Fishy Wings: A 1698 Account of Flying Fish

Dear CF,

I know you’ve been dying to know where flying fish came from and how they were named. Well, wonder no more. Here’s an excerpt from John Fryer’s “A new account of East-India and Persia, in eight letters being nine years travels begun 1672 and finished 1681,” one of several seventeenth-century travel narratives that describe India and other exotic locales–a collection of texts that more or less made Orientalism possible.

This account of flying fish escaping from “albacores and bonetos” hunting them is the first real episode he relates in the very first letter. It’s interesting that the opening figure to this crazy travelogue is a story of transcendent escape from a more powerful adversary–the fish’s salvation lies in its ability to use its native medium to propel itself into another:

By reason whereof it was familiar to behold, the sportful Fishes greedy of their Prey raise whole Flocks of that Scaly Nation. For those whom Nature has placed in the vast Deep, defenceless of themselves, and innocent to others of a more powerful Greatness, so as many times they become their Prey, she has not altogether left them unprovided; either out of her abhorrency of Idleness, resolving every thing should labour for its Belly, or else out of a peculiar respect towards every individual Species for their Preservation as well as Production; furnishing these with Fins of larger size and double use for swifter conveying them under Water, as also for soaring into the Air when they are too closely pursued. Of these sort we saw good store flying from Bonetos and Albecores, who were hunting them. Some of these flying Fish (for no other Name they have as I can learn) were so put to it, that after often dipping their fishy Wings in the briny Water (without which genuine Artifice they could not use them) chose rather to make our Ship their Sanctuary, than to yield themselves to the Jaws of their devouring Adversaries: By which means you have their more exact Description, they being as large as a River Perch bedeckt with Silver-spangled Scales, and long Fins as before.

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