Levaillant (Le Vaillant), François

views updated

Levaillant (Le Vaillant), François

(b. Paramaribo, Netherlands Guiana [now Surinam], 1753; d. La Noue, near Sézanne, France, 22 November 1824),

natural history.

The son of a wealthy trader from the vicinity of Metz who had become French consul in the Dutch colony, Levaillant presumably acquired a love of travel and exploration from his family. At the age of ten he went with them to Holland and later spent two years in Germany and seven in the French countryside, where he developed a love of hunting, began to study birds, and learned taxidermy. While visiting Paris in 1777 he became a devotee of the cabinets and collections of natural history and resolved to explore the remotest part of the globe. Having fixed on Africa as the least-known continent, he sailed from Holland for the Cape of Good Hope on 19 December 1779, arriving there on 29 March 1781. While he was hunting near the Bay of Saldanha, his boat was attacked by a British flotilla, and he lost his personal effects except for his gun, ten ducats, and the light clothes he was wearing. The colonists, however, outfitted him for his first tour of the interior, a six-month circular trip up from the east into the veld. His second trip, in 1783, lasted nearly a year and was attended with great physical difficulty as he traveled north along the left bank of the Orange River into land occupied by warring tribes. Protected by his faithful Hottentot retinue, Levaillant managed to hunt with the savage Hausa and to bring back his collections relatively unscathed. Returning to France in 1784 he was imprisoned for a time but survived the Revolution and retired to a small estate at La Noue, near Sézanne in Champagne. Here he wrote the books that have survived controversy and accusations of substitute authorship. Although his ornithological work consists essentially of magnificent illustrated books, devoid of scientific terminology, they were among the first to reveal to Frenchmen (and later Germans and Englishmen) the wonders of Africa and of the tropics. Levaillant was the first Frenchman to bring a giraffe to the Jardin des Plantes. Through his books and collections he popularized the wonders of the exotic fauna in which he had delighted. Decorated under the Empire with the Legion of Honor, he died at his country estate in 1824. In his best-known book, Voyages de F. Le Vaillant dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique, he mentions two of his African friends: Klaas, a Hottentot companion for whom Klaas’ cuckoo is named; and “the fair” Narine, an African maiden (whose relationship to the explorer has always been thought romantic) for whom the lovely Narina trogon is named. Levaillant’s ornithological production was great, though unscientific. His principal work was the magnificent Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d’Afrique; the general artistic supervisor is thought to have been Jean-Baptiste Audubert.


I. Original Works. Levaillant’s writings are Voyages de F. Le Vaillant dans l’interieur de l’Afrique 1781-1785 (Paris, 1790); Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d’Afrique, 6 vols. (Paris, 1796-1812); Historie naturelle d’une partie d’oiseaux nouveaux et rares de l’Amérique et des Indes (Paris, 1801); Historie naturelle des perroquets, 2 vols. (Paris, 1801-1805), with 73 plates colored under the supervision of Barraband, supp. vols. added by Alexandre Bourjot-Saint-Hilaire (1857-1838) and Charles de Souancé (1857-1858); and Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis at des rolliers, 2 vols. (Paris, 1801-1806).

II. Secondary Literature. See Andrew Crichton, “Memoir of Lee Vaillant,” in William Swainson, Birds of Western Africa, pt. 2 (Edinburgh, 1845), pp. 17-31; and J.H. Ogilvie, A Bibliography of Le Vaillant’s Voyages and Oiseaux d’Afrique(Johannesburg, 1962).

S. Dillon Ripley