The first ever birds of paradise seen in Europe – or at least their dried skins – arrived in a small port north of Cadiz on 6 September 1522. They were carried by the Victoria, the last surviving ship from the fleet of five led by the great Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan – and the first ever to circumnavigate the globe (though, alas, Magellan himself was killed on the way round, in the Philippines). The skins were a gift from the rajah of Bacan, one of the Spice Islands (now called the Moluccas), to the king of Spain, who had sponsored Magellan’s trip, although the skins themselves, evidently of the genus Paradisaea, came from New Guinea, just to the east of the Moluccas.
Several hundred years of confusion and myth-making followed. The skins came with very few clues. The beaks were present, which at least confirmed that their original owners were birds – but there were no skulls or innards. Worse, the wings and legs had been removed, so all that was left