The Strange and Wonderful Elephant

by Nick


Seventeenth-century Londoners were used to exotic animals. As a port London had its fair share of sailors and traders bringing in animals from abroad, like parrots, monkeys and lions. Even so, you can imagine the wonder it must have caused when in 1675 Lord George Berkeley imported an elephant to London.

The illustrations above are taken from two pamphlets describing the elephant. They are part of a long tradition of cheap books describing wondrous beasts: 77 years earlier, for example, Londoners had been able to read about A Most Strange and Wonderfull Herring (1598), with pictures on its sides of men fighting and of strange runic letters. The difference with Berkeley’s elephant and the Dutch herring is the the latter was written about in a heavily didactic way. Readers were meant to see the herring as a portent to be linked to contemporary events. By 1675 the elephant could be presented as a curiosity of the natural world rather than something linked to the supernatural.

Both authors are at pains to describe the elephant’s physical details, its age, and the likely size it will grow to. The woodcuts would also have given a (not too inaccurate) sense of what the animal looked like. In other respects, though, readers still would have taken away a perception of the elephant filtered through very old-fashioned lenses.

Like many early modern descriptions of elephants, A Full and True Relation is taken almost entirely from Pliny the Elder’s account of elephants:

  • The closest of all the animals to man in intelligence.
  • They understand the language of the country they were bred in.
  • They excel in goodness and honesty.
  • They fight to the death with dragons/snakes.
  • They carry castles full of men on their back.
  • They have 2 year pregnancies and live for 200 to 300 years.

The author also adds a detail from Isidore of Seville that they are afraid of mice, and another from Bartholomaeus Anglicus that they go down to the river at new moon to wash themselves.

A True and Perfect Description sneers at Pliny and other classical and medieval authors, saying that it will not repeat lies that the reader can look up in those texts. The author corrects Pliny’s assertion that the elephant does not have joints. Certainly it seems that there are more first and second-hand accounts of elephants within the text. This anecdote was particularly nice:

They are said to be very amourous of handsome women, (whence it appears that he is worse than a Beast that hates them), and to be very Kind and Grateful to their Keepers, insomuch as one upon a time (as the story has it) one of them seeing in his Masters absence a Man lying with his Mistris, as soon as he came from her, fell upon him and Killed him, I wish every Citizen had one of them for that trick.

But other details are still taken from standard bestiaries: the story that elephants bury their teeth to hide them from men, and that they are chaste animals.

Apart from the pamphlets, and a mock-speech by the elephant to celebrate it being shown at Bartholomew Fair, the only contemporary reactions to the elephant that I can find are one by Robert Hooke, and one in a newspaper. In Hooke’s diary he recorded the following:

12 August. Elephant sold for £1600.

2 September. Walkd to see elephant.

1 October. Saw elephant 3sh.

Meanwhile the City Mercury‘s edition of November 2 described how Berkeley had been sold the elephant for £2,000, and that the elephant:

was now to be seen at the White Horse Inn over against Salisbury Court in Fleet Street, at which place there is provided accommodation for the Nobility, Gentry and Commonalty for that purpose.

It’s also possible that it inspired Francis Barlow’s picture of a fight between an elephant and a rhinoceros (1684). Barlow’s print-shop, as Aubrey Noakes has pointed out, was just round the corner from Salisbury Court. On 25 August 1684 a rhinoceros was imported into London, and it seems possible that Barlow matched the pair in the death-match to end all death-matches…

1. Anonymous, A full and true relation of the elephant that is brought over into England from the Indies, and landed at London, August 3d. 1675. Giving likewise a true account of the wonderful nature, understanding, breeding, taking and taming of elephants (London, 1675).

2. Anonymous, A True and perfect description of the strange and wonderful elephant sent from the East-Indies and brought to London on Tuesday the third of August, 1675 : with a discourse of the nature and qualitites of elephants in general (London, 1675).

3. Anonymous, A description of the rhinoceros, lately brought from the East-Indies, and sold the 25th. of this instant August, to Mr. L. for 2320£ (London, 1684).