It is a matter of speculation how they arrived. But here they are. For more than three centuries, they have inhabited Peacock Island in Berlin. There, they enjoy the German forests, dance for the enchanted visitors, and announce the rains with their sweetly penetrating cries – just as they would do in their homeland. Historical documents indicate that the original stock of peacocks was acquired from the nearby Sacrow Estate, probably in the last decades of the 18th century.
Since then, the thickly forested island in the Havel river that winds its way through Berlin has been known as Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island. The secluded island situated near Potsdam, the royal capital, had always served the Prussian royalty as a discreet retreat for romantic rendezvous. Even as young crown prince, the later king Friedrich Wilhelm II, escaped from the stifling imperial duties to this island's wild countryside with Wilhelmine Encke, the 13-year old daughter of the royal trumpeter. Subsequently ennobled as Countess Lichtenau, she remained his lifelong beloved and companion. With her distinct sense of elegance and artistic passion for all things oriental, she played a decisive role in shaping the island’s buildings and landscape.
In 1793, King Friedrich Wilhelm II constructed a pleasure palace conceived as extravagant ruins with two large towers. His successor King Friedrich Wilhelm III contributed the Indian flair. Known for his keen interest in the exotic, he commissioned the Prussian Director General for Horticulture, Peter Joseph Lenné, to fundamentally change the wilderness of the island to showcase rare exotic plants and animals. In 1829, after having acquired the legendary collection of oriental palm trees from the French amateur botanist and gardener Claude Fulchiron, the King decided to specially construct a palm-house resembling a glass-palace for this unique and extensive collection of exotic plants, which was heated to recreate their native tropical climate.
At the same time, the King obtained an Indian marble edifice brought to Europe by a British General from his service in Bengal. This piece of architecture was integrated into the design of the palm-house which was made of wood and glass and conceived keeping in mind the Indian ornamental elements. As such, the palm house was given an 'Indian look' in its pillars, brackets, friezes, domes and arches, including the later addition of a glass dome to accommodate the increasing height of the central palm tree.
The small Peacock Island, now a UNESCO World heritage site, remains one of the most beautiful nature reserves in Berlin even today, due to its abundant non-European and tropical vegetation and exceptionally rich aviary population.
Author: Dr. Jutta Jain-Neubauer
© German Embassy New Delhi