Chicken Geographies & Histories (Animals of the RGS Fieldnotes I)

My work in the Royal Geographical Society archives attend to animals as geographical subjects in four ways: as collaborators, labourers, in conflict, and in mapping. You might assume chickens would fall easily into these categories as in conflict or labourers, but the archives reveal that, similarly to today, chickens hold more than what meets the eye.

All images in this blog post are copyright of the Royal Geographical Society.

#AnimalsRGS: Chicken Histories

The “father of natural history studies,” Ulisse Aldrovandi contemplated the chicken as “a fascinating totality, an integral part of that ordered world in which man and chicken both flourish, and both, in their own ways, worshipped the Supreme Master of the Universe. Aldrovandi shows up several times in the RGS archives. In the excerpt from Joannis Janssonii Novus Atlas, 1656-1658, Aldrovandi’s contributions to fish are noted in the part: “the wonder of the sea and its use” (figure 1). Aldrovandi is also cited on English puffins in the “Italian avifauna” by Enrico Hillyer Giglioli, Monographs, 1907 (figure 2), connecting the Puffin Anglorum colony that Italian Professor Giacomo Cecconi found in the Tremiti islands in the Adriatic with the ‘incomparable’ Aldrovandi’s Ornithology on their naming. His book Ornithology (1599) lends its name to several birds in the Danubius Fannonico (figure 3). Ornithology and geography are explicitly entangled in the histories of exploration and mapping of the world, especially in tropical and exotic species around the world. It is chickens (and their eggs), however, that remain the ‘premier model organism of science,’ from Darwin’s theory of evolution to contemporary genome sequencing (NIH, 2004). In this blog, the chickens’ presence in the archive is explored as ubiquitous, featuring in images across the world and how this has made them unworthy of sustained attention. Nonetheless, chickens and fowl appear in the archives as sustenance, both physically and spiritually for geographical exploration.

Figure 1: excerpt from Joannis Janssonii Novus Atlas Sive Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Inquc Tabulâe and Descriptious Omnium Regionum Totius Universi Accuratissime Exhibentur in Quinque Tomos Districtus. ©Royal Geographical Society.
Figure 2: excerpt from Avifauna Italica. Nuovo Elenco Sistematico Delle Specie Di Uccelli Stazionare, Di Passaggio O Di Accidentale Comparsa in Italia. ©Royal Geographical Society.
Figure 3: excerpt from Danubius Fannonico – Mysicus. Observalconübus, Geographicc’s, Astronomicc’s, Hydrographicc’s, Historicc’s, Physicc’s Perlustratus. ©Royal Geographical Society.

“Follow the chicken and find the world”

Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, 2008.

The red junglefowl, which is the primary ancestor of domestic chickens (along with grey junglefowl, Sri Lankan junglefowl, and green junglefowl), is a tropical bird which ranges across much of Southeast Asia and South Asia. The contemporary chicken – gallus gallus domestics – is a global bird. First through cockfighting, then through showing, and finally for meat and eggs, “the chicken crossed the world because we took it with us” (Andrew Lawler, How the Chicken Crossed the World, 2016). In 2019, the global numbers of chickens totalled around 25.9 billion, living across every country except Vatican City and every continent except Antarctica.

Chickens have a long history integrated with human society and development. Chickens were domesticated in India around 3000 BC and it is likely that northern China was also one of several regions of chicken domestication as early as 10,000 years ago (Xiang et al., 2014, 17564) in ‘one of the earliest mixed agricultural complexes in the world.’ In the fourth century BC, Egypt was home to ‘a mass society which mastered the technology of large-scale [egg] incubation … undoubtedly there was a relationship between the huge labor force and the organization and mass production of food’ (Smith and Daniel, 1975, 14). Incubators were built of clay brick over fires adjusted by attendants who turned eggs and maintained the correct heat, allowing for ten or fifteen thousand eggs to be incubated at once.  

Chickens have also held great importance in folklore through their history. For example, Easter Islands chickens were small birds with long legs and their feathers were used in ornamentation and decoration, as well as in magic and religious rituals (Smith and Daniel, 1975). The hen and the cock have also been ‘highly potent sexual symbols’ (ibid). The aforementioned Aldrovandi wrote in the opening of his volume on chickens: ‘no proof is required, for it is clear to all, how much benefit the cock and his wives provide for the human race. They furnish food for both humans who are well and those who are ill and rally those who are almost dead’ (Aldrovandi on Chickens, 1600). Cockfighting as a global sport saw Asiatic breeds exported to the USA and bred to produce new hybrid fighters. By the turn of the twentieth century, hundreds of years of breeding knowledge led to more invasive experimentation with chickens and their eggs.

In this blog post, I have searched the Royal Geographical Society’s archives for chickens and this blog thus traces chickens as food, in the marketplace, and as landscapes.

Chickens as food

In his ‘Diary of A Shooting Expedition from Calcutta to England,’ Alfred Ezra (“Chips”) documented his shooting expedition in Central Asia in 1902, published by Hugh Carless in 1911. Coincidentally, perhaps, Chips was a British breeder and keeper of birds, keeping a collection of rare birds in southern England after moving there in 1912, an interest he developed during his childhood in India. He kept hummingbirds, sunbirds, and parakeets as well as the last pair of pink-headed ducks, writing for the Avicultural Magazine. Zoological connections might well have been in his blood, as his brother kept a private zoo in Calcutta. In this 1902 diary, Chips (photograph in figure 4) documented his trip through the Pamirs and Turkestan from Calcutta to India and Hugh Carless, whose 1962 letter is included at the head of the diary, described his admiration at ‘the way in which he [Chips] refused to give a place in his journal – as he might easily have done and so many people do – to complaints.’ Yet, in looking for animals, there was one element of the diary that did raise complaints: the lack of chickens to eat (see figures 4 to 7).

Figure 4: Chips – Ezra, Alfred. 1853–1971. “A Shooting Expedition from Calcutta to England via the Pamirs and Turkestan.” ©Royal Geographical Society.
Figure 5a:Ezra, Alfred. 1853–1971. “A Shooting Expedition from Calcutta to England via the Pamirs and Turkestan.” ©Royal Geographical Society.
Figure 5b: Ezra, Alfred. 1853–1971. “A Shooting Expedition from Calcutta to England via the Pamirs and Turkestan.” ©Royal Geographical Society.
Figure 6: Ezra, Alfred. 1853–1971. “A Shooting Expedition from Calcutta to England via the Pamirs and Turkestan.” ©Royal Geographical Society.
Figure 7: Ezra, Alfred. 1853–1971. “A Shooting Expedition from Calcutta to England via the Pamirs and Turkestan.” ©Royal Geographical Society.

I chose to include Chips’ diary excerpts here to show how explicit desires for particular foods are, and how these are connected to comfort and pleasure during low points of expedition. His diary shows that eating chicken stayed on his mind. When he was denied this bodily pleasure, his distaste for the food he did have was obvious: “Another miserable day and I wonder how much longer this will last. Have been living on mutton for over a month now, and I have not tasted a chicken, an egg or even a potato all that time. I hate mutton but how much worse it will taste now without any Worcestershire sauce or pickles the last bottles of which we finished yesterday. What would I not give for a decent meal now” (21st July, Monday). These visceral experiences of expeditions reveal the intimacies and desires between humans and the animals they eat, attaching cultural and comfortable values to them.

Chickens are not only food for those on expeditions, though, and in the descriptions of other cultural practices of eating, there are revealing insights into how the treatment and eating of the chicken reveals these differences even in a shared animal. In The Marsh Arab, the peoples living in ‘the traditional site of the Garden of Eden’ practices are described. In one part, the multispecies space of sleep is described: ‘On the smaller and more remote of these mounds, or ishans, the Arabs bury their dead; on the larger ones they build their rude huts of mats woven by themselves from the reeds; on the rush-strewn and miry floor sleep women, children, buffaloes, and chickens.’

Figure 8: O’Connor, Marian. No Date/1946. “Persia (Iran & Iraq).” ©Royal Geographical Society.
Figure 9: O’Connor, Marian. No Date/1946. “Persia (Iran & Iraq).” ©Royal Geographical Society.

In the next document in the Persia (Iran & Iraq) photo album, Lady Drower’s lecture Marsh People of South ‘Iraq (1946), is printed. A few pages in, she describes the hospitality of the shaikh on her travels, once again featuring chicken practices marking out difference: ‘The procedure offered plenty of opportunity for talk and discussion of the war, which at the moment is just what I wanted. On arrival one is offered a glass of very sweet tea and cigarettes in the guest-hut, and it is not until a guest is actually seated that preparations are made for a meal. The sheep and chickens which are waiting are only killed then. The have to be skinned or plucked and then cooked … it is anything from three to four hours before the meal is ready, and somehow, even then, it often manages to be rather cold.’

Chickens in the marketplace

While photographs of donkeys, sheep, buffalo and other animals and people are common, the chicken has almost totally escaped the camera lens in this album. There are just two photographs of chicken sellers attesting to the place of chickens in Iraq and Persia.

Figure 10: O’Connor, Marian. No Date/1946. “Persia (Iran & Iraq).” ©Royal Geographical Society.

Yet, we know chickens have been an important source of food for the last 10,000 years at least. Elsewhere in the archive, the chicken takes centre stage in documenting the marketplace. In figure 11, from the Harry Johnston photographs collection, ‘market women’ in Barbados (1908) are taking chickens to market. They are carrying chickens in both baskets and their arms, presumably on their way to sell these chickens. In figure 12, again from the Harry Johnston photographs collection (1908), a ‘Haitian peasant’ is pictured looking into the camera and holding a chicken in his arms. Where the man and his chicken are headed is unclear, but these two images are the first I found that held humans and chickens together in the camera lens. The priorities of the documentarian behind the lens might lead us to ask why chickens are foregrounded in these marketplaces where elsewhere, they make up part of the landscape.

Figure 11: Johnston, Harry. 1908. “Market Women.” ©Royal Geographical Society.
Figure 12: Johnston, Harry. 1908. “Haitian Peasant.” ©Royal Geographical Society.

The poultry or chicken dealer is also a global figure, and this is evidenced through some of the spaces and times of chicken dealers documented in the RGS archives. In figure 13, Japanese poultry dealers are photographed with what seems to be poultry cages carried on their backs, that can also be set down on the ground. This photograph stands alone in the HE Charlesworth photographs collection, but elsewhere we can learn that chickens’ place in Japanese culture has changed drastically. The oldest written records suggest chickens were introduced from China in the 700s, but chicken bones dated to 300BC have been found in the country. Chicken was not widely eaten, however, until the 1860’s (around 40 years before this photograph) and prior to this they were kept as pets. This led to 17 government-designated varieties of Japanese chicken, including the chabo or Japanese bantam, the Yokohama chicken, and the Ko Shamo, revealing connections between national identity, local histories, and chickens.  

Figure 13: Charlesworth, E. H. 1904. “Japanese Poultry Dealers.” ©Royal Geographical Society.

Geographer Alice Hovorka wrote in her article Women/chickens vs cattle/men (GeoForum, 2012), that the contemporary relationship between humans and chickens is gendered, where ‘emerging urban and commercial agriculture spaces in contemporary Botswana … empower women and chickens through increased access to land and productive activities, and increased visibility, status and value.’ These histories of chickens allow us insights into the different people and spaces, as well as their relations, bound up in keeping, and trading, chickens. In the picture below, from the undated CW Ward Lantern Slides on China, Burma, Indo-China, Malay Peninsula, Siam and Sumatra, Chinese chicken sellers are pictured in Bangkok. Again, the chickens themselves are not immediately visible in this image, being inside the baskets next to the sellers. The image seems to capture a transaction between sellers in the foreground, as well as another seller seated in the background. While the picture is undated, it is still named ‘Siam,’ thus putting the image pre-1939, when Phibun changed the name to Thailand, as part of his ‘determination to bring his people into the modern world and at the same time to emphasise their unique identity. It was an anti-Chinese move with the slogan ‘Thailand for the Thai’. There were many Chinese in the country and many prosperous Chinese businesses, but Phibun cut down immigration from China and government-backed Thai businesses were set up’ (Richard Cavendish, 2014).

Figure 14: Ward, W. C. No Date. “China, Burma, Indo-China, Malay Peninsula, Siam and Sumatra.” ©Royal Geographical Society.

The final image included in this section is not a photograph, but a painting titled ‘Indians of the plain of Bogota taking poultry to market,’ dated 1833. This image portrays a man and a woman carrying a baby, on the way to market across hills. On the man’s back is a chicken. Chicken keeping and poultry trading has been documented for hundreds of years in the geographical archives, across countries and continents. Yet, that gaze seems not to have turned back on Western sites of chicken life.  

Figure 15: Groot, H. J. 1833. “Indians of the Plain of Bogota Taking Poultry to Market.” ©Royal Geographical Society.

In this section, the chicken itself has moved to the front in images of markets, trading, and economic life, as a commodity but also as an integral and globally recognised figure in more-than-human societies. In the next set of images, I look at chickens in the background or as part of the landscape in various objects from the archives.

Chickens as landscape

In figure 16, a photograph taken in 1932, in the CJ Morris collection, is said to show a method of storing Maize at Massiang (Cameroon). In the background are hills, the middle ground is a man sitting on a fence behind a hut, which is presumably where maize would be stored. In the bottom right of the image is a chicken, to the front of the hut. While clearly not the subject of the photograph, this chicken’s presence is similar to many other places that chickens pop up in the archive.

Figure 16: A method of storing maize at Massiang. C. J. Morris ©Royal Geographical Society.

Chickens are, I know from experience, pretty difficult to direct out of their paths, and to ask not to come into particular areas. They are also flighty, and likely would not take kindly to photographers picking them out of their shots. In figure 17, it is similarly doubtful that the photographer meant to capture a white chicken in their photograph of the ‘oldest inhabitant of Galle,’ a tortoise belonging to a Dutch governor. In figure 18, the chickens are deliberately included in the image but still manage to disrupt it. Three Lisu women in Burma are pictured, two holding chickens, and all three talking and looking away from the camera. Both chickens have their rears to the air, looking to nestle their heads under the arms of the women holding them.

Figure 17: The oldest inhabitant of Galle (this tortoise belonged to a Dutch Governor and is supposed to be 140 years old). F. Sternberg ©Royal Geographical Society.
Figure 18: Lisu women, Burma. Frank Kingdon-Ward. ©Royal Geographical Society.

In some of the photographs I have been through, I have been surprised by the absence of chickens more so than I have by their presence As I opened this blog with, the chicken is an extraordinary but ubiquitous bird. They have become not only part of the landscape but, in contemporary Western societies, have been removed even from this (see Morin, 2018). The historical geographical gaze does not attend necessarily to the ordinary or the taken for granted other-than-human world. Reports of chickens the world over were unlikely to be praised or even taken seriously, for we have ourselves as a human population moved this bird over the world for centuries. The archive is, of course, limited by the interests and attentions of those who created it and, aside from these few documents, a relatively mundane bird was never going to feature heavily in the archives. And yet, the chicken and its relative the junglefowl’s omnipresence might also be experienced in another way: as a connective thread between here and there.   

Figure 19: Journey round Siam. L. Darwin, George N. Curzon, J. S. Black, Journal Manuscripts ©Royal Geographical Society.

In figure 19, above, a quote from JS Black’s 1893 Journey round Siam mentions the sounds of junglefowl in the morning: ‘It was a pleasure to paddle along smoothly for a space and revel in quietly enjoy the ever changing aspects of this delightful mountain and river scenery. Inhabitants were almost entirely wanting, and every morning I was awakened by the crowing of jungle fowl, the calling of wild peacock, or the loud prolonged and intensely mournful howling of monkeys.” Whether these calls reminded him of chicken or not, we cannot know, but certainly the world over people living near to chickens and fowl would attest to the effects of their soundscape.

Chickens Histories

These photographs and images show a brief insight into how chickens have featured as food, comfort, commodities, and landscape in the geographical archives. In my wider research interests I am interested in contemporary chickens and their place in human cultures, economies, and societies. In a recent interview, I learned about The Poultry Club of Great Britain, which ‘exists to safeguard the interests of all pure and traditional breeds of poultry including chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and their eggs.’ Within the poultry club, there are specific breed societies for many bird breeds, as well as a society for ‘rare poultry breeds.’ In preserving specific breeds, there is a push to preserve and protect British breeds such as Sussexes, Dorkings, and Buff Orpingtons, to name but a few.

The history of many chicken breeds in Britain can be traced indirectly back to Queen Victoria who in 1842 built along with Prince Albert an aviary to house chickens at Home Park, east of Windsor Castle. Their fascination with chickens grew and began to attract public attention, leading to “hen fever.” As Emelyn Rude wrote for the National Geographic (2015): ‘the young monarch was incredibly fond of her royal menagerie, a collection of exotic birds and beast that was constantly being refilled by her brave British explorers returning from their adventures abroad. In 1842, her biological assemblage was blessed with a gift of seven exotic chickens from the Far East known as Cochin China Fowl.’ This hen fever led to an explosion in breeding and exchanging bird breeds, a “fever” which quickly spread across the Atlantic to the USA (see George P Burnham’s The History of the Hen Fever, 1855).

1948’s Chicken of Tomorrow contest in the USA marked the contemporary turning point towards massification of chicken keeping, taking chickens out of the frame and behind closed doors entirely. Organised by the USDA and backed by supermarkets and major poultry and egg organisation, it aimed at breeding a “better” chicken. As Maryn McKenna reported in 2018 on this strange historical event: ‘Creating better poultry varieties had been a goal for decades, but maintaining reliable crosses had been challenging. Farmers distrusted crosses, worrying they would be sickly and not breed true, so most of the aspirants to the Chicken of Tomorrow contest competed by tuning up pure breeds that they were already raising. In the final stage of the contest, only eight of the 40 contestants entered birds crossbred from the historic standard breeds.’ The winner, Charles Vantress, created a red hybrid from the New Hampshire and a strain of Cornish, recognisable to those familiar with today’s hybrids.

This hybridisation didn’t just change chickens, and the chicken industry, but also the associations with particular breeds of chicken and identity. The focus on production and growth moved the great majority of chicken breeding away from preserving breeds and onto capitalising on meat and eggs, leading to many breeds dying or almost dying out. From Chilean araucanas to Chinese silkies and cochins, to the classic British breeds, French marans, to Indonesian ayam cemanis, the diversity of chicken breeds is astounding, and hold the echo of the global story of chickens. Thinking geographical history from the perspective of the chicken has proven difficult, however, due to their banality. Nonetheless, the archives reveal that in their ubiquity, the chicken cannot be erased even when they are ignored.

References

Figure 1: “Joannis Janssonii Novus Atlas Sive Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Inquc Tabulâe and Descriptious Omnium Regionum Totius Universi Accuratissime Exhibentur in Quinque Tomos Districtus.” Atlases, 1656–1658, http://WDAgo.com/s/32775c45. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Accessed 29 Mar. 2021

Figure 2: Giglioli, Hillyer Enrico. 1907. “Avifauna Italica. Nuovo Elenco Sistematico Delle Specie Di Uccelli Stazionare, Di Passaggio O Di Accidentale Comparsa in Italia. (Ministero Di Agricoltura, … ).” Monographs. Col Tipi Dello Stab. Tipografico S. Giuseppe. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). 1907. http://WDAgo.com/s/66eae357. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Figure 3: “Danubius Fannonico – Mysicus. Observalconübus, Geographicc’s, Astronomicc’s, Hydrographicc’s, Historicc’s, Physicc’s Perlustratus… (6 Vols. in 3) Ab. Aloysio Ferd. Com. Marsili.” 1726. Atlases. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). 1726. http://WDAgo.com/s/09194708. Accessed March 30, 2021

Figure 4-7: Ezra, Alfred. 1853–1971. “A Shooting Expedition from Calcutta to England via the Pamirs and Turkestan.” Albums. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). January 1, 1853–October 13, 1971. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Figure 8-10: O’Connor, Marian. No Date/1946. “Persia (Iran & Iraq).” Albums. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). No Date. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Figure 11: Johnston, Harry. 1908. “Market Women.” RGS Images Online. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). January 1, 1908. http://WDAgo.com/s/d696335b. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Figure 12: Johnston, Harry. 1908. “Haitian Peasant.” RGS Images Online. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). January 1, 1908. http://WDAgo.com/s/6a2b3299. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Figure 13: Charlesworth, E. H. 1904. “Japanese Poultry Dealers.” RGS Images Online. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). January 1, 1904. http://WDAgo.com/s/0d7687fa. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Figure 14: Ward, W. C. No Date. “China, Burma, Indo-China, Malay Peninsula, Siam and Sumatra.” Lantern Slides. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). No Date. http://WDAgo.com/s/b9e5664e. Accessed March 30, 2021.

Figure 15: Groot, H. J. 1833. “Indians of the Plain of Bogota Taking Poultry to Market.” RGS Images Online. Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). January 1, 1833. http://WDAgo.com/s/7cdd43f6. Accessed March 30, 2021

Figure 16: A method of storing maize at Massiang. C. J. Morris, RGS Images Online, 1/1/1932. Source: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) https://app.wileydigitalarchives.com/wiley/detail/RGSPFA005-C0001-MA002641

Figure 17: The oldest inhabitant of Galle (this tortoise belonged to a Dutch Governor and is supposed to be 140 years old). F. Sternberg, RGS Images Online, 01/01/1903. Source: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) https://app.wileydigitalarchives.com/wiley/detail/RGSPFA005-C0001-MA002325

Figure 18: Lisu women, Burma. Frank Kingdon-Ward, RGS Images Online, 12/1/1938. Source: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) https://app.wileydigitalarchives.com/wiley/detail/RGSPFA005-C0001-MA008380 accessed March 30, 2021

Figure 19: Journey round Siam. L. Darwin, George N. Curzon, J. S. Black, Journal Manuscripts, February 17, 1893. Source: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) https://app.wileydigitalarchives.com/wiley/detail/RGSCFA001-C0008-MA000086

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