To the Western mind Bettas embody everything exotic about Thailand . Before Thailand was named Thailand it was known as Siam, therefore the fish was then called “The Siamese Fighting Fish.” The Betta has remained popular on its own merits. But how did this little fish come to America?
As early as 1874 a French ornamental fish breeder by the name of Pierre Carbonnier, began to breed them. This is the same man that introduced the world to the first exotic aquarium fish, the Paradise Fish. Yet it was another aquarium keeper Jeunet that raised a few to maturity in 1892. The fish was originally introduced to France from Indo-China where a French colony existed at that time. Jeunet published a piece in “Agricultural Society of France” magazine describing the fish and his dealings with it. At that time the fish was incorrectly described as Betta pugnax.
From France the fish was introduced to Moscow, and from Moscow to Germany in 1896. Of course the fish at that time were the short finned wild form.
Dr. Hugh M. Smith, who worked as a fishery consultant in Siam from 1923-1935 tried to compile a reliable historical record of the fish. In that work Smith recorded that the first long-finned version of the betta started showing up in and around 1900. However there is something very interesting about this, they were named “pla kat khmer” which means “fish of the land of the Khmer,” which is Cambodia not Thailand (or then Siam.) That name Cambodian’s would follow the fish for many years.
From the American view point the wild short finned Betta was known and even revered very early on. Klee’s “Toy Fish” quotes an article from the “Bulletin” in 1916 that states : “There is a very beautiful and attractive variety of aquarium fish called Betta rubra (As Betta Splendens were called at that time) which comes from distant Siam.” Again the Asian mystique followed: “The natives of Siam greatly enjoy the breeding of these fish and frequently hold contests, much the same as cock fighting, betting heavily on the results.”
In Dr. Hugh M. Smith’s research he commented on the Siamese Fighting Fish and it’s interwoven history with the Thai people. He also said that Betta matches as a sport dated back hundreds of years.
However it was Dr. Theodore Cantor who was the first Western scientist to describe the Siamese Fighting Fish. He was a Danish physician, zoologist and botanist . Cantor worked for the British East India Company, and made natural history collections in Penang and Malacca. He reported that in 1840 he had seen a gentleman in Singapore who possessed several Fighting Fish that had been presented by the King of then Siam. He went on to write: “The Siamese are as infatuated with the combats of these fishes as the Malays are with their cock fights, and stake considerable sums and sometimes their own persons and their families. The license of exhibiting fish fights is farmed, and affords a considerable annual revenue to the King of Siam.”
Real Estate, heirlooms, even servants changed hands because of the outcome of two fighting fish.
“Names have power.”— Rick Riordan.
The name of the fish was a constant problem in the early days both scientifically and in the main stream hobby. Early on the fish was named Betta pugnax. In 1909 Dr. Tate Regan of the British Museum published a revision of the family Anabantidae. It was Regan that gave it the scientific name used down to this day Betta splendens.
Betta – “beautiful warrior” and Splendens – “gleaming, shiny“.
Blue long-fin bettas began finding their way into Germany in 1920 by importer Eimecke. It is of interest that the importer Eimecke sites Cambodia as the country of origin, not Siam. It was not until 1926 that the first “veil tailed” Bettas were introduced into all of Europe. These were unlike any other Bettas ever seen! Bettas had long been admired as different. Yet, it was not their beauty alone, per say, that set them apart. Now the fish were like live flowers, a thing of beauty.
In October of 1927 the new veil tailed Betta would come to America. Once again the name of the fish would be a point of great confusion for many years.
Frank Locke of San Francisco was a very important early hobbyist on the west coast. A mechanic by trade, he had a lot to do with Angelfish imports into California. In 1927 he brought the first imports of Betta splenden veiltails to America. In that same year a few importers brought bettas into the country, but in the end Locke proved to be first.
Once in the states the fish became a hit instantly. But there was a problem. The problem was that Locke thought he had two different fish. He had both a dark variety and a creamy red one. In fact some time later George Myer wrote: “When I arrived (at Locke’s hatchery), he ushered me toward a row of battery jars atop his tanks. There in the jars swam a row of the most remarkable fighting fishes I had ever seen. Both the dark (Siamese) and the light (Cambodian) varieties were represented, though neither Locke nor I then knew what they were. They had come off a ship three days before, and the man who brought them from Singapore said that they came from Bangkok, Siam.”
The ones thought to be Cambodians were creamy colored with a red under coat. The others were dark. The name Cambodian was not slow to leave. As a young boy in the 1980’s I remember the name and being confused. Did I have betta Splendens or betta Cambodian? Old aquarium books stick around and add to the mistaken ideas. With a little time, patience, and a little common sense the matter was resolved and we ended up with just good ol’ Betta splendens.