The Elephant in the Room Part 2

This is the second of two posts on the current exhibition about elephants in Balliol College’s Historic Collection Centre, St Cross Church. You can see the first post here. The Elephant in the Room is open to the public on Wednesday 15th August 11.00-4.00pm, all other times by appointment to

Sporting Elephants

Duing the colonial era hunting big game, particularly elephants, became a facet of imperialist identity, reinforcing the ideology of dominance and creating a romantic vision of the ‘civilising’ mission of European peoples abroad.

Colonial Sport: Capt Walter Campbell’s The Old Forest Ranger, or, Wild Sports of India on the Neilgherry Hills. London, 1845 (2055 c 017)

The author informs us in the preface that his objective in writing The Old Forest Ranger is ‘to present my Readers with a faithful sketch of some of the more exciting Field-Sports of India’. What follows are the ‘heroic’ pursuits of a party of fearless hunters who All-focusdispatch any creature that crosses their path. Bears, elephants and tigers are all done away with, sometimes to save the life of a comrade or damsel in distress, but mostly for the sheer sport of it. The Old Forest Ranger is an early example of the adventure tales that gripped the imagination of the Victorians. These stories cultivated a romantic view of imperialism back home, and encouraged support for expansion. The big game hunter of these tales embodied the ideal Victorian empire builder who subdued wild beasts as part of the mission to ‘civilise’ colonial outposts in India and Africa. The ideas of sportsmanship were key to the colonists’ self-image: British sportsmen used ideas of fairness in hunting to distinguish themselves from the indigenous hunters. This allowed the colonists to justify their exploitation of local animals, while the local hunters were often fined and imprisoned.

Lyddeker’s The Great & Small Game of India, Burma & Tibet London, 1900 (2055 c 004)

The exquisite illustrations in this book might seem better suited to a natural history book than one devoted to hunting. 2055 c 4 Big game headsThe Victorians, however, do not seem to have shared our modern sensibilities; indeed the author, Richard Lydekker, was a naturalist and geologist of some renown. The text comprises his detailed zoological descriptions, followed by material of hunting interest by ‘well-known sportsmen’. Lydekker exploits his own extensive knowledge of animal anatomy to offer guidance on how to ‘despatch’ the animals efficiently. India and Africa provided plenty of exotic animals for hunting, a popular pastime amongst colonists. Certain animals were considered ‘pests’ and colonial administrators encouraged hunters to clear game to make areas of wilderness available for cultivation. What had once been common land was privatised, and the peoples who had hunted there were often displaced. By the late 19th century the exploitation of fauna in parts of India had taken such a toll that animal conservation laws were introduced, including the Elephant Preservation Act (1879), which outlawed elephant hunting unless the animals posed a risk to human life or property. The publication of this book 21 years later indicates that legislation did little to quash the popularity of hunting. This edition consisted of 250 copies that were numbered and signed by the publisher, of which this is number 77. The illustrations were based on photographs taken by the Duchess of Bedford, Mary Russell, to whom the book is dedicated. Russell, a celebrated ornithologist and aviator, made record-breaking flights to Karachi and Cape Town in her sixties.

Literary elephants

Our literary elephants are an eclectic bunch: we see them in an erotic dreamscape, satirical children’s verse and as the innocent entertainment in the Garden of Eden.

Elephants in the Dreamscape: Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii. Venice, 1545 (30 e 107)

Possibly the oldest depictions of elephants in the Library’s collections appear in an erotic fantasy. 30 e 107 Secundus elephant carriageHypnerotomachia Poliphilii was originally published in 1499 by the celebrated humanist scholar and printer, Aldo Manuzio, who published fine editions of many classical authors for the first time. The copy here is the second edition produced at his press by his children, 29 years after his death. The Hypnerotomachia was a departure for Manuzio, being both a contemporary romance and involving illustration, and was the only book he produced as a commission. The sponsor was Leonardo Crasso, a nobleman, but who the author and illustrator were remains uncertain. The narrative concerns a rejected lover, Poliphilo, who dreams himself into a strange landscape, full of beasts but also striking architecture, where he pursues his beloved, Polia. Triumphal processions to love wander past before eventually they are brought together by Venus, only for Polia to disappear as Poliphilo wakes. It’s pretty weird stuff written in a rather strange version of Italian full of invented words, and appears to have been as impenetrable to contemporary audiences as it is today, as most copies were unsold a decade later. Elephants appear at a couple of points in the dream. Here elephants draw a carriage bearing Leda and Zeus, as a swan, in one of the processions. Another appears amongst the architectural features of Poliphilio’s dreamscape, skewered by an obelisk. In the text it is described as black flecked with gold and silver, there are stairs into its belly, and, inside, symbolic statues of a man and woman. This is all very mysterious but nevertheless provides one example of the book’s influence, as it seems likely that Bernini used this illustration as inspiration for his elephant sculpture in Rome. The book might not have sold immediately but its reprinting in France, the year after this edition, launched it into the popular imagination and its footprint can be seen throughout Renaissance art and architecture.


Elephants in Paradise: John Milton’s Paradise Lost. London, 1669 (525 a 5)

All Beasts of th’ Earth, since wilde, and of all chase
In Wood or Wilderness, Forrest or Den;
Sporting the Lion rampd, and in his paw
Dandl’d the Kid; Bears, Tygers, Ounces, Pards
Gambold before them, th’ unwieldy Elephant

To make them mirth us’d all his might, and wreathd
His Lithe Proboscis;

(Book 4, lines 341-347)

Luther bible Garden of Eden straight on detail
The Garden of Eden from the Lutheran Bible. You can see an elephant in the centre (though you may need to squint)

An elephant provides a memorable comic turn in the Garden of Eden, doing tricks with his trunk, for Adam and Eve’s entertainment, from the greatest English epic poem. The unselfconscious antics of such an exotic and powerful beast provide a suitable image of innocence for this pastoral section of the poem, in which all the animals live in harmony under the stewardship of Adam and Eve. But the viewpoint is that of Satan, who has sneaked into Paradise disguised as a serpent, and although in the succeeding soliloquy he expresses regret at their impending downfall, it is nevertheless going to be inevitable. In many contexts elephants have been totemic of power and also wisdom. But whilst their size and motion might seem to give them an inherent dignity, their exotic appearance (big noses, big ears), playfulness and sociability have often been subject to a softer or comedic rendering, particularly in later 20th and 21st century culture. From Kipling’s Just So Stories, through numerous Disney films (Fantasia, Dumbo, Jungle Book) to Dr Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, popular culture aimed at children has often used elephants for comic or sentimental effect. In spite of the entertaining elephant, Paradise Lost was not an immediate best-seller. It was completed in 1663 but Milton’s republican sympathies, often betrayed in the poem, meant that it was difficult to publish immediately after the Restoration of the Monarchy, and it was not until 1667 that the first print run of 1300 copies appeared. It took another two years and six different issues with different title pages (of which this is the sixth) to sell out. The second and third editions were also only moderately successful. It was not until Jacob Tonson secured the rights to the poem after Milton’s death that he set about propelling it to the central position in the English canon it has now by producing several editions enhanced with pictures and scholarly notes, some in luxury editions.

Cautionary Elephants: Hilaire Belloc’s The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, Together with More Beasts for Worse Children and Cautionary Tales. London, 1923 (1 b 168/2)

12.Belloc croppedGreat children’s books capture the imagination and leave a lasting impression on young minds. This one may have even inspired its owner to become a children’s writer. The description of the elephant you see here, with his incongruous huge trunk and tiny tail, is a perfect example of Hilaire Belloc’s wry wit. Other classics found in this compilation include: ‘The Woolly Mammoth’; ‘The Microbe’; and ‘Matilda Who told Lies and was Burned to Death’. Belloc’s tales were ‘designed for the admonition of children between the ages of eight and fourteen years’, but their sardonic criticisms of Victorian society were clearly intended to appeal to the adult reader also. This edition of Belloc’s verse was published in 1923, and is a compilation of The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896), More Beasts for Worse Children (1897), and Cautionary Tales (1907). The comic verse is complemented by the delightful and amusing pen and ink illustrations of Basil Temple Blackwood (B.T.B.). Belloc and B.T.B. met while students at Balliol where, according to Belloc’s biographer A N Wilson, the men went on long walks and canoe trips together. B T B was killed in action in Ypres in July 1917 at the age of 46. This volume was given to Balliol in the bequest of Sir Robert Charles Kirkwood Ensor, a contemporary of Belloc’s at Balliol. It is dedicated to ‘Margaret Olivia Ensor. Christmas 1923. From father and mother’. Margaret Olivia became an author and wrote 27 books under her married name of Oliva Coolidge, including many for young adults.

Imperial Elephants: Punch magazine 1937-1946

Political cartoons are a powerful tool for shaping public opinion. They grab the audience’s attention and sum up a complex situation in a single, memorable image. The examples you see here capture a period of immense change in the history of the British Empire and India.  Published between 1937 and 1946 in the British satirical weekly Punch, they chronicle the Indian struggle for independence, and provide a scathing view of the British establishment’s handling of decolonisation. Punch attracted a number of high-profile writers and illustrators including E H Shephard, who produced these cartoons. Shephard is best known for illustrating A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories and his experience of anthropomorphising animals is used to great effect here. In ‘Mowgli’s Brothers’ we see the Head of the House of Commons at the time, Stafford Cripps, trying to negotiate with India, as represented by an elephant. ‘The Cripps Mission’, as it was called, was an effort by the British to negotiate a deal for total co-operation by the main political party in India, the Indian National Congress (INC), for the duration of the Second World War with the guarantee of progressive devolution of power from Britain to the Indian legislature once the war was over. Refusal to cooperate by the Viceroy to India at the time, the Marquess of Linlithgow, and the collapse of the INC after their failed effort to demand an immediate end to British rule in August 1942 (known as the Quit India Movement), doomed Cripps’ mission. In ‘The New Elephant House’ we see the effect of this failure during the transfer of power in 1946-1947. The harsh suppression of the Quit India Movement and an inability to reach the negotiated settlement that Cripps had advocated laid the foundations for serious unrest. As a result, power-sharing negotiations between the leaders of the secular INC and the separatist Muslim League, represented by the feuding elephants in the cartoon, collapsed. This led to independence from Britain and, just as Cripps had feared, terrible bloodshed as India was partitioned in 1947. The hostility and suspicion that led to the outbreak of violence as the borders of India and Pakistan were established still affects the countries’ relationship to this day.

‘The Non-Co-Operator’ portrays the tensions surrounding the Government of India Act of 1935, which conferred ‘dominion’ status on India and was the intended blueprint for the country’s new constitution. The Act was met with disdain by the Indian National Congress, and the All-Muslim Party, and went through many drafts and rewrites before ratification. The cartoon satirises the British establishment view of Ghandi as an obstacle to an act that may have been imperfect but, in the opinion of the imperialists at least was ‘doing its best’.  For Ghandi and the INC, while ostensibly the act transferred power of governance to the people of India, in reality the provisions for British veto meant that very little would change.

Saving Elephants

By the end of the 1980s the future of elephants in the wild looked bleak: ivory trading  coupled with growing human populations were taking a massive toll. Thankfully creative conservation efforts in the past 30 years have helped to create a brighter future for both elephants and the people around them.

Swarm Enemies: Dr Lucy King’s Elephants and Bees Project

Elephants and Bees_Lucy with ffarmers
Dr Lucy King and some of the farmers from the Sagallan community in Kenya posing in front of a Beehive Fence

Most of us have heard tell that elephants are afraid of mice but fewer might be aware that the world’s largest land animal is ‘frightened’ of honeybees. The mere sound of the buzzing creatures leads elephants to send warning signals to other elephants to stay away from the area. The Elephants and Bees Project led by Dr Lucy King (Balliol, 2005) is an innovative study which uses this understanding of elephant behaviour to help reduce the damage they can cause to human settlements using the animals’ instinctive avoidance of African honeybees. In the 1980s African elephant populations were decimated by poaching: the numbers of elephants in the wild fell by more than half from one million elephants at the beginning of the decade to less than 400,000 ten years later. Concerted conservation efforts were introduced to stem poaching and to help increase populations of these species in the wild. Poaching remains a huge existential threat, but, thanks to the work of conservation, populations of these majestic animals have rebounded in the past twenty years. The human population has also grown in that time; it has quadrupled in certain parts of Kenya resulting in increased numbers of farms, houses and schools, many of which have been built on the elephants’ natural migratory paths. This has caused a lot of friction between people and elephants, with many people resorting to attacking elephants to keep them from destroying their crops.

Lucy and her team began a pilot project with communities in Kenya to set up Beehive Fences connected by wires to deter the elephants from passing through people’s farms and destroying their crops and homes.elephants-and-bees-logo-web1 The Beehive Fences are simple and cheap, made with no cement and using only locally sourced materials. Hives, or dummy hives, are hung every ten metres and linked together in a specific formation so that should an elephant touch one of the hives, or interconnecting wire, the beehives all along the fence line will swing and release the bees. The fences not only prevent crop raids, they also provide honey which the locals harvest and sell to generate extra income for their communities. The bees also increase pollination rates in areas that are experiencing human development and expansion. Thanks to the success of the project in Kenya other countries in eastern and southern Africa have implemented their own schemes, and now Dr Shermin de Silva and the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project are leading an Elephants and Bees project in Sri Lanka, to see if Indian elephants share their African counterparts’ fear of the local honeybees.

The Elephants and Bees is a project of Save The Elephants, aconservation charity founded in 1993 by zoologist Iain Douglas Hamilton to secure a future for elephants by sustaining their populations, preserving their habitats, and developing a tolerant relationship between elephants and humans.

One thought on “The Elephant in the Room Part 2”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s