“Poor Dear Jumbo”: Elephants, Empire and Empathy in Victorian Britain

Dr. Helen Cowie, Lecturer in History, University of York

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Fig. 1 ‘The newly-imported African elephant at the Gardens of the Zoological Society, Regent’s Park’, Illustrated London News, 15 July 1865
Jumbo was an African elephant. Caught in Abyssinia in 1861 by Arab hunters, he was sold to the Italian animal dealer Lorenzo Casanova, who in turn sold him to the Parisian Jardin des Plantes. After being exhibited for several years in Paris, Jumbo was given to the Zoological Society’s Gardens in London in 1865 in exchange for a rhinoceros. He soon established himself as a firm favourite with the British public, spending much of his time carrying children on his back.

In 1882, the American showman Phineas Taylor Barnum approached the Zoological Society and asked whether it might be willing to sell Jumbo. Normally the Society would have been reluctant to part with such a celebrated animal. By 1882, however, Jumbo was approaching the age at which male elephants become dangerous in captivity, threatening periodically to break out of his house. The Society therefore agreed to sell Jumbo, accepting Barnum’s offer of £2,000.
Fig. 2 American showman, Phineas Taylor Barnum

Fig. 3 ‘A farewell ride on Jumbo’, Illustrated London News, 18 March 1882

Jumbo’s sale generated a loud public outcry. Many people had ridden on his back over the years and were sad to see their old favourite go; as Baroness Burdett Coutts, patroness of the RSPCA observed: ‘Many a little heart will feel a pang…when summer comes’ and Jumbo is gone; ‘many an old child will also feel sad that the trunk of its sometime favourite is no longer there to be played with’.[1]

Determined to keep Jumbo in Britain, supporters compiled petitions against Jumbo’s deportation, set up a ‘Jumbo Redemption Fund’ to reimburse Barnum for the cost of the elephant and congregated daily at the gardens to see their huge friend for the last time. According to one report, ‘the Zoological Gardens were visited by 3,615 persons’ on Wednesday 1 March 1882, ‘against 502 on the corresponding Wednesday [the previous] year’.[2]


To ease Jumbo’s pain, zoo visitors regaled the elephant with copious cakes and pastries, either delivering these treats in person or sending them in the post. ‘Some nurses at a London hospital’ sent Jumbo a ‘box containing sponge-cakes and gingerbread’.[3] Another female – ‘one who rode on your back as a child’ – forwarded Jumbo a generous slice of her wedding cake, a delicacy with symbolic resonance, since Jumbo himself was about to be separated from his ‘little wife’, the female elephant Alice. ‘May you enjoy my wedding cake’, read the accompanying letter, ‘and never have to part from your Alice’.[4]

Fig. 4 ‘Jumbo, the big African elephant at the Zoological Gardens, recently purchased by Mr Barnum’, The Graphic, 25 February 1882


Other Britons demonstrated their solidarity with Jumbo in even more bizarre ways. A lady whose husband had recently died sent ‘a parcel of crape and widow’s weeds’ to Alice, ‘that she might mourn over her bereavement’. One man christened his son ‘Jumbo’ in the elephant’s honour, while another more practical individual sent Jumbo ‘a box 2 feet square, full of corrective pills’ to prevent nausea during his transatlantic voyage. Many people composed doleful poems about Jumbo, some of which were published in the RSPCA’s monthly magazine, The Animal World.[5] This is just one example:

Fig. 5 Ode to Alice, The Animal World, March 1884.

Jumbo’s most proactive supporters sought to put a stop to his deportation by mounting a legal challenge to his removal from the gardens. Bankrolled by financial contributions from well-wishers, a hearing was convened on 7 March 1882 before Mr Justice Chitty with the aim of securing an injunction against the elephant’s deportation. The prosecution argued that in dispensing with Jumbo for monetary gain the Council was violating the express aims of the Zoological Society, which were to foster ‘the advancement of zoology and animal physiology’.[6] It also argued that African elephants were rare in Europe, and that Jumbo, the largest African elephant in captivity, should therefore be retained. The defence insisted that the Council of the Zoological Society did have the right to sell and exchange animals if it so wished, and that Jumbo was a dangerous animal who would injure or kill someone if kept at the Zoo.

Fig. 6 ‘Sketches of Jumbo, the African Elephant at the Zoological Gardens’, Illustrated London News, 25 February 1882

Abraham Bartlett, the Zoo’s director, denied that African elephants like Jumbo were rare in Europe, estimating that there were currently around thirty throughout the continent. Mr Justice Chitty found for the defence, permitting Jumbo’s removal to go ahead.

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Jumbo himself had other ideas, refusing to enter the van that Barnum had constructed to transport him to the docks. This act of resistance was interpreted sentimentally as evidence of Jumbo’s love for the gardens and for the female elephant Alice. It was also imbued with patriotic significance, as Jumbo apparently embraced his British heritage and rejected expatriation to the USA.

Resistance was futile in the long term, however.  On 22 March, the elephant was successfully coaxed into his travelling carriage.

Following a few false starts when the wheels became bogged down in soggy ground, and a minor crisis when Jumbo’s trunk ‘lighted upon a crowbar’, Jumbo’s keeper Scott and Barnum’s man William Newman escorted him through the streets of London. The roads were lined with crowds of onlookers, who serenaded the cortege by ‘singing “Rule, Britannia” and other airs’.[7]

Fig. 8 ‘Jumbo’s journey to the docks’, Illustrated London News, 1 April 1882

Fig. 9 ‘The last of Jumbo?’, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1 April 182

On arrival at St Katherine’s Docks, Jumbo was hoisted on board the steamer the Assyrian Monarch with a crane. He was then safely installed in ‘the most comfortable part of the vessel, next to the first class saloon’.[8]

The elephant endured the passage to America fairly stoically and was greatly cheered on the third day at sea, when ‘the 300 emigrants [on board] visited him, giving him cakes, fruit and bread’. According to one report, Jumbo feasted regularly on ‘hay, oats, bread and onions’, was occasionally given tobacco, which ‘made him thoughtful and indignant’, and quaffed liberal quantities of whiskey, which ‘made him affectionate’.[9]


Fig. 10 Jumbo being pulled down Broadway

To maximise public interest in Jumbo, Barnum purposefully alluded to the sorrow that had accompanied the elephant’s departure in Britain, distributing publicity pamphlets in which ‘the whole British nation, headed by Queen Victoria, is represented as clinging tearfully to Jumbo’s tail’.[10] Barnum also emphasised Jumbo’s size and docility, describing him as ‘the largest and heaviest elephant in the world’, and the ‘children’s giant pet’.

Jumbo arrived in America on 10 April. Two days later he was marched through the streets of New York to greet the American people for the first time. Shortly after this he embarked on a continental tour, stopping in Philadelphia and other cities on the eastern seaboard.

Fig. 11 Advertisement for Jumbo


Jumbo toured with Barnum’s Circus until September 1885, when he was hit and killed by a train in Ontario, Canada. Barnum romanticised Jumbo’s death, claiming that he had ventured onto the railway line to rescue the baby elephant, Tom Thumb. It seems more likely, however, that he disobeyed orders and strayed onto the tracks. The Standard reported that ‘refusing to stand aside upon the approach of a goods train he was…taken up by the engine, carried forwards a hundred yards and finally crushed against some trucks’.[11]

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Fig. 12 The Death of Jumbo

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Cruelty: Jumbo’s case raised wider issues about animal cruelty. One of the reasons many British people opposed Jumbo’s removal was because they feared he would be mistreated in America, where, according to Barnum’s agent, Mr Davis, the ‘definition of cruelty is very different’ to that in England.

One of the reasons Jumbo HAD to be sold, however, was because British sensitivities prevented the use of harsh traditional methods to tame a rogue elephant, rendering him a danger to the public. In an interview with the Daily News, Zoo Director Abraham Bartlett described how, in India, ‘a fractious animal…is securely chained and flogged till his excitement abates’, or might be subdued with the assistance of a special ‘fighting elephant’ kept for the purpose.

Fig. 13 ‘Hunting a wild elephant with tame ones in Nepaul’

Bartlett appeared to favour this latter technique, but admitted that such a brutal approach could not be taken in Britain, for ‘any “taming” of this description…would, if adopted here, raise such an outcry against the Zoological Society as would compel them to desist’.[12] This image shows a tame elephant being used to subdue a wild elephant in Nepal during the Prince of Wales’ visit to India in 1876.

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Captivity: The Jumbo saga also highlighted the problems of keeping elephants in captivity. Mr Bartlett confessed that male elephants typically became dangerous when they reached the age of twenty, owing, he thought, to their being ‘petted, generally over fed and under worked’.[13] As a result, all of the male elephants held at European zoos in the nineteenth century had ultimately had to be destroyed, among them the elephant Rajah at Liverpool Zoological Gardens, who was shot in 1847 after killing 2 keepers, and the elephant Chunee of Exeter ’Change, who was destroyed in 1826. Though zoological gardens offered elephants some room to expend their energy, this was nothing compared to the enormous territories they would have roamed in the wild. It was consequently impossible to control them without some level of physical force.
Fig. 16 ‘The Looshai Expedition: Shipping Elephants on board the Simla at Calcutta’, Illustrated London News, March 2, 1889

Empire: Jumbo’s career illustrates the global nature of the wild animal trade. Originally from Abyssinia, he was transported to France, Britain and finally the USA. In London, he functioned as a symbol of British imperial power, but also became a beloved celebrity animal and a national pet. When he was sold to Barnum, this was interpreted as an affront to British patriotism as well as a betrayal of London Zoo’s scientific principles. As one man complained, the Zoo had declined from a ‘place for the study of natural history’ to ‘an exchange for dealing with speculative showmen and caravan owners’.[14]
Fig. 17 ‘Jumbo’ Staffordshire Figure

Jumboism: Not everyone cared for Jumbo, however, and the sentimentalism shown for the elephant soon generated a negative backlash against ‘Jumboism’. As the furore over Jumbo’s departure grew, some commentators argued that public sympathy for the elephant was excessive, and ought to be channelled into more worthy causes. The paper World satirised the hypocrisy of those individuals ‘who pride themselves in refusing a penny to a street beggar’ but ‘hasten to send cheques to buy Jumbo’.[15] Another observer concluded that much of the anguish expressed for Jumbo was ‘mere sentimental gush’, which distracted contemporaries from more routine abuses of animals.[16] The hysterical attentions lavished on a single elephant were deemed unwarranted in a society where human suffering was frequently overlooked and where more endemic forms of animal cruelty went unchallenged. This view prefigures the criticism that is sometimes levelled today at the public for favouring animal over human charities or for confining their compassion for animals to the most cuddly or iconic species.

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[1] Baroness Burdett Coutts, ‘Reflections on the Sale of Jumbo’, The Animal World, June 1882

[2] Leeds Mercury, 4 March 1882

[3] Leeds Mercury, 4 March 1882

[4] Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 19 March 1882

[5] ‘Jumbo’, The Animal World, March 1884

[6] Standard, 8 March 1882

[7] Morning Post, Thursday March 23, 1882

[8] Morning Post, Thursday March 23, 1882

[9] Star, Tuesday April 11, 1882

[10] The Graphic, 15 April 1882

[11] Standard, Thursday September 17, 1885

[12] Daily News, 25 February 1882

[13] Standard, 8 March 1882

[14] Standard, 21 February 1882

[15] Bristol Mercury, 9 March 1882

[16] ‘Snake Feeding’, The Animal World, December 1882

PicDr. Helen Cowie, “‘Poor Dear Jumbo’: Elephants, Empire and Empathy in Victorian Britain”

Helen Cowie is lecturer in history at the University of York.  Her first book, ‘Conquering Nature in Spain and its Empire, 1750-1850′, was published by Manchester University Press in 2011.  Her second book, ‘Exhibiting Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Empathy, Education, Entertainment’, is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan.  Helen’s research interests include the cultural history of science, the history of leisure and the history of animals.

To learn more about Dr. Cowie and her work, please visit the following:

For Authorship:

Helen Cowie Book CoverConquering Nature in Spain and its Empire, 1750-1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011): http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9780719084935

Exhibiting Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Empathy, Education, Entertainment (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2014) 

For Background:

http://www.york.ac.uk/history/staff/profiles/cowie/

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