Power and Protest – the Elephant in the Room

by | May 2, 2024 | IBBYLink Spring 2024

Dianne Hofmeyr

The exchange of exotic animals to demonstrate power has existed since Egyptian and Roman times when cheetahs, leopards, elephants and even crocodiles were led about on jewelled chains.

In a remote part of Sicily at the Villa del Casale, mosaics show elephants and tigers taken on board a Roman galley sailing from Carthage to Italy at the start of the 1st century. In 797, Charlemagne was given an Indian elephant by Harun al-Rashid, the caliph of Baghdad, who traded with China and whose influence stretched from India as far as Muslim Spain.

When the Normans conquered Sicily in 1072 (six years after their conquest of England), Roger II altered the Palace of Palermo, which had been occupied by the Arab Emir, and installed the famous mosaic leopards in the Sala di Ruggero – an example of animal insignia as symbols of power.

In 1110, Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, built a seven-mile-long wall to protect his menagerie at Woodstock, effectively creating England’s first zoo. This Royal Park held a collection of lions, camels, porcupines, a lynx, leopards and even a Nile crocodile given by rulers from around the world. A few years later his son Henry II housed lions at the Tower of London, while a bear was sent to him by the King of Norway.

By 1515, Portugal was at its height as Brazil had been ‘discovered’ and Vasco di Gama had found the sea route to India, cutting out Egypt’s overland monopoly of the spice trade. King Manuel I was quick to build a stronghold in Goa. When Sultan Muzafar II of Cambray refused permission for a Portuguese fort, the Sultan sent a placatory Indian rhinoceros to King Manuel – the first rhinoceros seen in Europe since Roman times.

Twenty years prior, Pope Leo X had divided the world between Portugal and Spain. King Manuel sent him an Indian elephant to secure his control over the Indian colonies and the spice trade and thereby stay ahead of Spain. Portugal’s expansion into the Indian Ocean was also a threat to the monopoly of overland traders from Egypt. They had leverage over the Pope as they controlled Jerusalem and could destroy Christian holy sites. The gift from King Manuel to the Pope was to counter this. On arrival, the elephant with a silver tower on his back was said to drop to its knees and bow in front of the Pope, before lifting his trunk to trumpet three times.

Owning an exotic menagerie was dependent on trade routes and colonial acquisitions. But without the benefit of Instagram and Facebook, how was a king to brag? A parade was the answer. What better way to display power through the streets of Lisbon than show off your wife’s jewels and fine silk fabrics, alongside exotic animals and birds brought from around the world.

The rhinoceros made a huge impression. Printmaker Albrecht Dürer, in faraway Germany, got to hear of it and made his famous print. The image spread like wildfire and became heraldic across Europe. Today it can be seen on the doors to Pisa Cathedral and on the shield of the apothecaries above the gates next to the Thames, in the Chelsea Physic Garden.

In my children’s picture book illustrated by Simona Mulazzani, The Most Famous Rhinoceros, the daughter of King Manuel keeps a marmoset from Brazil as a pet – poetic symbolism on my part as, while researching, I found a photograph showing a little girl in the forests of Brazil with a marmoset on her head.

Apart from parades, combats also attracted huge audiences. So, the rhino was pitted against an elephant. But nothing could persuade them to fight. Both being grass eaters, they’re not mortal enemies. Following in the footsteps of his elephant gift, King Manuel shipped the rhinoceros off to the Pope in Rome but it drowned in a storm on the way. The gesture was so well received that the Pope asked Raphael to include the rhinoceros and his elephant in painting the fresco The Creation of the Animals in the Loggia of the Vatican.

Three hundred years later exotic gifts were still being exchanged. In 1827, just after the Battle of Waterloo, Pasha Muhammad Ali of Egypt sent Charles X of France a giraffe, and one as well to King George IV of England, to secure their support against the Ottoman Empire.

This story, told in my picture book Zeraffa Giraffa, illustrated by Jane Ray, was turned into a play by the Little Theatre funded by the National Lottery and the Arts Council as they believed it demonstrated the plight of an immigrant settling in a new country. The dialogue and songs in English, French and Arabic, reflected the diaspora.

Three quick anecdotes complete the story of animals as pawns of politics. In 1943 in the midst of the war, Churchill asked Australia for six platypuses. He believed they would cement his relationship with Australia at a point when Australia felt betrayed by Britain and was turning more to the US for support. The platypus as Australia’s totem beast would be seen as a symbol of continued allegiance to Britain, and Churchill felt it would boost British morale. Australia refused but finally capitulated and sent one platypus. It died four days off Liverpool when the ship’s sonar picked up a German 8-submarine and it’s believed the sonic depth charges caused its death.

Animals sent to Queen Elizabeth II were given to the London Zoo. Amongst the more exotic were two black jaguars and a sloth, sent from Brazil in 1968. Later gifts of animals remained in their country of origin, like a Nguni cow gifted by South Africa.

China was quick to pick up on the power of its pandas. When Vice Premier Li Keqiang met with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in London to sign commercial deals, he agreed to send a pair of pandas to Edinburgh Zoo on a ten-year loan. It was the result of China falling out with Norway due to a Nobel Peace Prize being given to a Chinese dissident. They needed a fish deal with Scotland to replace their Norwegian deal. The two pandas have since been recalled. When Obama signed an arms deal with Taiwan, China also withdrew the pandas it had lent the US. Relations between Washington and Beijing have been strained by years of disagreements over trade, human rights abuses and the status of Taiwan, and pandas are the political pawns.

What better way to show power than to do it so visibly? Exotic gift giving exerts power way beyond borders to countries on the other side of the world.

ÓDianne Hofmeyr.
Instagram: diannehofmeyr

Works cited

Hofmeyr, Dianne (2014) (illus. Jane Ray) Zeraffa Giraffa. London: Frances Lincoln.

— — (2024) (illus. Simona Mulazzani) The Most Famous Rhinoceros. Burley Gate, Herefordshire: Otter-Barry Books.

Dianne Hofmeyr lives in London but grew up on the southern tip of Africa where she trained as an art and ceramics teacher.

Her stories, inspired by journeys to places as diverse as the Okavango Swamps and Siberia, tell of singing whales, a tortoise who knows how to remember, a giraffe that walks to Paris, a cat that dances with Josephine Baker and a rhinoceros who inspires Dürer.

Translated into 18 languages, including Japanese, Korean and Chinese, she has two IBBY Honour Books and an ASAHI/IBBY Reading Promotion Award. Three picture books, The Magic Bojabi Tree, My Daddy is a Silly Monkey and Tiger Walk, were nominated for the Kate Greenaway Award with illustrations by Piet Grobler, Carol Thompson and Jesse Hodgson respectively.

The Magic Bojabi Tree was also chosen by ITAU Bank to be distributed in schools throughout Brazil, and Zeraffa Giraffa, illustrated by Jane Ray, was among the 100 Best Children’s Classics in The Sunday Times. A play of the story was co-produced by Omnibus and the Little Angel Theatre.
Her latest book, The Most Famous Rhinoceros, is published by Otter-Barry Books and illustrated by Italian illustrator, Simona Mulazzani.