The Boy and The Bird

Portrait of white woman in a gown, a young African boy, and a parrot showing multispecies friendship.

In the 1720s, the Polish Duchess Tekla Róża Radziwiłł sat for a portrait. The French artist Louis de Silvestre, who served in the courts in Warsaw and Dresden, painted Tekla, who herself was a member of a high-ranking family in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Depictions of Black retainers “offering fruits and flowers to high-ranking pink-cheeked beauties,” as art historian Elizabeth McGrath put it, were the rage. Paintings like this one, depicting the Duchess being served by an enslaved African boy, were fashionable. Sometimes, there was an animal. A few times, it was a bird. In Tekla’s portrait, it was a gray parrot with red feathers. With its white eye patch, this one looks like an African grey (Psittacus erithacus).

This painting becomes witness to the connected trauma of both species taken from their homeland, where they knew each other and shared an ecology.

The arrangement on this canvas commemorates European domination over both African creatures, but the colors signify the exoticism of the African human. Pale Tekla and her white dress are in the center, with a flower in her left hand. The boy, who looks to be about ten years old, wears a vaguely Oriental costume. Like other Black servants (and like some dogs) in these paintings, he wears a silver collar. He appears in a lower position, on Tekla’s left, holding grapes.

Seated on Tekla’s right hand is a gray parrot with red feathers. Behind the boy is a gray-blue background, referring to the parrot’s coloring. The bird is lowering its head towards the boy. A scarlet backdrop opposite the boy echoes the red of his costume. The bird, the background behind the boy, and Tekla as the white center are cooler than the African human. He is all fire and otherness. If plantation slavery put humans on the level of beasts of burden, here a pet is elevated and treasured, with an African positioned beneath it.

De Silvestre was the leading painter in the Polish-Saxon court of Augustus II and Augustus III. Judging from published catalogues of his work, he only rarely included enslaved Africans or birds in paintings. For some reason, he memorialized Tekla with both. Paintings of women and parrots usually showed them looking at or touching each other, but Tekla is distant from both the boy and the parrot.

The viewer’s eye soon leaves her to note the interaction between an African boy and bird. Even as the boy offers the requisite grapes to the mistress, he focuses entirely on the animal. The bird reaches its head towards the boy for a scratch, not Tekla, who appears isolated in the center of her own portrait.

Closeup of African boy's face with tear streak.
What appears to be a tear streak on the boy’s face. Louis de Silvestre, ca. 1720.

Extraordinarily, at least on the digital version of the painting, the boy’s cheek shows the tracks of a tear. As far as I could learn, a crying Black subject is unique in this genre of portraits. If we take the posture and emotional expression of the bird and boy at face value, this image shows two fellow travelers from Africa, alienated from the society that held them captive, looking to each other for a type of multispecies friendship.

“Fashionable” Images or Complex Individuals?

We know nothing about this boy as an individual, but we do know about others in his circumstances. Known in German as Kammermohren, or chamber Moors, Africans in central Europe lived as unfree household servants. They did not labor on plantations; their work was to perform comportment and reflect their owner’s wealth and beneficence. As an adult, one without a patron might become impoverished, though they’d been educated, as Anton Wilhelm Amo was; or might marry, as Franz Wilhelm Yonga did. This was non-Atlantic slavery in the Atlantic era. Yet, despite their distance from the Atlantic, they were slaves, and were the only kind who could become slaves because of their race.

We also cannot know anything about the bird as an individual. But we know the species. They are smart and compulsively social flock creatures. When isolated from other parrots, they approach their human captors with social behaviors that evolved in the forest: calling, imitating, preening, and asking to be touched and admired. This bird, with its head inclined for scratching, is in the signature pose of avian friendship. However, the colors are misplaced. A grey parrot has a red tail. This bird’s red feathers are on the wings. The misplaced red feathers suggest that there was no actual parrot at the sitting, but that de Silvestre conjured it from memory. Perhaps he knew from studying other depictions to paint it with the head down, hoping for touch.

African grey parrot sitting on a tree branch.
African grey parrots have red feathers on their tails, not their wings, as the portrait depicts. Mahmud Ahsan, 2021.

There are reasons to doubt this reading of the painting. Maybe the boy’s tear is a coincidental flaw on the reproduction. Maybe de Silvestre deliberately painted a tear, but as a sentimental flourish—a condescending nod to an enslaved person’s nostalgia for Africa and a commentary on the impossibility of assimilation. Maybe the boy, the parrot, or both were not even physically present. Children had particular value as social currency and he may have been added as a prop. Years later, the Radziwiłłs family did acquire twelve enslaved Africans from London, likely as status symbols rather than for physically exploitative agricultural labor. Even so, we should not assume this boy belonged to the Radziwiłł family or was actually in the artist’s studio—de Silvestre might have added him from memory for the sake of fashion.

Similarly, if there was no bird—and the false colors suggest there wasn’t—we have no evidence about a multispecies friendship between captives transported from Africa. Yet, it’s possible that there was a traumatized bird unfit for a portrait. Stressed parrots in captivity will pluck their feathers. Many captive parrots have no feathers at all; they look like animated plucked chickens with parrot heads. What if Silvestre misplaced the red feathers because the situation forced artistic license? To make a plucked subject presentable, he had to put feathers back, forced to imagine where the red would go.

Connecting Enslaved Africans & Captive Parrots

The presence and action of both the bird and the boy are imperative if we are to see the painting as a testimony to connection between two fellow travelers from Africa, as they are a visual expression of a historical relationship. For centuries, the export of parrots from Africa occurred as a subsidiary to the transportation of enslaved humans. The first African parrots ever taken from Africa sailed in 1455 with Alvise Cadamosto on his return from the Senegalese coast. His ship carried 150 captive parrots and 100 enslaved Africans.

Painted portrait of a seated white woman and a Black slave, a parrot perched on the chair.
Another portrait of a wealthy white woman, an enslaved Black woman, and an African grey parrot. Pierre-Bernard Morlot, 1753.

The historian Ivana Elbl calculated that when Cadamosto marketed this cargo in Portugal, he received 8,000 reis per person and 360 reis per parrot. That’s a cold comparison, but one that mariners made constantly. Parrots became common cargo on ships sailing from West Africa to the Americas—so common that their Africa origins disappeared in some natural histories. For centuries, the history of grey parrots unfolded “in the shadow of slavery.”

Research on more-than-human relations and multispecies friendships in the Atlantic World require particular care. The slave trade rested on the animalization of Africans and the harm in racial dehumanization caused lasting damage. Associations between animals and enslaved Africans were prominent among the racist discourse of enslavers. The philosopher David Hume even used parrots, the “birds that talked without sense,” to make his point that Black people were inferior to Europeans: “In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.” In the twentieth century, comparisons between enslaved humans and animals have been revived by activists to advocate for animal “abolition.” Some campaigns even feature side-by-side vignettes of farmed animals and enslaved humans.      

Bénédicte Boisseron is rightly critical of those who treat slavery and abolition as a steppingstone to animal liberation. As she has observed, associating the conditions of animals with slavery and abolition is crassly instrumentalist. These equations can also conveniently erase enduring anti-Blackness. She offers a model for research on the proximities of race and species. By refusing to make analogies, but concentrating on what the subjects actually hold in common, Boisseron observes that both dogs and enslaved humans have the legal status of property owned by others. 

Boisseron’s pointed critique of instrumentalism and color-blindness in animal rights discourse can serve as guardrails for analyses of the relationship between race and species. Recently, a broad set of other theorists working critically with race have affirmed the possibilities of searching out what captive animals and enslaved humans in the Atlantic World had in common and how they recognized that bond. They, too, caution that analyses of multispecies connections must keep the racialization of Black people in focus. 

Another lesson that more-than-human history can take from Black studies is that we can never burst out of the limitations inflicted by an archive. If most historians see archival silences as a methodological challenge, recent work on the history of enslaved Africans, especially women, describe the extant record of the past as a life-quenching artifact of violent aggression. Historians of animals have been less shaken by restrictions of the archives. They have innovated—recovering a forgotten past by reading against the grain and invoking ethology—but silences remain profound. If we cannot recover animal lives in an archive made through their domination, the failure lies with the archive and method, not the subject. This realization can free us to follow our imaginations beyond the boundaries of documentation.

Multispecies Friendship & Trauma

If we credit the plucked bird as plausible and the tear as authentic, this painting becomes witness to the connected trauma of both species. If we credit the bird’s bowed head and the boy’s gaze, we see a friendship. Both bird and boy were taken from their homeland, where their species knew each other and shared an ecology. In Germany, instead of a diverse convivial community of families and flocks, exchanging energy flows and vocalized information, they had Tekla. They may also have even had each other—it would make sense that the domestic servant cared for the household pets. Aristocratic society in Dresden could have been home to two creatures suffering alienation in a sterile environment: a self-mutilating parrot and a lonesome little boy, both victim to captivity, justified by one’s race and the other’s species. 

If taken at face value, this image shows two fellow travelers alienated from the society that held them captive, looking to each other for a type of multispecies friendship.

Without evidence that the boy and bird were present to convey their multispecies friendship and trauma to the artist, an exacting historian must rule that this interpretation of a connection is romantic. The “rules” of evidence can smother a world of conditions and connections that we know to be true about Atlantic enslavement, lonesome boys, traumatized parrots, and the a possibility for more-then-human friendship. This portrait of an aristocratic slave-owning woman could be evidence for multispecies connection.

This is not to say the experience of the parrot was the same as the boy’s, or that captive animals and enslaved humans are historically or morally equivalent.  It is to recognize that a bird and boy that were taken from Africa on the same ships and confined in the same central European aristocratic court, would have both grieved their removal from the sounds, sights, and fruit of their homes. Perhaps the boy was comforted to find the bird he remembered as “aku” in the Dresden court. All these are still true, even if neither this boy nor this bird existed. The friendship between individuals is plausible, and connection in the history of two intelligent and social species transported from Africa is real.

Featured image: Portrait of Porträt von Tekli Rose Radziwill, oil on canvas by Louis de Silvestre, ca. 1720.

Nancy J. Jacobs is a Professor in the History Department of Brown University. Her books Environment, Power and Injustice: A South African HistoryAfrican History through Sources: Colonial Contexts and Everyday Experiences, c. 1850–1946, Birders of Africa: History of a Network and “The Global Grey Parrot” (forthcoming University of Washington Press) all show how overlooked, everyday, and dismissed actors actually were making worlds all along. Contact.