Surprising Stories: Joséphine’s Black Swans

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Title page, Voyage de découvertes aux terres australes Vol 3. Black swans, kangaroos and dwarf emus all frolic in the splendid gardens of Malmaison

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his pioneering book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2010), referred to the  bird as a metaphor for understanding unpredictability, arguing that “black swans” are events that come as a surprise, undermine common knowledge, and often rationalized after the fact. In today’s world, COVID-19 can be considered a black swan. As Taleb writes: “A small number of black swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.” It is within this context that we are launching our new series, Surprising Stories, featuring intriguing aspects of French history and culture. We start by starting with the little known topic of Joséphine Bonaparte and her black swans.

Black Swans at Malmaison. Image: rmngp

Today we know that black swans are not metaphorical beasts, but chenopis atrata native to Australia. Perhaps less well known is the fact that Joséphine Bonaparte was the first to acclimate black swans at her Malmaison garden. In 1800, the navy captain, adventurier and explorer Nicholas Baudin appealed to Napoleon Bonaparte and the scientists at the national botanical garden, le Jardin des Plantes, to underwrite his exploratory voyage to what was then called New Holland. 

Black swans at Malmaison

His Baudin’s ambitious endeavor was granted, allowing him to embark and, despite all odds, return to Le Havre in June 1803 with a male and female black swan, along with other birds, kangaroos and emus that all survived the voyage on the ship the Naturalist. Joséphine helped to underwrite the voyage and immediately requested special cases be sent to the ship so that the birds, plants and animals could be transported directly to Malmaison. The swans lived and bred at Malmaison for the next ten years. Contemporary engravings show them near the river and roaming the lawns of her vast estate that included hot houses, a menagerie, and sheep farm. 

Armchair Joséphine by Jacob. Photo: Jebulon / Musée de Malmaison

Why did Joséphine lay claim to black swans? Since antiquity, swans were symbols of grace and beauty, sacred to Aphrodite and Apollo. The swan, with its long neck, was also considered an allegory of male seduction. Joséphine, thus, had many reasons for adopting the swan as her personal symbol, a sign of her own beauty, grace and seductive power. She commissioned swan motifs on decorative arts, chairs, and fabrics, including the famous Imperial swan arm chair.

Joséphine’s acclimatization of black swans also demonstrated her interest in colonial expansion and trade. Both she and Napoleon hoped that their support of Baudin’s voyage would result in new territories becoming Terre Napoleon, an Imperial dream that evaporated with the defeat of the Empire. 

Today at Malmaison, a family of black swans, not the friendliest of birds, continue to live on the property.

You can learn more about this topic in my article Joséphine at Malmaison: Acclimatizing Self and Other in the Garden for Journal 18 or in person on our private excursions to the Chateau de Malmaison. Read more about this half-day excursion from Paris here and peruse our full range of tours at this link.

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