Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation by John Sutherland - review by Alexander Maitland

Alexander Maitland

An Elephant Never Forgotten

Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation


Aurum Press 291pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Jumbo, the African elephant, was a Victorian celebrity. John Sutherland has not attempted to write Jumbo’s biography, nor to supersede previous biographies. Instead he aims at what he calls a ‘kind of fantasia’, or an ‘elephantasia’, an approach that is ‘more free-ranging’ and ‘egotistical’.

When the Nile explorer and big-game hunter Sir Samuel Baker saw Jumbo in the French Sudan, in 1861, the tiny calf, who became England’s favourite, was barely a year old. Born in what is now Eritrea, Jumbo had been captured by Hamran Arabs who killed his mother. An animal trader herded Jumbo and other captives over the Sudan desert, northeast to Suakin. From there they travelled in crates, by sea and rail, to Dresden. Jumbo was bought by a German circus owner, who sold him soon afterwards to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. 

The Jardin des Plantes, Europe’s oldest-established menagerie, treated Jumbo disgracefully. When the Zoological Society of London, desperate for an African elephant, acquired him in 1865 for its collection, Matthew Scott, Jumbo’s escort, reported angrily, ‘A more deplorable, diseased and rotten creature never walked God’s earth.’ For the next twenty years, Scott became Jumbo’s ‘surrogate’ parent, protector and friend. Cared for by Scott, Jumbo’s health and appearance improved. His bulk, swelled by thousands of buns, increased rapidly.

Jumbo’s name may derive from the Swahili jambo (‘hello’), jumbe (‘chief’) or tembo (‘elephant’). Unlike a domesticated dog, Jumbo didn’t know his name, any more than he knew he was an elephant. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘jumbo’ as ‘big’ and ‘clumsy’. Applied to Jumbo the elephant, it became an anthropomorphic synonym for ‘hugeness, geniality, above all cosiness’.

At the London Zoo in Regent’s Park, Jumbo won fame as the children’s ‘giant pet’. Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt were among those who rode him. Sutherland wonders ‘what seeds that twopence worth of bum-bumping planted to sprout, decades later, changing world history’. Be that as it may, Jumbo’s popularity boosted the 19th-century anti-vivisection campaigns and the formation of the RSPCA, sponsor of the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1876. This seems especially ironic, as Jumbo’s outbursts of madness, wrath and self-harming, due to early traumas, were subdued by Scott and the zoo superintendent with gaffs, spears or whips. (Some circus handlers, we are told, preferred sledgehammers to whips since whips were understood to have less effect on an elephant’s inch-thick hide.) Yet, as Sutherland explains, even the thickest layer of hide would register a fly.

Poor Jumbo’s frantic outbursts occurred at night, after he had been caged; and neither they nor his punishments were witnessed by his adoring public. Depressed or in a temper, Jumbo would tolerate nobody but Scott, who, it was said, possessed ‘strange powers’. Elephant and keeper communicated ‘via signals, sounds and vocabulary which only they could understand’. Beloved of royalty, Jumbo performed his duties impeccably – with ‘no report of him even urinating or defecating indecorously’. The appearance of a mate, named Alice, later fulfilled a Victorian image of elephantine respectability. This had been a shrewd precaution after Jumbo reached sexual maturity; but neither he nor Alice took much interest in one another. The zoo authorities nevertheless felt anxious in case women and children should confront a heroically aroused Jumbo, or risk being trampled if the star elephant went berserk.

Despite letters to Queen Victoria from 100,000 children, Jumbo was sold to Phineas T Barnum, owner of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, and transported in 1882 with Matthew Scott to the USA. There Jumbo thrived. Perhaps he ate better food, or Scott gave him larger helpings of the soporific whisky it was hinted kept the elephant calm at London Zoo. Sutherland asks himself, ‘Was Jumbo a fellow alcoholic? [This is] one of the things that has given me a sense of intimacy with the great animal.’ Such acute, unexpectedly personal insight may well explain the cause of Jumbo’s violent death. In September 1885, at the railroad town of St Thomas, Ontario, Jumbo ‘may well have been sozzled’ when he charged headlong ‘into the path of a thundering train’. Jumbo’s faithful ally never recovered from the tragedy. Scott died in poverty, heartbroken, his last, solitary days spent conversing with an imaginary Jumbo.

Sutherland’s epilogue is a mine of absorbing detail. It embraces the technology of elephants’ ears, their self-cooling skin, uniquely patterned feet, 300lb weight, boneless trunk, eyelashes, teeth, tusks and amazing memory. Understandably he tends to portray all hunting as slaughter: he focuses on his namesake James Sutherland, the first European to kill 1,000 elephants, and quotes elephant-hunting memoirs by Roosevelt and George Orwell.

A thought-provoking book crammed with wonderful anecdotes, Jumbo is eminently readable. Sutherland describes how Jumbo was recreated for Tufts College by Carl Akeley, ‘father of modern taxidermy’; and how Jumbo’s mate, Alice, when shown his stuffed effigy, stroked it gently with her trunk and wept. It became a ritual for Tufts students to tug Jumbo’s tail for good luck before football games or exams. When the tail wore out, it was stored respectfully among other treasures in the college library’s rare-book vault. In 1975, a fire destroyed Jumbo’s mounted skin, but some of his ashes were preserved – in a 14oz peanut butter jar. To this day, the jar serves as the Tufts football team’s lucky charm.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Incomparible Monsignor

Kafka Drawings

Follow Literary Review on Twitter