The lasting historical appeal of the elephant

Pachyderms have proved remarkably versatile to European history – used, among other things, as symbols of conquering and colonisation, the lives of these creatures, and the way they have been treated, can stand as metaphor for the Continent’s own relationship to the rest of the world.
babar and celeste
Marriage and coronation of King Babar and Queen Celeste. Credit: Historic Images / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Elephants present a curious paradox: they are the largest land animal alive today, and yet for thousands of years they have been tamed and controlled by humans. They are symbols of ultimate strength but are also ascribed virtues such as wisdom, tender-heartedness, and a measured rationality. They have remained a constant source of intrigue throughout history, especially in Europe, which has been barren of trunked creatures since the extinction of the wooly mammoth. It is Europe’s very lack of elephants that makes them an excellent yardstick of the Continent’s relationship and connection to Asia and Africa. 

The first recorded European elephantine encounter came during Alexander the Great’s campaigns eastward. The creatures became a means of Alexander differentiating himself, and the West, from the East and its defeated leaders. Upon his victory over the Indian King Porus, he commissioned the casting of a coin depicting himself on horseback in battle with the conquered Porus astride an elephant. It was likely here that his tutor Aristotle observed, and later described, elephants in great detail. For the most part, the elephants of antiquity were tools of war, used by both the Romans and their enemies, most famously in the Punic Wars, during which the Carthaginian general Hannibal drove elephants – their numbers ranging between 27 – 40 according to which source you read – across the alps. 

With the fall of the Rome, Europe’s access to elephants dried out, and any knowledge or experience of elephants gave way to exotic mystery and fantasy. Drawings of elephants from the medieval period are testament to this, with depictions of them covered in fur, earless and pig-like. They were often shown carrying entire towers on their backs, in a misunderstanding of elephant carriages— the legacy of this confusion should be clear to anyone arriving at London’s Elephant & Castle underground station.

Much like Alexander using the symbol of the elephant to draw the line between East and West, conqueror and conquered, in the medieval period, the legend of the elephant became a means of drawing a line between the sinful and god-fearing as the animals were ascribed risibly Christian values — for instance, medieval bestiaries wrote that a female elephant would mate once in her lifetime, and only after travelling to the Garden of Eden and re-enacting the Fall of Man. 

There were exceptions, however, usually in the form of diplomatic gifts, beginning with the elephant Abul-Abbas, a gift from the Caliph of Bagdad to the emperor Charlemagne. The Crusades also presented an opportunity for some elephants to make it to Christendom with Louis XI of France picking one up on his way back from the Holy Land. This elephant was gifted to the Henry III of England. He arrived at the Tower of London in 1255 where he enjoyed diet of prime cuts of beef and red wine, according to the chronicles of Matthew Paris. This gluttony caught up with the creature and he died of alcohol poisoning in 1257.

But for the most part, elephants were few and far between on the Continent until the Renaissance. Spearheaded by the Portuguese and their highly profitable sea route to south India and Ceylon, at least six Asian elephants made their way to Europe during this period.  One of these was the elephant Hanno, the first elephant to come to Italy since antiquity, in 1514. He was one in a long line of gifts given by Manuel I of Portugal to Pope Leo X in a bid to demonstrate the glittering success of Portugal’s conquests in Asia. 

Despite garnering huge amounts of attention and excitement, these Renaissance elephants were to some extent a bit of anti-climax, given the false reports of their appearances and prowess from antiquity and the medieval era, and over-excited reports from ‘the orient.’ The elephant Hansken was one of these disappointments. But, although she was not able to write in Greek (as Pliny the Elder reported of elephants), she could fire a pistol and put on a hat which was enough to make her a celebrity in seventeenth-century Europe. She was drawn by Rembrandt which marked a significant improvement to medieval efforts.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elephants were trafficked with relative ease and soon became concrete proof of the corridors of empire. They became a pillar in circuses and ethno-zoological spectaculars in which they were once again used to draw the line between civilisation and so-called savagery. These elephants took part in dance performances and the recreation of ‘typical’ Indian street scenes in an attempt to tap into the audiences’ thirst for the exotic. These garnered a particular popularity in regions of Eastern Europe without their own empires as a means of tending to their unrealised colonial longings, such as in Poland, where elephants became embroiled in nationalist ambitions. 

 As Marianna Szczygielska notes in her excellent paper on Poland’s Pozan Zoo, Elephant Empire: Zoos and Colonia Encounters in Eastern Europe: ‘a zoo makes the town, and an elephant makes the zoo.’ While Poland would never have an empire, it did have elephants. Soon the elephant became a symbol for Poland itself: a proud and noble beast, rebellious and yet wounded and enchained by a cruel overlord—Germany. 

The Second World War and the weakening of Europe’s empires had a knock-on effect on the trade in exotic animals – but one famous elephant managed to get to Europe eight years before the outbreak of the war.  Babar first appeared in the bedtime stories of the French de Brunhoff children and later in the book Babar, le petit elephant, first published in 1931, written and illustrated by their father, Jean. Rather than a gift passed between kings, Babar himself is elected le roi des elephantes and uses his reign to transport jungle-adjacent pseudo-Parisian customs back to the elephant kingdom. Soon his subjects are dressing in French-style suits and founding their own orderly metropolis. 

Perceptions of Babar’s rule have soured in recent years, with many critics, such as Herbert Kohl, calling Babar a neo-colonialist. In his article in the New Yorker Adam Gopnik summarises their arguments as follows:

‘The naked African natives, represented by the “good” elephants, are brought to the imperial capital, acculturated, and then sent back to their homeland on a civilizing mission. The elephants that have assimilated to the ways of the metropolis dominate those which have not.’

Gopnik in fact argues against this stance, writing that Babar rather encapsulates the French bourgeoisie’s love of order than any neocolonialist sentiments. I would argue that above all, the series, like so many children’s books, plays on how much children like seeing animals acting like people. Regardless, an elephant has once again been tied up in how Europe sees itself in the world.

Perhaps a more uplifting post-colonial elephant is Bella of Chessington Zoo. The final day of the 1971 cricket Test match between the Indian and English teams fell on the same day as Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival commemorating the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh. This inspired a team of India fans to borrow Bella, driving her to London’s Oval cricket ground to watch the match. Upon seeing her, India’s captain, Ajit Wadekar, prayed to Ganesh for victory which was duly accorded in a historic win. 

Throughout history, elephants in Europe have been tied to conquering and colonisation, wins and losses. They have been treated at best as cherished political pawns and at worst with inhumane cruelty and as a means of enforcing white supremacy. That the lives of these individual elephants can offer us a picture of Europe’s relationship with the continents to its east and south is testament to their enormous and enduring appeal. There had to be something motivating people to shift the giants between continents, after all.

Eve Webster

Eve Webster is Editorial Assistant at Engelsberg Ideas.

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