JUMBO The Unauthorized Biography of a Victorian Sensation

from the chapter: The Many Lives of Jumbo.

by John Sutherland

He was not born ‘Jumbo’, of course, and he would not acquire that immortal, but intrinsically enigmatic, name for many years. ‘The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race, Whose Like the World Will Never See Again’, as P.T. Barnum would call him, began life as a motherless runt, lucky not to end up in a stewpot or eaten alive by desert crows. His remarkable career, from waif to monarch, is symbolic of many things in Victorian life – not least ‘rising’ in the world. In Jumbo’s case, top of the world. Or, at least, top of the big top.

Baby Jumbo’s exact place and date of birth is vague. He might, as regards the genealogical record, have been brought in by the stork, from who knows where, like his namesake Jumbo Jr in the film Dumbo. His birthdate is most reliably put as sometime in early 1860, or shortly thereafter. The place was indeterminately what was borderland Abyssinia and the Sudan and is now Eritrea. It was, in 1862, a terra incognita visited only by the occasional white hunter, merchant or explorer. They too, legend had it, might end up in a stewpot. It is not a safe place to visit today: you won’t find it in the Sunday travel supplements. It is of significance to Jumbo’s later career – and his preservation – that this was a region in which France had a colonial interest. It was French money, and the channels it grooved, which rendered him worth keeping alive over the first parlous year of his babyhood captivity.

Elephants, in their natural habitat, roam in loosely organized herds with complex social, linguistic and gender systems which, to this day, are not entirely understood. Jumbo belonged to the more far-ranging of the species, the African branch of the twin family of surviving proboscidea. The other branch was the more docile, smaller eared, smaller tusked, Asian elephant, long a drudge in the service of mankind. Loxodonta Africana (the first word means ‘slanting teeth’, ie. tusks) are not by nature servile and, in Jumbo’s day, were commonly believed to be as savage as they were massive. They are, by all accounts, more aggressive and less easily trained. But that may be because unlike the Asian variety they have not been bred for thousands of years for docility and as beasts of burden. Poodles, one recalls, were once hunting dogs….

Jumbo’s sub-variety of African elephant is deemed the earth’s largest surviving land mammal. Despite all the hype, during his years with the American circus magnate Barnum, Jumbo was never the world’s largest individual elephant. In fact, for a fully grown African male, he could be thought stunted. No Jumbo in the Mr Universe sense. Bulls a full foot and a half taller have been recorded in the wild. Jumbo’s weight, however, was a full ton and a half more than it would have been had he been obliged to forage for himself in the wild. The African elephant is routinely described as ‘lank’, and ‘lean’ for its size. The public’s love of giving Jumbo buns and lack of the activities his frame was designed for (finding food, fighting, sex) was the reason. He was obese: Jumboish in the Billy Bunter sense…

The first white man to see Jumbo, something he liked to boast about all his long life, was the explorer, big-game hunter and prolific author, Samuel White Baker(1821–1893). Nicknamed the ‘Victorian Nimrod’ Baker was himself a famed elephant killer – he had picked up the craft in the wet jungles of Ceylon. The African elephant, particularly in dry habitats, was tougher, and more dangerous prey by far – something immortalised by a picture of Baker himself in flight from Loxodonta Africana….

It is to Baker that we owe the fullest and most vivid description of the world into which Jumbo was born, in which he nearly died, and from which he was rescued or – as others (including Baker) would see it – taken into elephant slavery as wretched as those African bipeds transported a hundred years earlier to the Americas.

Jumbo was very little game when the big-game hunter saw him in early 1861. In fact, he hardly qualified as game at all. At two years old he was barely 40 inches tall – smaller than a pit pony and barely larger than a great dane. Baker was not, as it happened, in Africa primarily to hunt elephants (although he always did so when the opportunity arose) but in pursuit of that Victorian chimera, the source of the Nile.

In Abyssinia, he fell in with a clan of Hamran Arabs, under their leader, Taher Sherrif, a great man among his people and, like Baker, a ‘mighty Nimrod’. Jumbo was a captive of the clan, recently taken from his slaughtered mother, and was being kept penned, along with another baby elephant and rhino, ostriches and other wild animals. It struck Baker as odd from what he knew of the ways of the African Arab. The Hamran were not by nature or tradition Doctor Dolittles but Nimrods – hunters, not keepers, of animals. They had not the slightest interest in ‘domesticated’ beasts or, perish the thought, ‘pets’, any more than an eagle would want a canary in a cage to decorate its eyrie. It was a truth observable across the whole dark continent. As Baker observed:

The natives of Africa are peculiarly savage, and their
instincts of destruction prevent them from capturing
and domesticating any wild animals. During nine years’
experience of Central Africa I never saw a tamed creature
of any kind, not even a bird, or a young antelope in
possession of a child.

Elephants were traditionally valuable to the Hamran solely as sources of food and, with the edible flesh stripped off, semi-precious materials. As Baker records in True Tales for My Grandsons:

The carcase of an elephant is a supply for an entire
village; the fat is boiled down, the flesh is smoked
and dried for a future store, the hide is prepared for
the manufacture of shields; even the skull and the
bones are hewn into pieces, from which the oily fat
is extracted, and the tusks remain as trophies of the
chase, one of the pair being the perquisite of the chief.
In many places the tusks are used for making heavy
armlets; and for trumpets.

For those on the very edge of civilisation (an ever-infringing edge in the nineteenth century) the tusks also represented a cash crop, ivory, for which there has been, since time immemorial, an international market. Baby Jumbo had no tusks and nothing else of obvious value to the Arabs. Why were they going to all the trouble of keeping him? And why was he penned in a menagerie or small zoo in which the owners had not the slightest zoological interest and tourists, like Baker, could only visit at the risk of their lives?
One thing was certain. He was an orphan. The techniques by which Jumbo’s mother had been killed are described, admiringly, by Baker. The Hamran used a hunting party of four. In this case Sherrif and his three brothers. Their horsemanship was non-pareil:

Never were there more complete Centaurs than these
Hamran Arabs; the horse and man appeared to be one
animal, and that of the most elastic nature, that could
twist and turn with the suppleness of a snake.

When a likely beast was seen, usually by a waterhole with open space for manoeuvre, one of the party attracted its attention and incited it to charge. The second rider, with the most dangerous mission of the four, galloped at top speed from behind the quarry, armed with a heavy, two-bladed sword, and slashed at the back sinew of the elephant’s hind leg, where the hide was thin. One well-aimed (and always lucky) blow would hobble the beast. The other two riders held back to assist if things went badly.

If things went well the elephant would stumble to the ground and bleed out in an hour or so, in a pool of some 500 litres of its own blood (a painless death, the more squeamish Baker was reassured). Once drained, cuts of the animal’s meat were more easily carved off and its tusks removed as trophy or booty. This might, of course, be done while the beast was expiring if time pressed (not painless)…

Baker claimed to have been the first white man to see the ‘celebrated Jumbo’ cowering in that strange Hamran menagerie, whose purpose would later be explained to him. He also claimed to have noted how ‘scrawny’ and puny Jumbo was – more so than his baby companion who was sturdier, but who, ironically, did not survive the journey to the coast which followed.

‘Runt Jumbo’ who became ‘King Jumbo’ has entered the mythology. But Baker was recollecting all this very late in life, for his grandchildren, and hunters love to talk big when yarning. How did Baker know which of those two baby elephants (neither of whom yet had names or identifying adult characteristics) died, and which survived? Despite the mythology, common sense suggests it was the sturdier of the two. But the myth is certainly more beautiful.

One thing is certain. Baker despised utterly what his civilisation went on to do with ‘Jumbo’. It was, in his view, obscene, and wholly unsportsman-like to degrade an animal which, in its natural habitat, had nobility – a nobility demonstrated to its fullest in the drama of the hunt, in which both man and beast staked their lives. Better by far to have died bleeding on the dusty plains of Abyssinia …


Reprinted with permission of Quarto Publishing Group