No looking at my elephant

Mary Wellesley

  • BuyMenagerie: The History of Exotic Animals in England 1100-1837 by Caroline Grigson
    Oxford, 349 pp, £25.00, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 871470 5

In 1735, the Duke of Richmond was in search of a sloth bear. He took delivery of an animal but wasn’t happy with what had arrived. ‘I wish indeed it had been the Sloath that had been sent me, for that is the most curious animal I know, butt this is nothing butt a common black bear, which I do not know what to do with, for I have five of them already,’ he wrote to Hans Sloane, who had acted as his buying agent. ‘I beg you would tell him not to send me any Bears, Eagles, Leopards or Tygers, for I am overstock’d with them already.’

Caroline Grigson’s account of the history of exotic animals in England, which stretches from the medieval period to the closure of the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London in the 1830s, is filled with stories of royal and aristocratic whim. Often they are stories of bizarre adoration, as in the case of George IV and his giraffe, which was captured as a calf in Sudan and sent north to Khartoum trussed up on the back of a camel. From there she was sent by boat to Cairo, on to Malta and then to England, where she arrived in June 1827 and was taken to Windsor. The king had her fed on a supposedly nourishing diet of milk, ordered a warm and commodious stable to be constructed for her comfort, and commissioned portraits of her from three painters. But she didn’t thrive. Her head began to droop and physicians were summoned. The ‘indisposition of the Giraffe at Windsor’, they explained, ‘has arisen from the animal’s loyal sympathy to his Majesty’s twinges in his toe, in his late fit of gout’. The giraffe lived on for another year or so, after which the king had her stuffed.

Exotic beasts didn’t always find such favour. When Lady Lisle gave Anne Boleyn a monkey in 1534, she wasn’t pleased. ‘As to touching your monkey,’ John Hussee wrote to Lisle the following year, ‘of a truth, madam, the queen loveth no such beasts nor can scarce abide the sight of them.’ What happened to the monkey isn’t clear. One hopes Anne didn’t do to it what Samuel Pepys did to his pet monkey in 1661: he battered it half to death in a fit of rage. Perhaps she palmed it off on a distant relative, as Pepys did with his pet eagle a few years later, writing in his diary that ‘we were heartily glad to be rid of her, she fouling our house mightily.’

Captain Cook had more success when the Resolution arrived in Woolwich in 1775, carrying birds and animals purchased by Johann Reinhold Forster, the expedition’s naturalist, in South Africa, and intended for the queen. John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was waiting on the dock to greet the ship with his lover, Martha Ray, who ‘manifested an unbounded affection towards the pretty creatures and a violent longing to be made mistress of them’. But even after ‘repeatedly signifying that she wished to have them, [she] went away dissatisfied’, and the animals were taken to Kew. (Grigson doesn’t mention it, but Ray’s son by the earl, Basil Montagu, would go on to be a founder member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which became ‘Royal’ in 1840.) Ray’s ‘violent longing’ gets at the tension at the heart of Menagerie: there’s cruelty as well as affection on every page.

Neglect and inappropriate diets, either from ignorance or carelessness, loom large in Grigson’s narrative. The first two black swans to arrive in Britain, from New South Wales, both came to a speedy end: one died and the other was shot by a gamekeeper. Robert Cecil is said to have given his parakeet claret. A zebra brought from Ethiopia by the East India Company in 1826 was allowed to make frequent visits to the canteen of the Royal Menagerie to drink ale, of which it was reported to be ‘exceedingly fond’. The effect on the zebra is not recorded, but alcohol had lethal consequences for a pig-tailed macaque in 1828. An ‘excessive’ drinker of porter, it died of ‘confirmed’ dropsy.

There were further indignities. In 1810, a menagerie owner called Mr Brookes imported a ‘white camel’ to Britain. The beast was a ‘novelty’ in London, but Brookes wanted it to be ‘still more novel’ and ‘caused it to be artificially spotted and produced it to the public as a camelopard’. (The fraud was discovered by some ‘scientific naturalists’ when it was exhibited at Windsor.) There were also some alarming attempts at cross-breeding. In 1773, Lord Robert Clive was determined that his zebra mare should mate with an ass. The zebra ‘shewed great disgust’ but Clive persevered: the ass was painted with stripes, ‘whereupon she accepted him’. (The mule that resulted from this union was said to be ‘sullen, vindictive and untractable’.) In some cases, unusual cross-breeding was engineered by the animals themselves. One Captain Mears reported that on a boat journey from Bombay to London, a female jackal travelling in the same boat took a shine to a spaniel. Mears noted that she ‘enticed this small dog’ to mate with her and later produced puppies.

In 1792, Lieutenant Henry Ball anchored the HMS Supply in Plymouth. It seems the ship was misnamed – supplies had been short on its latest voyage, and the crew had eaten some of the kangaroos they were carrying. Three unappetising ones survived, two of which were presented to George III. Here and there an animal exacted a paltry revenge. In 1768, two men were leading a bear up Haymarket to sell him; the bear ‘got off his muzzle and seized one of them by the hand, and bit off one of his fingers; he next seized the other man by his leg and tore it in a very terrible manner.’ In the early 1780s a ‘fine brown bear’ mauled the wife of the keeper of the Tower menagerie after she left the door of its cage open. The bear was subsequently destroyed on the order of the Prince of Wales.

Menagerie is a fact-driven narrative with an exemplary commitment to detail. How much could a person expect to be paid for the upkeep of a marsupial in 1611? William Walker, keeper of fowl at the menagerie in St James’s Park, was paid five shillings a month to care for England’s first recorded opossum. What was the customs duty on an emu in 1801? Joseph Banks narrowly avoided customs duty ad valorem – duty based on market value – on three of them, which would have set him back £3000 (about £200,000 in today’s money), but got away with paying 12s 8d for a warrant (roughly £42). What did a ride on a rhinoceros cost in 1684? At the Belle Sauvage Inn, at the bottom of Ludgate Hill, one shilling would have bought you a glimpse of the rhino, while for two shillings you could sit on its back.

Grigson has included a second index specifically for animals, with entries under, say, ‘Elephant’, such as ‘African, Henry III’s’, ‘Duke of Devonshire’s’ and ‘Effect of music on’. She also has an ear for language and quotes judiciously. Thomas Clark, the proprietor of a menagerie in Exeter Change in London, had an Indian rhinoceros in 1790 which was extraordinarily docile and had a temperament ‘equal to that of a tolerably tractable pig’. It liked to drink sweet wine and would bleat like a calf when it saw anyone carrying its favourite food. In 1758, Horace Walpole described a camel (two humps) and a dromedary (one hump) that were on display in London. They were advertised as ‘a wonderful camel and a surprising camel’. ‘One wonders which was which,’ Grigson writes. An orangutan was called a ‘wild man of the wood’; a ‘woman-tyger’ or ‘man-tyger’ was a mandrill; and a ‘child of the sun’ was a baboon. One baboon caused a stir in 1784, overshadowing even Mrs Siddons’s stage performances. The ‘Siddonian rage’ was displaced by ‘savage rage’, wherein ‘all denominations of people are now flocking, from the peer to the peasant’ to ‘behold the wondrous Child of the Sun’.

Animals have often been pressed into the service of pageantry and diplomacy. When Tsar Alexis’s envoys came to London in 1662, they brought gifts for the king, as noted by Pepys: ‘rich furs, hawkes, carpets, cloths of tissue, sea-horse teeth [walrus tusks]’. Pepys doesn’t mention that they also brought six goshawks, two horses, four falcons, ‘one living martin’ (presumably as opposed to the dead furs), one crane and – mysteriously – two pelicans. The pelicans were kept in the king’s menagerie in St James’s Park, where three years later John Evelyn ‘examined the Throate of the Onocratylus or Pelecan … a Melancholy water foule, brought from Astracan by the Russian Ambassador’. It’s possible that the birds that inhabit the park today are distant descendants of these Russian envoys. Other diplomatic gifts were more overtly impressive. In 1703, the King of Barbary sent ‘two young lions’ to Queen Anne. Five years later, the Emperor of Morocco’s ambassador arrived in London with five lions in tow, while George II was sent two ostriches in the 1740s by the Bey of Tunis.

The keeping of exotic animals has, at times, interlocked with larger political agendas. During the Interregnum, Hyde Park and other royal parks were sold off for the good of the Commonwealth; theatres and bear pits were closed down. The Royal Menagerie in St James’s Park fell into disuse, and Oliver Cromwell’s wife kept a dairy there. After the Restoration, Charles II set about renovating St James’s Park, filling it with parrots, partridges, pheasants and rabbits, as well as guinea fowl, monkeys and ‘the handsomest deer’. To keep the park full of such deer, he decreed that two of the handsomest be sent to London with every returning East India Company ship. During the reign of James I, there had been concern that the animals in St James’s Park should not be visible to the public; the king decreed that his elephant should not be seen and that the menagerie’s camels should be shielded from ‘the vulgar gaze’. Under Charles II, some visitors were permitted access; exploring the renovated menagerie in 1663, the traveller Peter Mundy remarked on the ‘cassawarwa, a strange fowle somewhat lesser than an estridge … a shee bustard’ and also some ‘outlandish geese’.

A relentless desire to anthropomorphise runs down the years in Grigson’s book. After visiting the menagerie at Exeter Change in London, Byron wrote of a ‘hippopotamus, like Lord L.L. [Liverpool, the prime minister] in the face’, and an ‘Ursine Sloth’ that had ‘the very voice and manner of my valet’. But the capacity for seeing human traits in animals came hand in hand with a capacity for seeing animal traits in humans. In a letter to Lord Monboddo in 1789, Philip Thicknesse wrote that a baboon he’d seen ‘understood everything said to him by his keeper, and had more sense than half the brutes erect we meet in the streets’. Thicknesse went on to describe the way the baboon ‘possessed himself of his lady’s lap dog and no art or force could make him deliver it up. It lived sometime in the cage with him and when his caresses and holding the dog too close, it died, he would never eat after.’ For Thicknesse, one of the traits that makes the baboon superior to the ‘brutes erect we meet in the streets’ was its apparent desire to take a pet of its own.

The book is also a story of globalisation, glimpsed sideways. Many of the exotic animals that Grigson describes were brought to Britain in the holds of trade vessels. She depicts London’s docks as places where unusual beasts were routinely offloaded from incoming ships and made available for purchase. Many naturalists found passage in ships undertaking missions for trade or diplomacy. In 1816, Clarke Abel accompanied Lord Amherst on an unsuccessful diplomatic mission to China: Amherst refused to kowtow to the emperor and was turned away. The expedition’s ship was wrecked in the Sunda Strait on the way home, with the loss of all the specimens Abel had collected on the voyage, but while waiting for a replacement vessel in Batavia, he encountered a female orangutan which had made its nest in the branches of a tamarind tree near his lodging. Abel induced the orangutan to join him on his homeward journey, during which she had the freedom of the ship; she was fed meat, bread, tea and coffee, and sometimes took a nip from the captain’s brandy bottle. When she felt cold she would descend from the rigging to find a sailor to snuggle with. On arrival in England, the first orangutan in the country, she received ‘nearly all the faculty and fashionable in town’.

Animals weren’t, of course, the only unwilling passengers on the vessels that brought them to British shores. In the late 17th century, Thomas Dymock, keeper of His Majesty’s lions, also kept a slave. He put a notice in the London Gazette in 1686 stating that he had lost ‘a black boy … aged about 16’ wearing ‘a Silver Collar about his Neck, Engraven, Thomas Dymock at the Lyon Office’. It was noted that the boy ‘speaks but bad English and hath holes in both his ears’. Elsewhere Grigson describes one of the first chimpanzees in England, which arrived in May 1698 and was exhibited at Moncrief’s coffeehouse in Threadneedle Street, where it soon died. It was reported that the ‘monster’ came from ‘Angola in Africk, and was sold to the Captain amongst a parcel of slaves’. Slaves surface with some frequency throughout Grigson’s story, as when she mentions – in passing – that when Lord Robert Clive returned from India in 1767, he brought with him a monkey wearing clothes, birds, several dogs and a slave, called Black Robin. (The rest of the animals followed on a later ship.)

Menagerie ends with the opening of London Zoo. Grigson is at pains to argue that it was not founded as a symbol of the British Empire’s power and prestige, noting that the zoo’s prospectus stated that it was ‘primarily concerned with the promotion of the “scientific aspect”’. In her conclusion she returns to the theme: ‘While an elephant, an ape or a giraffe might excite the curiosity and wonder of a visitor to the Zoo, it is doubtful whether they would impress him or her with visions of Empire.’ All the same, this was surely part of the zoo’s purpose, given that it was set up by Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, after he visited the Jardin des Plantes in 1817. The zoo was given a considerable boost by the Duke of Wellington, a man of exacting mind and reactionary politics, who orchestrated, in his role as constable of the Tower of London, the closure of the Royal Menagerie there, and the removal of its animals to Regent’s Park. Wellington was a member of the Zoological Society of London and officially opened the zoo in April 1828.

In closing Menagerie where she does, Grigson makes a distinction between menageries and zoos: zoos are aimed at the promotion of scientific knowledge. But a desire to contain and control cuts across both. In January 1791, the menagerie owner Gilbert Pidcock exhibited a famous Irish dwarf, Owen Farrell, alongside a colt with three legs and a heifer with two heads. The poster advertising the exhibit noted of the heifer that ‘it is the received opinion of John Hunter, Esq. Professor of Anatomy that she has Two Hearts.’ The poster makes a pretence of scientific purpose to offset the mawkishness of the display. There’s something strange in being able to see a valet’s face in a sloth yet exhibiting a human being alongside a cow with two heads. In A la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel and Odette visit a human zoo displaying ‘Sinhalese’ in the amusement park of the Bois de Boulogne. It’s a chilling moment. Perhaps, a hundred years from now, the idea of an animal zoo will induce a similar chill.