Rob Hardy on books

 

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A Sad Elephantasia

 

 

Rob Hardy

 

We love elephants; think of Horton and Babar, for instance. The elephant house is one of the most visited sections of the zoo, even though the big beasts usually do nothing but stand around. Circuses give top billing of all the animals to the elephants. And because we love them so, we have done elephants little good. That sad conclusion plays throughout the specific story and the larger descriptions within Jumbo: The Unauthorized Biography of a Victorian Sensation (Aurum Press) by the prolific author on Victorian themes, John Sutherland. That "unauthorized" in the title is the book's first joke; there is much good humor on display here in a truly sad story. The second joke comes before the text, where the author tells us the book isn't what it says on the cover, "This is not a biography of the world's most renowned elephant, nor of its famed owners, the London Zoo and Phineas T. Barnum." In fact, only the first half of the book deals with Jumbo himself; his sad death comes midway in the book, which thereafter covers Jumbo's afterlife, other less famous elephants, the ivory trade, and more. Sutherland calls this an "elephantasia;" like just about everyone, he clearly loves elephants, and he has written with lightness, puns, and humor, all the while telling an infuriating story of misunderstanding and mistreatment of magnificent animals. 

 

 

 

Jumbo was preceded in London by Chunee, an Indian elephant that was a star of a commercial menagerie. Sundays, he would be led on a stroll of London streets, where he caught the attention of crowds. Elephants, however, are not dogs or cats; besides being huge, they did not evolve alongside us to be domesticated animals. One of the difficulties for a kept male elephant is that he can simply go sex crazy. This is called the "musth," and in the wild, it does nothing but propagate the species. In captivity, however, it can lead to aberrant and aggressive behavior. In 1826, Chunee killed one of his attendants, and was sentenced to death. Soldiers were called in to shoot the poor animal, and shot him scores of times, and when the rifle bullets stunned but did not kill him, they finished him off by stabbing him with their swords. There were protests, and thereafter elephants in England were not kept in commercial displays, but in zoos or circuses. 

 

 

 

Jumbo was to start in zoos and graduate to the circus. He had been born around 1860 in what is now Eritrea, an orphan so early that his mother was not around to socialize him into being a proper elephant. He wound up in a zoo in Paris, and failed to prosper or make a hit with the public. There was a snowball effect; he was listless and diseased with infection and rodent bites, so that he was neglected all the more. He did better when he was swapped to London, for a rhino and some money. At the Zoological Society of London he had at least a sympathetic keeper, Matthew Scott. This did not save him from being tormented by whip or spear, but Jumbo was more tractable when Scott was around. Scott was the one who profited from selling penny buns to visitors that they could in turn pass to Jumbo. Scott would check to make sure that the buns didn't contain inserted items that visitors wondered if the beast would eat. When Jumbo died, his guts did contain undigested British coins and even a policeman's whistle. Scott had a fondness for the bottle, and any success he had in bonding with Jumbo or getting the elephant to do his bidding is at least partially because Jumbo got his dose, too.  

 

 

 

Jumbo got his name upon his transfer to London. Sutherland shoots down the idea that "Jumbo" came from Swahili words for either "hello" or "chief," nor was it from the "mumbo jumbo" of the supposed incantations of witch doctors. "Jumbo," according to the OED, was originally slang for "a clumsy or unwieldly fellow," and that surely would have suited the young and ailing elephant when London acquired him. Not the least of Jumbo's accomplishments, writes Sutherland, is that he changed the meaning of the word. As he got healthier and much, much bigger, "Jumbo" got to mean great big. Because the big animal was hailed for his happiness and gentleness (at least as far as the public was allowed to see), the word also acquired some cosiness and geniality. (Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were among the the thousands who rode on Jumbo's back.) "Who," asks Sutherland, "would want to fly in a jet plane trailing the epithets 'clumsy' and 'unwieldly'?"  

 

 

 

Abraham Bartlett, the supervisor of the Zoological Society of London, knew that Jumbo was a big draw, but he resented that no one but Scott supervised the animal, or made money from the buns. Thus, when Jumbo was about 22 years old in 1881, and had his first musth, Bartlett had an excuse to get rid of them both. After all, Jumbo could not be "the children's giant pet" and also sport a gigantic hormone-fueled erection. Bartlett even sought funds for an elephant gun (for he knew how the puny rifles had failed to put Chunee away), and got the funds. But luck was on Bartlett's (and Jumbo's) side; just when Jumbo's end was contemplated, here came P. T. Barnum who wanted the biggest elephant in the world for his show in America. Jumbo was not the biggest elephant in the world, but that didn't keep Barnum from bragging about his being so. Bartlett was glad to get a bit of money for the elephant and to have Scott thrown in as part of the deal. The British press milked the protests against selling Jumbo to a Yankee; even then, reader rage was encouraged to increase circulation. But a deal was a deal, and with enormous difficulty in 1882, Jumbo was crated and shipped to his new country. 

 

 

 

Barnum was no slouch in playing the papers his own way, encouraging the reporting of the stories that he had gotten Jumbo even though the elephant was the special favorite of Queen Victoria, who would bring him to Buckingham Palace and ride him around the grounds with Disraeli as a mahout. "They swallowed it," writes Sutherland. "The suckers always did." Jumbo was a popular circus attraction until 1885 when he and the rest of the Barnum and Bailey circus were being loaded onto train cars after a show in St. Thomas, Ontario. There was some sort of rail confusion, and a train headed for Jumbo, who for some reason, charged into it, dying instantly as his tusks were driven into his brain. It was not much of a setback for Barnum. He promptly told the papers that Jumbo had died a hero, protecting another elephant. Then Barnum had Jumbo skinned, and stuffed (with extra volume added so he would look bigger), and displayed at a quarter a view. It was a sad end to a sad life. 

 

 

 

There is so much more sadness here. There is Topsy the elephant who in 1902 killed a drunken visitor who abused her by feeding her a lighted cigar. She had to be executed, and there was just the man to do so: Thomas Edison wanted to show the world how dangerous alternating current was, and did so by arranging Topsy's electrocution. To make sure everyone knew that alternating current was so awful it could even kill an elephant, Edison arranged for the procedure to be filmed, and you can see it on YouTube to this day (using alternating current for your computer, of course). Another elephant was hanged for homicide (the unpleasant details of how one would hang an elephant are here). It is happier to learn about Dumbo the elephant, even if the Disney film failed because of Dumbo's flying attack on the circus, funny enough when the film came out but not funny after Pearl Harbor a few weeks later. Sutherland's delight in literature is on show; John Donne wrote about elephants, as did Dorothy Parker, and of course Rudyard Kipling. But so did Joseph Conrad; remember that in Heart of Darkness, Kurtz was an ivory hunter. And the ivory went to billiard balls and piano keys, and though we have substitutes for those now, there are still rich people who want genuine ivory tchotchkes, and don't care about cost or elephant welfare. Humans have not played the elephants fair despite our abiding affection for the big, lumbering beasts, and Jumbo, for all its weird and funny and sometimes touching stories, is a sorrowful and angry book.

 

 

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