At a Glance:
Assistant and servant of Le Vaillant
Bird names: 1
Klaas’s Cuckoo (Chyrsococcyx klaas)
Many of the profiles in this archive are about people who, while not ornithologists themselves, were in some way involved in their discovery or description. Many of these are people who were commercial collectors, hunters, locals with an interest in the birds of their area. But even in Africa, most of these were still almost invariably white. There were certainly Black members of most of these expeditions– but even though many undoubtedly contributed to these efforts, they were not considered to merit the same credit as the white members.
We know almost nothing about Klaas, the source of the name of an absolutely brilliant emerald cuckoo of Africa. He enters and exits the historic record in Le Vaillant’s account of traveling in southern Africa in the 1780s, where he was one of the members of the French ornithologist’s party. But what we do know about him makes the fact that a bird bears his name all the more notable. Klaas was not French: he was Khoikhoi, one of the Indigenous people of the area.
Even though Le Vaillant frequently mentions Klaas in his account of his travels, praising his knowledge and abilities profusely, we still only have a frustratingly faint picture of him. What did he think of this Frenchman and his need to see and catalogue everything? Was the apparent admiration that Le Vaillant held for him– he calls him his brother at one point– mutual? How did he end up in this expedition anyways? If we were to see this journey through his eyes, what would he have told us?
There are very few Indigenous people who were honored with a bird being named for them. From the glimpses we have of Klaas, he was an extraordinary person. But he was certainly not the only extraordinary Indigenous person who was part of one of these expeditions– people who we know even less of. Meanwhile, many of the honorifics we do have, the people we do remember in some fashion, are of people whose contributions to ornithology were far less, but by the color of their skin were accorded a level of regard that the people who knew the land best were almost never given. This is one of the many shadows of colonial science that carries through to this day, where local collaborators and field assistants go unrecognized by many in academia.
Le Vaillant, François. 1790. Travels into the interior parts of Africa, by way of the Cape of Good Hope; in the years 1780, 81, 82, 83, 84, and 85. Translated from French. Graisberry and Campbell: Dublin. [link]