores that European gastronomical experiences with turkey were being recycled in the Islamicate world.

Jahangir ordered his court painter, Mansur, to draw the turkey’s likeness so that “the astonishment one has at hearing of them would increase by seeing them”. Contrary to his usual style of depicting animals in their natural surroundings, Mansur painted the turkey on a clear background without any elements of nature or the Indian environment, emphasizing the turkey’s foreignness.

domesticated turkey
Mansur’s painting of a domesticated turkey, ca. 1612, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This visual sense of exotica aligns with Jahangir’s demand for rarities. However, this demand was not based on the whimsies of an oriental despotic ruler keen on adornment of his court with expensive artifacts. It was rooted in an intellectual landscape where the act of collecting objects from across the globe – knowing and amassing knowledge about the world and thus, metaphorically conquering it – added heft to the claims of universal leadership that undergirded the Mughal concept of sovereignty.

The presence of the turkey in the Mughal menagerie signifies the need to look beyond early modern Europe as the sole center devoted to collection of global artifacts. The early-modern South Asian courts looked at the west as the land of unknown mysteries, in need of cataloguing, as much as they became the object of its patronizing gaze in the centuries to come.

The turkey’s journey from the Americas to Europe and Asia highlights complicated processes of knowledge production, prodding us to suspend west-centric frameworks of imagining world history. What’s in a name? Quite a lot, in the case of the turkey.

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