The Elephant in the Room

This is the first of two blogposts on the current exhibition in Balliol’s Historic Collection Centre. The Elephant in the Room is open to the public on Sunday 15th July and Wednesday 15th August 11.00-4.00pm, all other times by appointment to


The subject of the exhibition is everyone’s favourite pachyderm, the elephant. This majestic animal is featured in its zoological, geographical, literary, epic, comic and sporting forms in printed material from the 16th to the 21st century. Also on display is the work of Balliol alumna Dr Lucy King whose work on the effect of honeybees on elephants has helped to improve human-elephant relations in Africa and Sri Lanka.

Zoological elephants

The first six cases of the exhibition show depictions of elephants in early modern texts that contributed to 16th and 17th century Europeans’ knowledge and beliefs about the animals. There is as much fiction as fact to be found in these books, but they tell us a lot about the dissemination of ideas in early modern Europe and how wonder and myth began to give way to rigorous scientific analysis.

Allegorical Elephants: Edward Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts. London, 1658 (470 d 19)

470 d 19 - Topsell's elephantWith ears like bats’ wings and a trunk like a hose, this depiction of the elephant had been roaming through the printed menageries of Europe for a century by the time it appeared here. The woodcut was first produced for the pioneering zoologist Conrad Gessner for use in his encyclopedia of animal life, the Historia Animalium, 1551-8. Gessner’s work was the first attempt at a comprehensive scientific study of the animal kingdom. In its creation he called on a network of learned  colleagues across Europe to send him zoological information as well as pictures of creatures, which he used, alongside copies of popular animal prints, as models for its plentiful woodcut illustrations. In 2012 two albums of the pictures that were sent to Gessner, and his successor Felix Platter, by artists such as Hans Holbein, were rediscovered in the Amsterdam University Library. In 1607 the English clergyman, Edward Topsell, produced this. Although acknowledging a large debt to Gessner on its title page and lifting both the illustrations and large chunks of translated text straight from his work, Topsell’s book was of a very different sort, following an older tradition, with its roots in the medieval bestiary, of using animal lore as spiritual allegory. So Topsell’s account includes references to the elephant’s antipathy to the dragon who attempts to eat its calf, a story that had an established allegory in the machinations of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Topsell also makes reference to the elephant’s monogamy and chastity, mating only infrequently to produce children, as an obvious model for Christian marriage.

Topsell case
This case includes four little known “facts” about elephants as reported by Topsell: they bury their tusks; African elephants are afraid of Indian elephants; there’s a worm that pulls off elephants’ trunks; and they have their own religion

Monsters and Wonders: Gaspar Schott’s Physica Curiosa. Wurzburg, 1662 (30 c 332-333)

30 c 333 - elephant.JPG

An elephant strides from a 17th century book on physical curiosities and the wonders of nature and art. Exotic animals like giraffes or baboons appear alongside mythological centaurs and merpeople, but also portrayals of physical conditions such as conjoined twins or ‘hairy’ ladies. The whole mirrors the vogue for cabinets of curiosities or Wunderkammer that sprang up in the 16th and 17th centuries . The author, Gaspar Schott, would have been familiar with such collections through his connection with the polymath Athanasius Kircher, whose collection formed his own Museum Kircherianum. Kircher had been Schott’s maths teacher and Schott spent 3 years later in life at the Roman College as his assistant. Whilst there he started collecting material for his own works. The operative word here seems to be ‘collect’ as the text was based on accounts by others, and the engravings are chiefly copied from elsewhere, particularly Conrad Gessner’s work. Having said that, this elephant is definitely not Gessner’s, and may have been commissioned for the book.

2.Schott Case
The accompaying images show the title page and elephant boy from Schott’s Physica Curiosa, and a double paged illlustration from Museum Wormianum by Ole Worm (1655)

Bits of an Elephant: Allen Mullen’s Anatomical Account of the Elephant Accidentally Burnt in Dublin, on Fryday, June 17, in the Year 1681 (470 g 14(1))

470 g 14 - plate skeleton.JPG

The illustration you see here is from the first recorded dissection of an elephant. Where would you imagine it took place? India? Africa? What about 17th century Dublin? The elephant in question was on display in the city centre to be viewed by the public, albeit for a hefty fee. At 3am on Friday 17 June 1681 the booth in which the elephant was housed caught fire. News of the fire spread and the public flocked to see the remains, including many who had been unable to afford the entrance fee. Some of the crowd attempted to make off with parts of the dead animal and the elephant’s manager, was forced to set up a ‘file of musqueteers’ to protect the corpse. That same evening, Dr Allen Mullen, a member of the Royal College of Physicians and an anatomist at Trinity College Dublin, arrived to perform a dissection. Working by candlelight and assisted by butchers, Mullen carried out the procedure in front of the crowd. His report, published the following year, was the first modern description of the anatomy of an elephant and it remained the standard source for 300 years.

Colour Elephants: George Edward’s Gleanings of Natural History, London, 1758 (30 d 208)

Elephant in the room 1 Mar2018The elephant from one of the greyer plates from George Edwards’ celebrated work of zoological illustration. Edwards’ main interest was ornithology, and this work chiefly depicts birds in gorgeous technicolour. Some other creatures make an appearance but the full impact really takes flight with feathers. Prior to the advent of mechanised printing in the 19th century colour printing was very limited. Either each colour was printed separately, or different areas of a plate were treated with different coloured inks. In both cases the process was fiddly, time-consuming, and reduced profit margins. So most printers didn’t bother. If someone wanted colour, they paid for it to be added after they’d bought their book. The book producer had no control over the colouring, so each colouration was unique. As scientific publishers began to invest more in the quality of their images this became problematic, especially in works of natural history where colour was often a key feature for identifying species. The simplest way of ensuring that all your toucans looked the same was to control the hand-colouring process, and make sure it was applied uniformly. This is what happened here, with Edwards colouring the initial runs of plates as a template to instruct his assistants.

Edwards’ interest for ornithology is evident in these magnificent images of coloured birds

African Accounts: ‘An English translation of Hiob Ludolf’s Historia Aethiopica. London, 1682 (670 e 1)

670 e 1 - History of Ethiopia

Imagine a scene in Rome in 1649. A young German scholar is visiting two priests at the city’s Ethiopian hospice. One of them hands him a manuscript written in their language and asks him to read. He proceeds to do so, and the two priests collapse in a heap of laughter at his pronunciation. This was Hiob Ludolf’s first meeting with actual Ethiopians, although he had been studying what he could find of their language for some years. His pronunciation may have left something to be desired, but his command of the grammar impressed his listeners so much that he formed a long-lasting friendship with one of them, Abba Gorgoryos.

Abba Gorgoryos

The main fruit of this collaboration was this work, originally printed in Latin a year previously, which laid the foundation for Ethiopian studies in Europe. In it Ludolf relayed Gorgoryos’ descriptions of the language, geography, history, and natural history of the Empire and, amongst these, those detailing the fauna loom large. Indeed the bigness of the animals in Ethiopia is particularly noted: ‘But as for Wild Beasts, Abissinia breeds more, and more bulkie than any other region.’ Of all animals the ‘most monstrous in their creation’ is the elephant. Ludolf relates Gorgoryos’ accounts of the destruction they could wreak in fields and woodlands: ‘They will shake Trees bigger than themselves in Bulk … till either their Trunks break, or the whole Tree be torn up by the Roots.’

Geographical elephants

The books in the cases described below explore the idea of elephants as symbols of exoticism, representative of distant places, some more ‘civilised’, others ‘wild’ and waiting to be tamed. Exotic though they may have been, elephants were at least familiar to many people in early modern Europe, and were used to populate empty spaces on atlases, adorn book covers and give credence to tales of far-off lands invented by enterprising spinners of yarns.

Traveller’s Tales: ‘Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon. London, 1681 (575 c 2)

575 c 2 Execution by elephant.JPGElephants have long been seen as an incarnation of physical power. The ability to control that power and visit it upon one’s enemies is something that many rulers aspired to and elephants were used in executions across their range in southern Asia. Their intelligence meant they could be trained to vary the treatment of victims, torturing them slowly, or providing a quick end by stepping on vital organs. Alternatively some elephants were trained to roll criminals around (occasionally for several days) before an eventual reprieve.  This rather grisly image appeared in a work published by an English merchant about the kingdom of Kandy, in what is now Sri Lanka. Robert Knox’s account is taken from his own experiences of 19 years as a hostage of the Kandyan King, Rajasinha II. Knox, who was travelling on his father’s merchant ship, was a victim of deteriorating relations between the Kandyans and the Dutch. Initially Rajasinha had courted the Dutch to counter the influence of the Portuguese in Ceylon, which they did, but only to increase their own power. As Europeans, Knox and his father were targeted when they failed to observe diplomatic protocols. The elder Knox died from malaria leaving his son to make his way as best he could for over a decade before managing to escape to a Dutch enclave and returning to England. Knox’s lively and direct style, together with his detailed observations of customs and sociology, ensured the book was commercially successful, and influential in the development of the English novel, informing Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe.

575 c 2 Map 2
A map of Ceylon in The History of Ceylon

Fraudulent Fantasies: George Psalmanazar’s Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa. London, 1704 (J.L. 04 a 34)

PsalmanazarBy the 18th century elephants had obviously become an easy short-hand for exoticism, particularly the power of Asian monarchies. In this image they patrol the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) bearing enormous litters into which ‘thirty or forty men may enter’ rather like a modern day bus-service. Superficially similar to Knox’s account of Ceylon, this book tapped into a similar appetite for stories of alien lands amongst European audiences. Both may have been attributable to harsh experiences, the main difference being that whilst Knox’s involved being held hostage in Ceylon, George Psalmanazar’s did not involve going anywhere near Formosa. Rather his stories came from a period as an itinerant begging for alms on a tour of Germany and the Netherlands, when despite his French origins, he began to claim he was a Japanese traveller to aid his quest for funds. To support this he confected a language, an alphabet and a calendar. He also invented a surname (his original name is unrecorded). A little later his nationality changed to Formosan, perhaps because Japan was a little too well known by this point. Whilst serving in a Dutch regiment he was baptised as an Anglican, coming to England at the request of the Bishop of London, with a view to teaching Formosan to missionaries. There he published this book, which became an immediate success, leading to a short-lived ‘Formosan craze’. His claims were disputed from their first appearance by scholars, but Psalmanazar played to the anti-Jesuitical climate in England at the time, claiming to have resisted their attempts to convert him to Catholicism, so that testimony of Jesuits who’d actually been to Formosa was disbelieved. Certainly by 1711 his account was no longer generally credited and he settled down to a quiet, even respectable, life in London, as a Grub Street writer contributing articles to dictionaries, encyclopedias and the like, and becoming a cordial acquaintance of Samuel Johnson.

Filling up Gaps: Willem & Jan Blaeu’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, sive, Atlas Novus. Amsterdam, 1635 (535 f 5)

535 f 5 - Guinea map

European geographical knowledge in the 17th century had a number of gaps, which mapmakers tended to fill. Africa in particular got this treatment, because the coast was reasonably well known, whereas the interior was still mysterious. This opened spaces to be populated by what Europeans knew regarding the fauna. Monkeys and lions caper through this map of West Africa, although, of course, nothing could fill a gap like an elephant. It was produced during the golden age of Dutch cartography by the Blaeu family who were based in Amsterdam. Dutch cartographic pre-eminence stemmed from the fact that they were forced to look outwards from their small European state to gain influence on the international stage. Consequently many undertook voyages of navigation and trade with a global ambition and to do so they needed a free-flow of up-to-date maps. The decorative nature of such illustrations had obviously begun to wear thin by the beginning of the 18th century as evidenced by Jonathan Swift’s satiric take: ‘So Geographers in Afric-maps | With Savage-Pictures fill their Gaps; | And o’er uninhabitable Downs | Place Elephants for want of Towns’. Indeed, later map-makers were unafraid of leaving expanses of empty paper where they knew nothing. As elephants have disappeared from the maps of Africa, so they have disappeared from the landscape as well. Although habitat loss is one key driver, another is hinted at in the map, where putti parade a tusk across the sea. Ivory was one of the dubious commodities that drove trade between Europe and Africa. Although now illegal that trade still remains a threat.

Civilized Elephants: W.S. Caine’s Picturesque India. London, 1898 (2050 j 11)

Picturesque IndiaThis 19th century travel book is adorned with an elaborately decorated howdah; a carriage placed on the back of elephants and used for hunting or warfare in India. While the European audience at whom the book is aimed may never have seen one in person, the howdah resembles the ‘Elephant and Castle’, a symbol of strength dating back to antiquity, with which they would have been familiar. Picturesque India is a guide book and travel log of William Sproston Caine, a British M.P. who visited India between 1890 and 1896. In the preface Caine emphasises that his book is for ‘holiday people’; the political and religious controversies of late 19th century India will not be discussed. Instead, he provides a useful and informative guide for travellers, including vivid anecdotes, descriptions of the most famous sites, and hotel and restaurant recommendations; exactly what you might expect from a modern travel guide. The 200 illustrations of landscape, architecture, ancient sites and inhabitants, were produced from sketches by the author. The book was part of the boom in travel literature experienced in the Victorian era, reflecting transport improvements that eased travel, as well as British colonial expansion that provided new places to visit. Many famous novelists of the era wrote accounts of their travels including Charles Dickens and William Thackeray. These were not mere descriptions, but lively tales of what they saw and encountered.  Caine spent four winters in India and was clearly affected by his experience there. He became very sympathetic to the local population and was an outspoken critic of the British government’s actions in the country, particularly its encouragement of the opium and liquor trade. A life-long member of the temperance movement, he was praised by Ghandi for his views on alcohol.

2050 j 11tomb of Akbar
an illustration of the Tomb of Akbar from Picturesque India

Wild Elephants: Ewart.S. Grogan’s & Arthur H. Sharp’s From the Cape to Cairo. London, 1900 (Buxton Collection 27)

Buxton Coll. 27 cover The two travel books in this exhibition demonstrate the starkly different imperialist views of India and Africa: the beautifully adorned elephant on Picturesque India, represents the idea of the subcontinent as an ancient Baroque civilisation, respected for its art and culture; the African elephant on the cover of Cape to Cairo exemplifies the view of an ‘uncivilised’ continent, waiting to be tamed by those with an enterprising spirit, such as the author, Ewart Grogan. Before being expelled from Cambridge for bad behaviour, Grogan fell madly in love with his classmate’s sister, but her father thought him an impoverished wastrel. To prove himself worthy, Grogan set himself the challenge of becoming the first Englishman to walk across Africa, a feat he accomplished in two and a half years between 1898 and 1900. Cape to Cairo describes his journey along the transcontinental telegraph and train route recently initiated by Cecil Rhodes; note the telegraph poles on the cover. Success made him a household name and he became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He married Gertrude and they moved to Kenya.

Buxton Coll. 27 Grogan with tusks.jpg
Ewart Grogan with giant tusks, in From the Cape to Cairo

Cape to Cairo was an instant bestseller, tapping into the popularity of adventure stories such as those by H. Ridder Haggard. The ‘hero’ faces off rhinos, elephants and crocodiles, battles fever and barely escapes the clutches of cannibals. Grogan was a firm proponent of colonialism, and believed it was the mission of the British to ‘civilise’ Africa. In the book he shows little respect for African people, and his later treatment of local Kenyans was reported to be so barbaric that Winston Churchill labelled him ‘a ruffian’. Recent biographers have tried to rehabilitate his character, portraying him as a moderating voice against the abuses of imperialism and an early proponent of wildlife conservation.

The next post will feature elephants in sport and literature, as well as revealing which animals elephants fear (hint: it’s not mice!).