Louis Renard's Book of Fantastic Fishes

In the Leufsta Collection at Carolina Rediviva there is a strange book by Louis Renard with unusually beautiful paintings published in Amsterdam in 1754. It is written in French and it is about fish, crayfish and crabs that were allegedly discovered in the Moluccas in the southern hemisphere. The book has shelfmark Leufsta F 88.

The Book of Fishes part 2, plate 54

Poissons, écrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires, que l'on trouve autour des isles Moluques, et sur les côtes des terres australes is the original title in French, i.e. Fishes, Crayfish and Crabs, in various remarkable colours and shapes that are found around the Moluccan Islands and the coasts of southern lands.

The Book of Fishes part 2, plate 47

The illustrations have been coloured in by hand and on the title page it is claimed that they have been "painted from nature". The work "is the result of nearly thirty years" and "it is produced in two volumes, the first part of which has been copied from the original belonging to Mr. Baltazar Coyett [...], while the second was made from the works of Mr Adrien van der Stell". Both were governors with the Dutch East India Company in the Moluccas in modern day Indonesia. The publisher Louis Renard, a British envoy in Amsterdam, gives assurances that every fish is provided with "a short description" and that they "are all authenticated with records and credentials". Above is a King Crab, "very delicious and periodically common on island of Ambon".

The Book of Fishes part 2, plate 47

Here you can see an Ambon crayfish, a little rock fish and a unicorn fish. The unicorn is said to be numerous around the island of La Rique and to taste delicious.

The Book of Fishes part 2, plate 56

This fish is called the Emperor of Japan, "the most luscious and beautiful fish in the world, but very rare. It is covered with tiny, nearly invisible scales that glitter brighter than gold. I have seen another one that was completely white with red stripes, a sky blue head with a golden blaze and golden gills", claims an eye-witness.

The Book of Fishes part 2, plate 57

This shellfish is described as an "extraordinary crayfish which measured 39 inches from the end of its tail to the tip of its antennae".

The Book of Fishes part 2, plate 1

This page shows three exotic fish. The "Pointed Nose", painted in pink, is said to be found in various colours and the large blue fish which it is claimed had already been observed by "inquisitive Dutchmen" who had taken samples home with them and preserved them in display cabinets, "either dried or in spirits". These specimens however are considerably smaller than the fish portrayed here and "their beautiful colours have been lost. They wither like flowers when the fish are out of water".

The Book of Fishes part 2, plate 56

Last but not least is the mermaid, who in all her glory illuminates the last page with the following commentary: "A monster resembling a sea nymph, captured off the Buru coast in Ambon Province. It was 59 inches long, roughly the length of an eel. It lived on land in a pool for four days and seven hours. Now and again it emitted squeaks, like a mouse. It refused to eat anything, even though it was offered small fishes, shells, crabs, crayfish etc. After its death, excrement similar to that of a cat was found in the pool." 

To confirm the existence of the mermaid, various testimonies, letters and certificates have been reproduced in the book. They are signed by "respected and reputable" naturalists and priests. Even in the preface the scholar Arnout Vosmaer counters any objections that might come from readers not easily convinced, "The mermaid, [...] I believe, deserves more attention than ever. Its very existence here is most decidedly confirmed; and those objections used to try to refute it appear to me to be very weak. It is said that never before has a monster of this kind been displayed in any cabinet; but is it not so that, if this monster, if one can call it such, although I see no reason to do so, really is as it seems and as is usually described, and if its features are so similar to a human's, could it not just as easily also resemble a human in instinct, genius or sense - whatever you wish to call it? This would explain how, with greater skill than other animals, it has been able to avoid traps into which they fall; it could also explain why they show themselves so rarely. Could it not moreover be that its body - like a man's - more than that of other fishes, is prone to decomposition and that the difficulty in preventing this is the reason for it not being found in any collection? This assumption seems to be borne out by the mermaid's skeleton that Vossius, Junius and others write about."

Despite flights of fantasy in Renard's great work, it was considered to be an important contribution to scholarship when it was published in 1754. The marine fauna of the East Indies had hardly been researched at all. But with its beautiful pictures of fish and molluscs, rich in detail, many of which have since in fact been validated, the book can seen as part of an attempt in the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment to document nature.

View all the digitised plates in Alvin.


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