Home       About us   Issues     Search     Submission Subscribe   Contact    Login 
Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
Users Online: 827 Home Print this page Email this page Small font sizeDefault font sizeIncrease font size

Previous articleTable of Contents Next article

Year : 2010  |  Volume : 8  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 151-152

Chambers, P. Jumbo: The Greatest Elephant in the World

Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi, India

Correspondence Address:
P R Nisha
Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

Rights and Permissions
Date of Web Publication31-Aug-2010

How to cite this article:
Nisha P R. Chambers, P. Jumbo: The Greatest Elephant in the World. Conservat Soc 2010;8:151-2

How to cite this URL:
Nisha P R. Chambers, P. Jumbo: The Greatest Elephant in the World. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2010 [cited 2020 Aug 11];8:151-2. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2010/8/2/151/68917

Jumbo Minorities

Chambers, P. Jumbo: The Greatest Elephant in the World. London: Andre Deutsch. 2007. 224 pp. Paperback. ISBN 9780233002699. GBP 7.99.
"Jumbo, standing in the corner with all his legs chained, raised his trunk to say good-bye to the British people who loved him like a son, his small eyes oozing tears. Thousands burst into tears, giving their dear Jumbo a silent and sorrowful send-off," writes Kandambulli Balan in Malayalam, a quarter of a century ago (The Circus Worker, Book 1, Issue 5, 1980) indicating Jumbo had been a lovely legend even among the circus community of north Malabar, Kerala. In this recent biography (Do animals have autobiographies?) Paul Chambers spins an intricate tale of Jumbo the elephant with the help of archival materials, both personal and public. Obviously, the book moves between various genres pretty fluidly and does not fall into any neat category. Divided into four chapters-'Africa', 'Europe', 'The Jumbo Craze' and 'America'-it movingly illustrates the intimacy between Jumbo and his keeper Mathew Scott while unravelling the stark reality of what colonialism did to the fauna and flora of African and Asian continents. The very idea of Jumbo as the 'greatest elephant in the world' conjures the obsession that was prevalent throughout Europe to see the 'longest, biggest, and the most abnormal and extraordinary' from their colonies. It was this craving of Europeans that brought Jumbo, "the animal superstar" from the wilderness of Africa to the most 'urbanised', 'fashionable' and 'cultured' society of London. Ironically, it is this very 'govern-mentality' that established the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals!

Like any other colonial explorer Samuel White Baker also had to contend with "the hostile tribes, flash floods and the bush fires" of African interiors. There he met the Arabic speaking Aggageer, Taher Sherriff who made a living selling the ivory, bones and hides of elephants he had hunted. Baker, an excellent shot, learned his first lesson from the elephant-catcher who hunted with just a sword-to catch a baby elephant alive they would have to first kill its mother. This was little Jumbo's first encounter with humanity. The brutal animal trade between Europe and its colonies was flourishing. Along with spices and silks, animals were exported for scientific experiments, to be showcased at zoological gardens and parks, and to be stuffed in the museums of London and Paris. Thus-from huntsmen through intermediaries to buyers-little Jumbo reaches the most famous botanical gardens of the French capital.

The second section, 'Europe', a longer chapter compared to others, depicts the voyage of the young Jumbo from Paris to another illustrious colonial headquarters, London. It not only questions our notions of the 'scientific', but also topples our preconceived ideas of zoos and national parks as 'safe' havens where animals live happily, far from the cruel hunters and trainers. Jadin des Plantes, one of the oldest menageries of Paris had a vast collection of birds, reptiles, elephants, monkeys, hippos, bears, camels, tigers, giraffes and lions and zoological specimen which numbered 200,000. Chambers writes that "every shed and stable was overcrowded with animals in want of space, light, food, water, decent breeding, and in some cases, basic medical treatment". Jumbo, only four feet tall then had to spend his first three months in these cramped conditions which made him "deplorable, diseased and rotten" until Abraham Bartlett, the Superintendent of Regents Park Zoological Gardens purchased him offering an Indian rhino, two dingoes, a jackal, a pair of eagles, a possum and a kangaroo. The presence of Indian elephants and rhino reminds us of the booming animal trade between the Asiatic Society in Calcutta and Britain. Wild animals from all over India and the world were brought to Calcutta which was a major port and disembarkation point; in Africa, monkeys, elephants, wild horses, dogs, porcupine, etc. were collected as taxes. {The sheer size and strength must have made elephants hot targets. For instance a colonial account from late-nineteenth century India states: "Elephants now form a Government monopoly throughout India…In 1882-83, 475 elephants were captured in Assam yielding a revenue to government of 8573 pounds…Although the supply is decreasing elephants continue to be in great demand."(W. W. Hunter, The Indian Empire: Its People, History and Products, 1886, AES, New Delhi, Chennai, 2009, pp. 655-56)}. The big contrast was the mass killing of the African elephant for ivory as opposed to the large scale capture of live Asian elephants for work, especially in the army and in other work. In short, the colonial administration gave rewards to kill certain animals, exported them for commercial exploitation, used every single part of animals for 'scientific and educational purposes', showcased them at museums and zoological gardens and one fine morning came up with the grand idea of love and care for animals and the preservation of their environment! They established SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and veterinary hospitals, lethal chambers, Bans of Mercy and Annual Animal Shows as part of the "protection" of animals (Tellicherry Sub-Collectors' Office Records, Serial No. 2264, 1911).

For Mathew Scott, keeper of Jumbo, his profession was more of a passion than livelihood. He knew that, "any person who wanted to gain the total trust of an animal had in return to forfeit some aspect of their own life" (P. 55). Animal trainers have always gone hand in hand with violent power, supremacy, and cruelty in popular imagination. The representation of Scott in the book is also that of a plotter who had defied his superior, Bartlett, and utilised his elephant for personal benefits, though there are touching descriptions of the love and intimacy the animal and his master shared. The description of Scott as one with a "superiority complex", "belligerence", and with a "dislike of human company" is quite akin to the popular notion aforementioned. The difference in the attitudes of Bartlett and Scott toward animals is that of one who lives by animals and with animals respectively. The relationship between Scott and the animals he had trained was, no doubt, one of devotion, affection and trust (how he cut off himself to treat the sick Jumbo and how the latter repaid him by saving him from the animals of Barnum's circus company are notable instances). However, these accounts which are spread throughout the forthcoming chapters form the touchiest part of the book. This approach of Scott will have to be studied in relation with the position taken up by Arstingstall, the trainer of Barnum who regarded his animals not as pets but as "working wild animals". Does this suggest that the use of hooks and whips depend largely on the personality of the animal trainer?

For any circus, animals are its inseparable wealth. Barnum, Bailey and Hutchinson's 'The Greatest Show on Earth' was an institutionalisation of the European craze to 'watch' the most weird, unusual and astonishing-the Bearded Lady, the Oldest Woman, the Siamese Twins and the most ferocious among animals were the main attractions. Barnum's desire to acquire Jumbo was just to add the biggest elephant in his circus company. The 'Jumbo Craze' among the British only added to Barnum's fame; the Zoological Society received letters, cakes, buns, and other gifts for Jumbo as protests against the American circus company that was to acquire Jumbo. Though Chambers narrates in detail Jumbo's swimming and medical treatment at the Zoological Society and Barnum's circus, details that could have been interesting and informative-such as Jumbo's diet-are lacking. And although the craze of the adults could be politically explained in relation to colonialism, how one can rationalise the love and pain of the British children (one of them even sacrificed her life to have a look at Jumbo heading the animal parade on Brooklyn Bridge!) on the occasion of Jumbo's departure is a complex question.

The last section, 'America' is a heartening account of Jumbo's last days with the circus troupe till he was crushed to death by a locomotive. It also clearly marks the distinction between sensibilities: Barnum who stuffed Jumbo and exhibited him with Alice, Alice's reaction at seeing the stuffed body of her companion, the American child who sneakily cut off dead Jumbo's ears, the journalist who measured the length of the dead elephant, and Scott's grief and eventual disappearance.

The texture of the book is such that it would appeal to all kinds of readers with its flowing narration, meticulous research and historical perspectives. The photographs and illustrations not only supplement the narrative but also save it from the monotony of an academic work. No doubt the reader would definitely remember the unfortunate eponym the next time she utters 'jumbo jet' or 'jumbo supermarket'.


Previous article Next article
    Similar in PUBMED
   Search Pubmed for
   Search in Google Scholar for
    Access Statistics
    Email Alert *
    Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)  


 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded404    
    Comments [Add]    

Recommend this journal