Several fish species were introduced to Spain by a 16th century king. But is he to blame for their current environmental consequences?
There is one dead carp. The king was irritated. He had been patiently waiting for months. Out of the more than 200 fish originally sent to him, all that made it to Madrid was one dead fish and three dozen live, but small, pike.
Philip II didn’t have high expectations. It was 1565, and the Spanish king who would later launch the Spanish Armada was preoccupied with other things – he merely fantasised about having his garden ponds stocked with charming fish to dote on. He desired fish similar to those seen in Central European water gardens during his travels. That’s why he’d hired two “fish maestros” to assist him. They were both from the Netherlands and had agreed to serve as the king’s trusted emissaries. They knew everything there was to know about fish. Swans, as well.
The king had sent them on a mission during the harsh winter of 1564-5. They were to travel separately to France to collect carp and pike before transporting them to Madrid.
However, things did not go as planned. After arriving in Bayonne, France, one was apparently caught sketching an entrance to the city’s port. He was promptly accused of spying, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. The king’s frantic letters could have saved his life. By March, he was back in Madrid. As far as we know, there are no fish.
The other repairman fared better. But even he was delayed by snowstorms and had to leave 28 pike and eight carp in a monastery pond in Burgos, Spain. He continued on his journey, purchasing more fish on the king’s orders, and triumphantly returned to Madrid in February 1565. With only one dead carp. There were also 39 small pike.
Philip II was not the first gardener to seek out exotic species for his private Eden. And he was far from the last. One could argue that the history of gardening is really the history of moving one plant or animal, or even an entire aesthetic, from one location to another. This rearranging of nature has shaped our perceptions of what gardens “should” look like. However, some gardeners have wreaked havoc by introducing invasive species, which then spread like wildfire and devastate native ecosystems.
Carp and pike are currently considered invasive in Spain and have been blamed for wreaking havoc on the country’s ecosystems. Is Philip II ultimately to blame for this? Can scientists use historical introductions to predict the environmental impacts of newly introduced species around the world today?
“It’s amazing the amount of time, effort, and interest that the king put into these things,” says Miguel Clavero of Spain’s La Estación Biológica de Doana. In a paper published in 2022, he detailed Philip II’s fish maestros’ exploits and described how, through them, the monarch eventually succeeded in bringing dozens of fish and crayfish from abroad to his gardens. These included the voracious northern pike, Esox Lucius, which is native to North America and Eurasia, the common carp, Cyprinus carpio, which is native to much of Europe, the tench, Tinca tinca, which is found throughout Eurasia, and the Italian crayfish, Austropotamobius italicus, the origins of which are currently debated. Documents and letters found in the Spanish royal archives revealed how the king came to know so much about aquaculture. When the 39 pike arrived, Philip II knew, for example, that fish transported in the same containers (to provide food for the pike) were actually too large for the diminutive pike to eat.
The king’s obsessions did not end with fish. According to Clavero’s paper, Philip II also obtained various plants for his gardens as well as some unusual hens – he would frequently inquire about the number of eggs the birds were laying.
Transporting the fish was especially difficult. Clavero is unsure of the containers used, but he suspects a wooden tank on a horse-drawn cart. He claims that winter was chosen for the expeditions because the maestros knew the fish would be less likely to overheat and run out of oxygen than in the summer.
“I found it really, really astonishing that he should take such a detailed interest,” says Ambra Edwards, a writer and garden historian based in the United Kingdom. However, rulers displaying their wealth and power through impressive gardens was not a new practise even in the 1500s.
According to Edwards, the Sumerians stocked their estates with plants and animals gathered during their conquests thousands of years ago. Between 141 and 87 BC, a Chinese emperor is said to have filled Shanglin Park, a large hunting ground outside the imperial capital Chang’an (now known as Xi’an), with plants and animals from all over the Empire and beyond. According to Edwards, despite becoming the stuff of legend, Shanglin Park most likely existed for real.
But how much scientific knowledge can we really glean from dusty old stories and documents? According to John David, head of horticultural taxonomy at the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK, reliable descriptions and detailed illustrations of plants and animals did not emerge in Europe until roughly the time of Philip II’s botanical and zoological acquisitions.
He cites the 1613 Hortus Eystettensis as an example, a flower compendium with elaborate prints of many different plants. “It’s a beautifully illustrated book that’s organised around the four seasons,” David says. Paintings, such as those by the Flemish artist Clara Peeters, can also be useful. “Still life with fish,” another of her early 1600s paintings, depicts carp, pike, and crayfish, among other aquatic creatures.
Because certain people took reasonable care to document the plants and animals in their midst 400 years ago, researchers today can use that information to conduct ecological analyses, which is exactly what Clavero has attempted. Historical records also document historical errors. Consider the Nile perch. which was introduced in the 1950s into Lake Victoria, a massive body of water that spans parts of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. The goal of introducing the perch was to improve the local fishing industry, but the project was a disaster in terms of biodiversity because the perch drove hundreds of native fish species nearly extinct.
Was Philip II a visionary or a vandal in his efforts? In his eagerness to introduce fish to Spain, he may have introduced non-native species that colonised the country, possibly to the detriment of native flora and fauna. However, it is unclear whether the carp populations established by Philip II survived and multiplied.