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The first celebrity elephant: Jumbo by John Sutherland

At London Zoo, Jumbo was assumed into the British imagination as a gentle giant.

Big trouble: Jumbo with its keeper in around 1882
Big trouble: Jumbo with its keeper in around 1882

Jumbo: the Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation
John Sutherland
Aurum Press, 304pp, £14.99

The bigger the animal, the bigger the problem. Like the whale, the elephant has suffered from our inability to fathom a creature so far in excess of our size, blessed with intelligence and yet so strangely adorned with bizarre features that it might have been put together by God as a kind of joke. In the past, it has operated as an emblem of a pre­lapsarian Eden, or as an engine of war, but in more modern times the elephant has been reimagined as an exotic article of display – as John Sutherland shows in his erudite, witty but ultimately challenging book.

In 1255, Henry III received an elephant from his brother-in-law Louis IX of France destined for the Tower of London menagerie, a heraldic assembly of leopards, lions and a single polar bear that was allowed to fish for its lunch in the Thames. Housed in an enclosure 40 feet long and 20 feet deep, the benighted beast was dead within three years, possibly as a result of a surfeit of red wine. Its time in the city is “commemorated on the swinging signboards of innumerable English pubs – most famously the Elephant and Castle . . . in south London”.

Sutherland has to leap forward 500 years to find the true beginning of Britain’s love affair with the elephant. Chunee was an Indian elephant housed on the upper floor of the Exeter Exchange on the Strand in London, a place that resembled an animal-fixated Georgian department store. Every Sunday its star attraction was paraded through the city streets; its visitors included Byron, who remarked, as Chunee extended its trunk to take off the poet’s hat, that it “behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler”.

Yet after the animal killed one of its handlers by impaling him on its tusks “like toast on the toasting fork”, it was sentenced to death. What followed was an appallingly botched execution that required multiple stabbings with spears and a fusillade from soldiers stationed at nearby Somerset House. Chunee’s demise led to letters in the Times, protesting at the “cruel spectacle”, and the establishment of the Zoological Society of London. “Sometimes change needs 152 bullets,” Sutherland comments, wryly.

The original “Jumbo” arrived at London Zoo in 1865, by way of what is now Eritrea, as a traumatised orphan that had lost its mother so early that it had not learned to “be” an elephant. It was an animal born for the Victorian century. The elephant symbolised empire and colonialism, conquest and might. Even the name “Jumbo” – a mash-up of the Swahili jambo, or “hello”, and jumbe, “chief” – is emblematic: grandiloquent and pathetic at the same time. To Dickens, the elephant represented “melancholy madness” in Hard Times; there was an unspoken connection between the fate of the captive animals imported to the west and the fate of the helots of the Industrial Revolution.

At London Zoo, Jumbo was assumed into the British imagination as a gentle giant. Its keeper, Matthew Scott, profited from the penny buns that he sold to visitors and that he passed on to Jumbo only after checking for small items that the public thought it amusing to try to feed to the beast. When it died, hundreds of British coins and a policeman’s whistle were found in Jumbo’s guts.

Jumbo was a royal sensation: there were rumours that the queen had private audiences with the animal. As such, it became an object of desire to P T Barnum, the showman-huckster from Connecticut. So, in 1882, when Jumbo’s annual musth – a frenzied and highly visible sexual arousal – made it too difficult and, frankly, embarrassing for the zoo to handle, it was sold to Barnum for £2,000. Scott, who had developed an almost preternatural relationship with his charge, was part of the deal.

For all of Barnum’s vulgar showmanship, Jumbo seems to have been happier in the United States, perhaps because it was among fellow elephants (Barnum’s herd approached 20 in number) and partly because it was placated with a diet of biscuits soaked in whisky. Its end, however, was violent. On tour with Barnum, Jumbo was being led along a Canadian rail track back to its travelling van when an unscheduled train came hurtling down the line. Sutherland’s account of what happened next is so exciting and awful that I had to step out of the so-called quiet zone on the train in which I was reading it and into the corridor to concentrate. Scott began to shout, “Run, Jumbo, run!” For some reason, Jumbo ran towards the train. The collision crushed its skull, forcing the tusks back into its brain.

Barnum accepted Jumbo’s fate with suspicious equanimity. (Was the beast already ailing and the “accident” another of the showman’s stunts?) Jumbo was boiled down to jelly to be sold as a cure-all and its bones articulated and skin stuffed so that even in death it lived on as a Barnum exhibit, still earning its keep. Its afterlife continued in Jumbo Jr, the big-eared elephant nicknamed “Dumbo” in Disney’s film.

Sutherland’s fascinating and eclectic book is a fitting tribute to Loxodonta africana and it deftly evokes the manifold and ever more pressing threats to the species. My one reservation is that an encounter with a living elephant would have provided some relief (beyond the author’s dark sense of humour) from its record of the unremitting pain we have visited on these intelligent, highly social and much-abused animals.

Philip Hoare’s latest book is “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate, £9.99)