Orangutans from Atjeh in the French Riviera, 1928

Cannes, French Riviera, April of 1928. A ship arrived from the Dutch East Indies carrying tourists, colonial officials and their relatives, prospectors, capitalists, scientists, explorers, and various kinds of cargo. In the bowels of the ship were cages filled with an assortment of wildlife from the Sumatran rainforests. Most prominent among the animals was a haul of more than eighty orangutans taken from the forests of southern Aceh. The collector was J.F. van Geuns, a wildlife trader who was responsible for the transport of an incredible amount of wildlife, including orangutans, elephants, rhinos, and tigers, from Sumatra to the rest of the world. This situation was common at the time; in 1928 alone, hundreds of orangutans were taken from the Gayo and Alas regions, of which only a small portion survived the journey to Europe or the United States. Oftentimes, all of the orangutans perished before reaching their destination. This particular shipment was split up into family groups, sold, and transported to zoos, circuses (including more than twenty sold directly to the son of PT Barnum who personally traveled to Germany to ensure he received his orangutans), and private collectors around the world. A few weeks later, in early May, sixty orangutans arrived at the zoological gardens in Cannes. The sight of these strange, exotic creatures evoked emotions and reactions of all kinds in the people who came by to catch a glimpse. One person who visited the Cannes Zoo that month to see the “orangutans from Atjeh” was immediately heartbroken at the site of the caged primates, and it prompted him to write a letter to the editor. That person was Sir Hesketh Bell, a retired British colonial administrator. 

Bell wrote a powerful and emotional appeal in The Times of London, one of the most widely circulated newspapers in Europe at the time, calling for the protection of orangutans. He wrote: “Up to quite recently a live orang in Europe was a rare spectacle, and the sudden appearance of more than a hundred of these distant cousins of ours must be of more than passing interest, not only to those who are students of the ‘ascent of man’, but especially to all who are keen on the preservation of tropical fauna… The suddenness of this large influx of specimens of the great ape, which is the nearest approach to man, indicates that some method of capturing them wholesale has recently been adopted. I learn that such is the case. It seems that a European in Sumatra, having discovered the favourite habitat of a considerable number of orang-utans, is making use of the following method.”[2]

His letter was written in the right place at the right time. It ignited a media campaign throughout Europe advocating for the protection of fauna in the colonies. P.G. van Tienhoven, founder of the Dutch Committee for International Nature Protection, watched the media storm transpire and used it to the advantage of his organization. He reponded directly to Bell and brought him on board as a member of the international nature protection movement in Europe. Tienhoven also sent the letter to numerous newspapers around the world and translated it into Dutch so it could be published in a few dailys in the Netherlands. Finally, he passed it on to government officials in the East Indies and in the Netherlands. The letter was passed up the chain of command and eventually read to the Governor-General of the East Indies. Bell’s letter and the public uproar it helped to create played a major role in getting legislation passed in the early 1930s banning the trade of orangutans, rhinos, and other famous wildlife in the East Indies.

Although there are certainly issues with some of the language in Bell’s letter, including essentialism and social evolutionary traits, I found his appeal to be quite nice and thought I’d share a portion of it below.

Bell himself was quite a character. I will post another blog soon that explores Bell as an individual. He was a prominent British colonial official who served in numerous colonies. Between 1905 and 1924, he held governorships in the Uganda Protectorate, the Northern Nigeria Protectorate, the Leeward Islands, and Mauritius. He was a well-known big game hunter while serving in Africa and a google image search pulls up multiple photos of him surrounded by his “trophies”. Bell was also a prolific author and published memoirs and works on colonial history and administration. His writings touched upon the spirituality of the native peoples of the West Indies, as well as on histories of resources, trade, and geographies of the places he served. After retiring in 1924, Bell moved to Cannes, but continued to travel, including a trip to the East Indies from 1925 to 1926 to study Dutch systems of colonial governance. He was eventually knighted for his service.

Hesketh Letter


One thought on “Orangutans from Atjeh in the French Riviera, 1928

  1. Pingback: Sir Hesketh Bell: Colonial Game Hunter and Animal Advocate | Matthew Minarchek

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