Where did the Dundee Elephant Come From?Now the truth is known!
Dutch historian Michiel Roscam Abbing has published the results of his research into the elephant in an article in the Dutch Amstelodamum Jaarboek (2015). The article is entitled 'So Een Wunder heeft men hier nooijt gesien' - De Indische Vrouwtjesolifant (1678/80-1706) van Bartel Verhagen. The title says it all really. But for those unfamiliar with Dutch: Such a Marvel Has Never Been Seen Here Before' - The Indian female elephant (1678/80-1706) owned by Bartel Verhagen. (For more details on the journal click here)
Bartel Verhagen himself died in 1703, but his last will and testament stipulated that the elephant should not be sold, but rather placed into the care of his executors, among whom his assistant Jan Janszoon, who had previously accompanied the elephant on its travels. Thereafter, Janszoon assumed sole responsibility for the elephant. However, on the final trip to England and Scotland, the trainer accompanying the unfortunate beast was a gentleman named Abraham Sever, who seems to have rented the elephant from Janszoon. Reaching Edinburgh in late 1705, Sever was granted permission by the City Fathers, on 31st October, to display the beast for the gratification of the incredulous citizenry :
"The Council upon ane petitione given in by Abraham Sever Dutchman grants liberty to the petitioner to expose his elephant to all persones within the toun and suburbs upon his payment of ane gratification to the kirk thesaurer for the use of the poor."
(from: J.D. Marwick, M. Wood, Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 14, Edinburgh 1967, p. 113.)
To return to our Dutch evidence...
Some comments had been made in earlier years about the sad state of this elephant, its manifest thinness and under-nourishment. Clearly, Sever was not good at preserving the very basis of his wages, and the elephant's demise on the road from Broughty Ferry to Dundee was not wholly unexpected. When this unfortunate event was reported to him, the Dutch notary Hendrik de Wilde (also an executor of Verhagen's will) calculated that the elephantine revenues since the death of Verhagen were 7603 guilders - a tidy sum, if you consider that an ordinary Dutch labourer earned 200 guilders a year.
I am also grateful to Michiel for sharing with me the information that Sever was also a tightrope dancer and a musician: quite the entertainer, and one who, in later years and without an elephant, could have been a star at the Edinburgh Fringe.
(For further details, see: J.P. Vander Motten & Michiel Roscam Abbing, ‘Seventeenth-Century English Rope Dancers in the Low Countries’, in: Theatre Notebook 74 no. 1 (2020), pp. 8-31. The very title of the article should be enough to lure you in!)
Accompanying the elephant on many of its travels around the Continent had been an 'African Jungle-Donkey' - a creature of 'beautiful colours', but of uncertain species, possibly a mandrill or an aardvark - but certainly not a zebra, a tapir or an onager (in case you wondered). In Nuremberg in 1695, there was also a three-legged animal on display: we make no attempt to speculate.
Our researcher Michiel Roscam Abbing has some history with elephants: in 2006, he published an article and a book on "Rembrandt's Elephant". These related to Rembrandt's portrait (1637) of an earlier famous elephant purchased by Dutch Royalty in 1633. Acquiring elephants seemed to be something of a Dutch habit. See also https://www.elephanthansken.com
It is pleasing to note that there was a public-house in Amsterdam, De Witte Oliphant in the old Batavierstraat, which almost certainly owes its name to the elephant of (we might patriotically say) Dundee. Alas, this building and all around it were demolished in the late 1920s, so all that remains is a plaque from the original building now embedded in the wall of the new primary-school - happily named 'School De Witte Olifant'. See: www.amsterdamsegevelstenen.nl/NieuweBatavierstraatSchool.htm
Reproduced below, with full acknowledgement to Michiel Roscam Abbing, is the full itinerary of our elephant:
|||Steglitz, near Berlin|
|1692||Szczecinski (Stargard), Poland|
|1693||St Gallen, Zürich and Basel|
|1694||Elbling, Kaliningrad (Königsberg) and Gdansk (Danzig)|
|1695||Würzburg, Ebrach, Altorf, Nuremberg|
|1696||Rothenburg, Künzelsau and Frankfurt am Main|
|1706||death near Dundee|