Hard to find an elephant story to trump Jumbo

How the the tiny calf became England's favourite 'pet'
Hard to find an elephant story to trump Jumbo

Jumbo the African elephant: Was bought by a German circus owner who soon sold him on to Europe's oldest menagerie, the Jardin de Plantes in Paris where he was mistreated scandalously.

How times have changed!

Jumbo, an African elephant was a Victorian celebrity. When the Nile explorer and big game hunter Samuel Baker saw Jumbo in Eritrea in 1861, the tiny calf that became England's favourite 'pet' was just a year old. He had been captured in Eritrea by Hamran Arab hunters who had killed his mother. An animal trader herded him and other captives over the Sudan Desert to the port of Suakin on the Red Sea. From there, they were transported in crates by sea and rail to Dresden.

There, Jumbo was bought by a German circus owner who soon sold him on to Europe's oldest menagerie, the Jardin de Plantes in Paris where he was mistreated so scandalously that when the Zoological Society of London, desperate for an African elephant, acquired him in 1865 for its collection, his escort-minder, Matthew Scott, declared that 'a more deplorable, diseased and rotten creature never walked god's earth.'

For the 20 years that followed, Scott became the young elephant's surrogate parent, guardian and friend. Under his care, Jumbo's health and noble appearance was restored. His bulk, swelled by the thousands of buns fed to him by spectators, increased rapidly.

Jumbo's name likely derived from the Swahili ' jambo' (hello), 'jambe' (chief) or 'tembo' (elephant). Unlike a domestic cat or dog Jumbo didn't know his name or respond to it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'jumbo' as 'a large person or thing'. The word has become an anthropomorphic synonym for 'hugeness, affability and warmness'. Nowadays, 'hugeness' is the only meaning. Jumbo hamburgers are extra-large (but not made of minced elephant or, indeed, of minced ham). Jumbo jets are not piloted by elephants.

At the London Zoo in Regents Park, Jumbo was soon famous as English children's giant pet. One might wonder how much their tuppenny rides later affected Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and other notables, how those bumpy rides influenced world history.

Jumbo's popularity boosted 19th-century antivivisection campaigns and the founding of the RSPCA which sponsored the Cruelty to Animals Act in the British parliament in 1876.

Meanwhile, Jumbo's outbursts of self-harming and destructive wrath, resulting from childhood trauma, were subdued by Scott and the zoo superintendent with whips and chains. Some circus elephant-handlers, reportedly, used sledgehammers, whips being deemed ineffective on the animals 2.5cm thick hide. Yet, the animal will react to a fly alighting upon it.

Jumbo's outbursts occurred at night, when he was returned to his cage; conveniently, his punishments went unwitnessed by his adoring public. At such times, he would tolerate nobody except Scott, who was credited with 'extra-sensory powers'. He communicated with his protege by signals and sounds only they could understand.

Beloved of royalty, during royal appearances Jumbo performed his duties impeccably, with no incidences of toilet mishaps.

The provision of a mate, named Alice, fulfilled the Victorian image of respectability. Shrewd precautions were taken after he reached mating-age, although neither he nor Alice showed any interest in one another. Nevertheless, the authorities felt that women and children should be protected, just in case.

In 1882, despite letters to Queen Victoria from 100,000 children, Jumbo was sold to Phineas T Barnum, owner of the 'Greatest Show on Earth', and was transported, accompanied by Scott, to the USA. There, he relaxed and fattened. Maybe, like Mr Trump, he enjoyed hamburgers and fries but this is unlikely, elephants being vegetarian. However, the tranquilising effect of more regular and larger measures of whiskey, known to have kept him calm in London Zoo, may have helped.

It might have been an overdose of 'the drink' that eventually, did for the poor animal who, one day, while 'plastered', broke loose and charged headlong into the path of a thundering train. His faithful friend Scott never recovered from the event, and died penniless and heartbroken, spending his last days in solitary conversation with the departed Jumbo.

While western children enjoyed their 'pet', elephant hunting was a recreational pursuit of the rich and famous in Victorian times. Macho statesmen and celebrities spent small fortunes on 'hunting' them, along with rhinoceros and hippopotamus. A certain James Sutherland was the first European to kill 1,000 elephants (I doubt if any African preceded him) and Roosevelt and George Orwell wrote elephant-hunting memoirs. Ernest Hemingway gloried in shooting elephants, and kept an elephant gun on his mantlepiece.

In 2018, the Trump government overturned an Obama administration ban on hunters bringing trophies of elephants they killed in Africa back to the US. A 2011 photo of Donald Trump Jr shows him proudly holding a bloody knife and the severed tail of an elephant he killed in Zimbabwe.

But... Enough of Trump already! "Hear, hear!", the majority of Americans say.

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