The Snake-charmers at the Zoo

James Hall, Ph.D. candidate, Dept. of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, UK

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The capture of wild animals from around the world and their subsequent display in Britain were fundamentally linked to imperialism, both in terms of acquisition, but also in allowing visitors to menageries and zoos to celebrate and participate in the successes of a growing empire.  The symbolism of animal collections for rulers long pre-dated the nineteenth century – for example there was a menagerie at the Tower of London from the thirteenth century – but never before had the possibility existed for accumulating such a diversity of animals on a huge scale.  Certain species were characterized in particular ways, their behavior often interpreted according to a sense of morality.  Tigers, for instance, were near-universally despised for being cowardly and cruel, yet lions were portrayed as regal and refined.

In the nineteenth-century, snakes were, as they remain for many today, largely objects of dread and revulsion. Popular sources of information for the literate included stories from classical mythology and the Bible, together with travelogues and journals of explorers and military men. Discussions of snakes, including scientific accounts, liberally incorporated dubious anecdotes about their lifestyles and character, and of course, whether or not they were venomous. For cobras, which were sometimes called hooded or spectacle serpents on account of their appearance (Fig. 1), there was nearly always mention of a unique type of human-animal relationship – snake-charming.

Snake-charming was a particularly troubling phenomenon for many Europeans, since it involved overcoming a ‘natural’ desire to flee from a dangerous animal, or to rapidly disable it, preferably permanently! Then there was also the mystery of the potent bond between charmer and snake, which defied explanation and seemed to rely on some occult power.

Fig. 1  A cobra, or spectacle serpent, from the Illustrated Magazine of Art.

Fig. 2  Jean-Leon Gerome’s The Snake Charmer c.1870
The origin of snake-charmers, in India or Egypt, reinforced longstanding ideas about the mysteriousness and otherness of the ‘Orient’.  Paintings and drawings by orientalist artists, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, often included snake-charmers as subjects, which became stereotypes of an ill-defined ‘East’ (Fig. 2).

Fig. Well-dressed visitors at the newly opened Reptile House as depicted in the Illustrated London News, June 2 1849.
Most Britons never encountered snake-charming in person, but instead through exciting anecdotes in memoirs written by Anglo-Indian officials and soldiers, or travellers to north Africa. Yet a prominent opportunity for eye-witnessing the spectacle in London came precisely halfway through the century, with the opening of the Reptile House at the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park (Fig. 3).

There had been occasional Indian street-performers and entertainers in Britain from the beginning of the century, such as the famous juggler Ramo Samee, and living snakes arrived in increasing number for animal shows, menageries and the newly-established zoological gardens. But it was not in the Strand or Piccadilly — popular locales for entertainers — that snake-charmers first appeared, but instead a venue professing to be rather more refined.


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The arrival of the hippopotamus, Obaysch, at the Zoological Gardens in London was undoubtedly the biggest zoological event of 1850, part of the management’s strategy of star animals to bring in customers, known as “punters.” (Fig. 4).

But the simultaneous appearance of snake-charmers at Regent’s Park also attracted considerable contemporary interest, if not quite of the same scale and visibility. Adverts carried in The Times for the hippo also reported the arrival of two snake-charmers from Egypt (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5  Advert from The Times, June 12 1850.
Fig. 4  Obaysch the hippo in 1852.

Rather than colonial India – which was the source for the majority of accounts of snake-charmers – these men came to Britain from Cairo. The men were employed as assistants to the hippo’s main keeper, Hamet, whose own powerful bond with that animal became itself an object of fascination.


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Discussion of the hippo, his keeper, and the snake-charmers began even before their arrival in London.  According to The Times of May 27 1850, a ship docked at Southampton with a ‘most valuable and interesting collection of animals, birds, and reptiles for the Zoological Society, the rarest of which, and the most extraordinary, is the hippopotamus’. But also listed amongst the miscellaneous collection were ‘rare specimens of lizards, and serpents, the latter attended by an Arab boy of curious aspect, who feeds and handles them as any one else would a pet dog, or a perfectly harmless creature.’ Another report was less complimentary, describing him as a ‘little shrivelled-faced fellow, who caused much amusement by his comic manners, his grotesque dress, and daring handling of the beasts and reptiles’.[1]
Fig. 6  The Peninsular and Oriental Company’s steamers, Indus and Ripon, the later of which carried the hippo and snakes from Alexandria, Egypt, to Southampton.

Fig. 7 The Egyptian snake-charmers in the Illustrated London News, June 15 1850: Mahommed on the left, Jabar on the right.
Their arrival in London allowed thousands to witness snake-charming at first-hand. Londoners were ‘astonished by the composure’ of the Arab snake-charmers, ‘including all classes, from the titled lady to the pretty shop girl, the country bumpkin with his mouth wide open, and the London man who has jostled so effectually with the World, that were the Cobra to devour his guardian on the spot he would see “nothing in it,” and be unable to get up a “sensation”’. [2]   Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert went to see the hippo and snake-charmers not long after their arrival.

Many images of snake-charmers appeared in the press. One of the most striking appeared in the Illustrated London News (ILN) (Fig. 7).

Fig. 8  Charmers with snakes like begging dogs from the Penny Illustrated News, July 27 1850. The clothing of Jabar (left) was more in line with expectations, whilst the younger Mahommed was described as a dandy.


The Arab charmers were shown without the drama of the written accounts. The snakes seem nonthreatening and the demeanor of the men is calm. Instead, there was more of an interest in their attire and physical appearance. The relationship between the charmers and the snakes was explained by reference to more familiar examples. According to Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, the ‘magicians’ handled the snakes ‘as familiarly as a lady with her ‘King Charles’ [spaniel]’, and in fact some of the images brought to mind dogs begging, such as the image above (Fig. 8) from the Penny Illustrated News.

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The ability of the men to sooth the snakes was even compared to Irish horse-whispering. Descriptions of the movements and appearance of the snakes intertwined with references to the neck and limbs of the men. The violence of the scene was emphasized; the snakes were handled roughly with impetuous confidence and in turn they drew blood.

The naturalist William Broderip (Fig. 9), a founding member of the Zoological Society of London, described his own experiences of visiting the snake-charmers in an article for Fraser’s Magazine:

After their dinner they came from the giraffe-house, proceeding along the gravel walk to the reptile-house … The company stood in a semicircle, and at a respectful distance. There was not much difficulty in getting a front space, but those behind pressed the bolder spectators rather inconveniently forward.

According to the account, the younger of the charmers took out an Egyptian cobra from a box and began to provoke it to strike at him. The drama increased after the elder charmer joined in, when ‘suddenly it darted open-mouthed at his face, furiously dashing its expanded whitish-edged jaws into the dark hollow cheek of the charmer, who still imperturbably kept his position, only smiling bitterly as his excited antagonist’. When a cobra bit the younger of the charmers on the hand, he coolly reacted by spitting on the wound and scratching it to make it bleed more freely.

Fig. 9  William John Broderip (1789 – 1859).

Fig. 10  Snake skulls and teeth in a plate from famous a anatomist Richard Owen’s comparative work on animal dentition, Odontography (1840-5)
Visiting the charmers was about more than simple entertainment though, at least as far as men of science were concerned. Broderip was anxious to take the opportunity to see whether or not the snakes retained their fangs, one of the most contentious issues in discussions of the feat. Seeing the performance at first-hand, allowed one to see ‘all the various serpentine evolutions – irritation, rage, and full dire destructive intent’. This was not the case when snakes were displayed in glass cabinets, as earlier commentators complained. Snake-charmers could in fact facilitate a more ‘naturalistic’ understanding of snake behaviour.

Fig. 11  A typical museum display of snakes as in the nineteenth century.  The Indian Museum in Kolkata, 2014© James Hall.

Fig. 12  A romanticized watercolor painting of an Indian snake-charmer, 1873. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The elder charmer, Jabar, was described as ‘a most distinguished professor in the art of snake-charming’. His status leant him credibility and respect, in contrast with the nameless snake-charmers from travel accounts and journals. In addition, ‘the matter-of-fact way in which he acted as well as related the snake-catching, bore the impress of truth, and there certainly would appear to be far less mystery about the craft than has generally been supposed’. The competency and authenticity of the men was highlighted by reference to Jabar having collected snakes for naturalists during the French occupation of Egypt (1798-1801), when he had even performed before Napoleon. That Jabar had collected for French naturalist Geoffroy St. Hilaire established the credentials of the men as elites of their profession, and therefore as reliable authorities. After one performance, Jabar was interviewed with Hamet, keeper of the hippo, acting as translator. Jabar related how he captured snakes by digging them out of their holes, and removed their teeth using an adze (axe). He was keen to differentiate himself as a hereditary snake-charmer and not a mere ‘juggler’. On being asked whether it was possible that exhibitors show snakes with their teeth intact, he answered ‘certainly not’!


Snake-charming is in fact technically in violation of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, though continues today. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVEhnoYJtok

So did the physical appearance of snake-charmers much diminish their mystery in Britain? Not beyond the short-term. After all, they remain a stubborn stereotype of an exotic East today. Snake-charmers still appear in caricatures, cartoons, and in Hollywood films. News stories about snakes continue to capture the public imagination (see further reading).

The performances in London though drew attention to a particularly subversive kind of human-animal interaction, allowing Britons the chance to directly encounter a classic trope of the empire in the metropolis. These kinds of experiences ultimately contributed to a distancing between Europeans and others, suggesting primitivity and antiquity. They reinforced the lowly status of snakes, yet afforded them a special but limited bond with humans, resonant with Edenic mythology. By transporting them to London and subjecting them to metropolitan scrutiny, the snake-charmers were made to offer up their local and secret knowledge for British consumption, and the Zoological Gardens was able to attract attention to its growing collection of reptiles.


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[1] Daily News, May 27 1850.

[2] “Visits to the Zoological Gardens. No II.’  True Briton. A home friend and evening companion. 1 (1851): 16.

[3] Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, August 31 1850 134-136 (135).

[4] ‘Leaves from he Notebook of a Naturalist.’ Fraser’s magazine for town and country, 42.249 (Sep 1850): 279-295, pp.284-285.

James Hall profileJames Hall, “The Snake-charmers at the Zoo”

James Hall is a PhD student in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. My research is concerned with science and imperialism, and especially the significance of human-nonhuman relationships. My thesis considers British attitudes towards – and interactions with – snakes in the nineteenth century, as part of a contribution towards histories of natural history and cultural imperialism.

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If you’d like to learn more:

A very popular recent story about a snake and a crocodile:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-26413101

An angry snake-charmer’s revenge:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-15963842

On the plight of modern-day snake-charmers in India:

http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/21/world/la-fg-india-snakes-20120222.

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