The Cochin Craze. A Story of Addiction

The Cochin/Pekin is an ancient Asiatic breed and as the name suggests one of conflicting and confusing progenitor. Both names seem interchangeable and imply provenance from different countries. One being Imperial China and the other, Cochin China; the name given by early Portuguese traders to what is today known as Southern Vietnam. Delving into the history of this fluffy bundle brings to the surface a tale of bloody wars, tea, silver, looting and above all, opium.

the History of the Cochin craze - Chamois Cochin Chick


Even the dates concerning its entry into a world outside that of the Imperial Court seems sketchy, the London Illustrated News appears adamant in the date of 1843.  However, a certain consensus has it, that a form of Cochin China fowl, then known as Shanghai Chickens had been presented to Queen Victoria in the late 1830s early 40s by the Daoguang, 6th Emperor of the Quin Dynasty. This seems an unlikely contingent, being in and around the first period of the Opium Wars. However at various stages of these bloody and bitter conflicts, in which Britain finally forced China to accept opium in payment for goods, a semblance of peace was declared with a symbolic exchange of  'gifts'. Maybe it was at one of these affairs that the poultry exchanged hands.





History of the Cochin breed - Cuckoo Cochin Rooster
There has been much controversy as to the origin of these first Shanghais. Many 19th century poultry fanciers and experts argued over the fact that the drawing in the Illustrated London News (see above), entitled, 'her Majesty's Cochins' showed a clean-legged relatively lightly plumaged bird. Although proud of bearing and apparently with yellow legs, these fabulous fowls bore little resemblance to the majestic creatures with huge feathery feet we have come to know and love as Cochins. Furthermore, it was even suggested at the time, that the Queen's chickens were unknown in Cochin China.

In 1847, between the two Opium Wars and after the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, which also ceded the British the island of Hong Kong, Queen Victoria obtained the white version of what today is still known as the Cochin. She and other English poultry fanciers, importing black, white and chamois were able to do this by using one of the newly conceded 'Treaty Ports'. Although initially named Shanghais or even in some literature 'Shanghaes', possibly due to the port of exit, the name Cochin, for whatever reason was adopted.

White Cochin Juvenile Chicken

Above portrait photograph of one of our white Cochins; 'Snowy' at six months old and below at nine months with his brother 'Snowball' making a brave effort to cross the garden in deep snow.

White Cochin Pekin Roosters in the Snow


 

A Tangled Tale of Tea and Opium - Pekin and Pekingese


Above, the East Indian Company's  'Streatham' and  the first of the new high speed Opium Clippers (sails furled) 'Red Rover', in harbour at Calcutta. And from  Lubbock's 'The China Clippers':
'From the very start the importation of opium into China was entirely against the decrees and wishes of its rulers, who knew only too well  the harm done by the drug to all who fall under its influence. And those enterprising British, American and Parsee firms who engaged in the opium traffic were nothing more or less than smugglers, smugglers indeed who showed greater daring and finer seamanship and made bigger profits than any the world had previously known.'

China required payment in silver for her exports of tea, silk and porcelain but the British, through war, imposed payment in opium. Drug manufacture by slave-labour in Bengal was a dirt cheap alternative to the precious metal. Opium was in fact illegal in Victorian Britain and China, using the drug  medicinally, required very little.

In France Cochins were/are known as Pekins and it is common knowledge that the first birds ever to reach the 'Hexagone' were in fact looted by French soldiers in October 1860. This was at the end of the Second Opium War, when the Old Summer Palace was firstly plundered and then finally burned to the ground on the 18th of the month.

We might have been taught to think of gold, silver and jewellery as 'spoils of war'. However, following on from the plundering of the Quin Emperor's chickens, Queen Victoria, in April 1861, became  the owner of the first ever Pekingese dog in the West. Making no secret about the way she had obtained the pup, she rather barefacedly, even for the 19th century, named her 'Looty'. The Pekingese was one of five pets belonging to the Lady HeŇ°eri, Consort of the Daoguang Emperor, she had committed suicide on the 7th of October when his son, the Xianfeng Emperor and the rest of the court fled the palace. Her five dogs were found mourning around her body.

'Looty' above photographed in 1865 by William Bambridge


Hugh Piper writing in his Poultry Book in 1890 was straightforward in his view of the British Cochins' provenance:
'The Pekin, or Cochin Bantams, were taken from the Summer Palace at Pekin during the Chinese war, and brought to this country.'
In 2014 at a Hong Kong Sotheby's auction, a  Chinese businessman made the winning bid on a 'Chicken Cup'. Having paid the $36 million (plus costs), he was equally concise, pouring a little tea into it he drank and later observed: "Emperor Quinlong has used it, now I have used it....I just wanted to see how it felt."

In Part Two I'll discuss the role Cochins played in the West and how their exhibition to the  General Public brought about a complete change in the way poultry were viewed and 'valued' and created an unprecedented boom in prices and fraud!

Hope you enjoyed this piece it has taken me many weeks to research and in particular to sort the 'wheat from the chaff'. If you would like to republish any of this material please do give me credit and I hope it will also inspire you to go on and read more about these fascinating birds, their unique history and influences on poultry keeping today. Please also feel free to comment and/or share this article.

All the very best,
Sue
© 2018 Sue Cross

Chickenalia and a few of the books referred to in this article:



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Choosing Chickens Pt 1 - Cochin Pekin

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FURTHER READING

Available freely to read on-line or download in various formats at The Internet Archive:
Wright, L., 1890. The Illustrated Book of Poultry with Practical Schedules for Judging, 
Wright, L., Lewer, S.H., 1912. The Illustrated Book of Poultry with Practical Schedules for Judging , (re-written)
Piper, H., 1871. Profitable and Ornamental Poultry, A Practical Guide
Lubbock, B., 1914. The China Clippers

Additional Photographs from Pinterest, thanks to:
blog.biodiversitylibrary.org
ocw.mit.edc
2ndlook.wordpress.com
royalcollection.org.uk
blogs.wsj.com


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