Luso-Asian cryptozoology or early modern zoology?

I recently came across a Facebook post by Professor Peter Hulse, former head of the Classics and IT at the Mount St. Mary’s College, asking for the meaning of the word “cabim,” an allegedly mysterious animal described in Maffei’s as having magical properties. The post linked to a question posed originally in this blog.


Giovanni Pietro Maffei, Historiarum Indicarum Libri XVI, Venice, 1589, p. 76.

According to Maffei, a warrior from Malacca fought the Portuguese and, even though was killed in action, his wounds did not bleed until an arm band containing the bones of the mysterious cabim was removed.

According to Peter Hulse, references to this animal were common until the early 18th century, when it disappeared from texts. Was it a legendary creature, worthy of mention by a cryptozoology enthusiast, or an animal that vanished during that time?

As Maffei wrote most of his materials based on original accounts and reports from others who did in fact went to Asia, Portuguese sources are the key to identify this mystical being. Sebastião Dalgado’s Glossário Luso-Asiático explains that the “cabim” or “kabal” was most probably the pangolin, a scaly mammal typical from Asia and Africa.

Indeed, the name “cabim” or “cabal” comes from the Malay kebal, as explained by Dalgado. Even in contemporary Indonesian and Malay, the term means “immune” or “invulnerable.” The name survived in the Portuguese language well into the 18th century, as Bluteau also includes an entry in his dictionary describing it as “um animal da Ilha de Jaoa…” [an animal from the Isle of Java…], and referring to the description in João de Barros’s second Década. Indeed, Barros seems to be the original source for Maffei’s text.

The Commentaries of Afonso de Albuquerque also make reference to the same episode. In the skirmish between the Portuguese captain Aires Pereira and a Javanese boat, the wounded Moorish captain “leaped down to Aires Pereira in his boat, and they fought with cuts and blows at each other (…).” After the battle was over:

the crew found the Moorish captain half dead, without any blood flowing from the numerous wounds he had received. Aires Pereira commanded the mariners to throw him into the sea just as he was; but when they perceived that he was richly clothed, they sought first of all to strip him, and then they found on his left arm a bracelet of bone, set in gold, and when they took this off all his blood flowed away and he expired.”

Upon bringing back the loot, the Portuguese learned the magic bracelet was in fact made of the bones of certain animals which were called cabals, that are bred in the mountain ranges of the kingdom of Siam, and the person who carries those bones so that they touch his flesh can never lose his blood, however many wounds he may receive, so long as they are kept on him.” Moved by the story, Albuquerque “prized the bracelet very much for its virtues, and kept it to send it to the king D. Manuel.” It is an interesting image to see a treasure-collecting Albuquerque, arming himself with amulets and magic items found in Asia.


Coat of armor made of pangolin scales. Royal Armories, Leeds

Indeed, the bones and scales of the pangolin seem to have been prized for a very long time as magical in Asia and as exotic prizes in Europe. For example, in 1820, King George III of the United Kingdom received as a gift from India a coat of armor made of pangolin scales, which is now displayed at the Royal Armories, in Leeds. According to the description of the picture posted on Wikipedia, Francis Rawdon, 1st Marquis of Hastinges (1754-1826), the East India Company’s Governor General in Bengal, 1812-22, was the responsible for sending the armor to the British king. It would not surprise me if there were other similar items in European museums and archives.

As it seems to be, until the 18th century the animal was mostly known as “cabim” or “cabal,” when waves of interest in animals and plants from Asia, Africa and the Americas led to its renaming. As a matter of fact, a search using Google Books and Google Ngram shows that the name “pangolin” came to be used in the English language on the second half of the eighteenth century.

Pangolin 1766

 Le Pangolin: De Sève, 1761. Source:

Most probably, the responsible for re-introducing the pangolin to European scientists was the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon. In his natural history, the animal is already baptized as pangolin, a nomenclature that apparently substituted the previous cabim or cabal (See here for mentions of the pangolin by Buffon). In 1761, French illustrator Jacques de Sève provided Buffon with his drawing of the pangolin, which also shows palm trees and ruins of a construction in the background. This pattern would be repeated in latter illustrations of the animal, possibly indicating its Asian origins.

In 1780, a Natural History of the Pangolin was published in “The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure.” Eight years later, Sir William Jones wrote “On the Pangolin of Bahar,” published in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society, 1. Jones complements Buffon’s description reporting on a different species of pangolin, which he described as resembling “in form and flexibility (…) a lobster.” By the end of the century, the Encyclopedia Britannica already had an entry for the pangolin summarizing these and other descriptions.


From the “Transactions of the Asiatic Society, 1.” Apparently, “vajracita” is the Sanskrit name of the pangolin, meaning “diamond” or “thunderbolt reptile.”

That does not mean that the English-speaking world did not know of the “cabim” before its re-discovery. For example, John Johnston’s 1678 A Description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts with their Figures Engraven in Brass includes an entry for the pangolin named cabim, “Sionium, or Thabal,” as an example of “outlandish foure-footed creatures of a doubtfull kind.

In the 19th century, pangolins were kept as pets by many British officers and administrators in India and Sri Lanka, although they often died shortly after being captured. Julie Hughes writes:

Among the earliest records of Indian pangolins captured and brought live to an Englishman were the animals delivered by Kols to R.S. Tickell of the Bengal Army in 1838 and 1842. Tickell initially kept the first animal in his home, where it used its ‘almost supernatural strength’ to upset a bookcase as it made ‘several tours’ around the room, finally settling down to dig its way out through a wall. Tickell transferred it to an ’empty beer-chest’ before it could escape, taking the precaution of weighing the lid down with ‘large stones’. Over the week that he managed to keep this pangolin, it ‘got pretty tame, seldom rolling itself up when touched or patted’. Tickell’s second specimen came from Chaibasa, now in Jharkhand. It had one hind foot missing and was suffering from intestinal worms, a paralyzed tongue, and infection; it died soon after he acquired it.”

Nowadays, the pangolin is known as the “most trafficked animal in the world.” Many believe it has magical properties, and it is still sought as a traditional medicine. So, even though the pangolin is not extinct, it certainly could be gone soon.

Nevertheless, what this tale of discovering and re-discovering the cabim, cabal, or pangolin shows us is that much of the knowledge developed by the Iberian Empires between the 16th and 19th centuries was substituted by the winning narrative of the British Empire during the scientific revolution. Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra showed already that the “modern” notion of race was preceded by ideas and taxonomies developed by the Spanish and Portuguese, but later these became invisible in European consciousness. There is a great need for in-depth studies that trace back colonial biology and recover the scientific knowledge developed before the scientific revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries.