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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)


An elephantine biography

Stuttgart Oliphant
To paraphrase Michiel Abbing's fascinating article, and excluding all other considerations with a narrow-mindedness only expected of 'Senex', the following :
The elephant first pops up at a great trading-fair (Messe) in Leipzig in 1688. It is assumed that, at that time, the elephant was around eight or ten years old. Shortly afterwards, she was purchased by Bartel Verhagen from Amsterdam. In the course the following two decades, the elephant was shown in towns and cities all over Europe - principally Germany, but also Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, France, Switzerland and finally England and Scotland. It had been trained to perform a variety of tricks which fair delighted the assembled punters.

White Elephant 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.)



Not everyone welcomed the beast to Edinburgh, however. On 23rd November 1705, the baker Adam Kerr, who had premises in Fishmarket Close, wrote a stiff letter to the City Council, making complaint:
"Adam Kerr baxter, burgess of Edinburgh humbly complaine upon Abraham Seybour (Sever) a Dutchman owner of the eliphant that where I having ane shop and oven at the head of the fishmercat close with a back vault to the south thereof…who keeps his eliphant therin and exposes the same his Dung and water thereof comes so doun upon my said vault that it has spoylt the same… and comes doun in great quantities upon the vault and spoyle and abuses the concerned goods…and if not prevented will altogether rowan said vault…beseeching your lordship and councill to visit the said vault…to remove the said eliphant."
(With acknowledgements and much gratitude to Vikki Kerr - no relation, we trust? - of City of Edinburgh Archives, who uncovered this letter in July 2019, and kindly shared it with the world.)

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

De Witte OliphantIt 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 picture here...
and http://wikimapia.org/12836247/Primary-school-De-Witte-Olifant

The European Tour

Reproduced below, with full acknowledgement to Michiel Roscam Abbing, is the full itinerary of our elephant:
1688 Leipzig
1689 Vienna
1689 Berlin
[1689] Steglitz, near Berlin
1690 Hanover
1690-1691 Bologna
1691 Lucca
1692 Bremen
1692 Szczecinski (Stargard), Poland
1692 Leipzig
1693 St Gallen, Zürich and Basel
1694 Elbling, Kaliningrad (Königsberg) and Gdansk (Danzig)
1695 Kassel, Munich
1695 Würzburg, Ebrach, Altorf, Nuremberg
1695-1696 Vienna?
1696 Rothenburg, Künzelsau and Frankfurt am Main
1697 Stuttgart
Year unknown Amsterdam
1698 Paris
1700 Nantes
1701 London
1702 London
1705 Edinburgh
1706 Hamilton, Scotland
1706 death near Dundee

Advertising and other allurements

A flavour of what our elephant was obliged to get up to is given below, from an advertisement issued in London. The advertising poster shown in the image is in Dutch, and also vividly demonstrates our elephant's many skills. (Image and text courtesy of Michiel Roscam Abbing)

Elephant advert 1690'This is to give notice to all Persons of Quality, Gentlemen and others, that there is lately Arrived in this Town, from the Kingdom of Siam in the East-Indies, a great white Elephant, being 9 Foot high, weighing above 5000 Weight, Eating in 24 hours time 100 pound weight of Hay, besides Corn and Bread. This wonderful Creature (having a Head as big as a Barrel, Legs as big as a Mans middle, and Ears as big as a Shoulder of Mutton) performs several Actions as swift & nimble as his Master commands him. First he takes his Masters Hat, Salutes the Company and makes Reverence upon his Knees. His Master asking him whether he loves Queen Ann, then he points with his Trunk to his Heart, and [what] he must do for her, he Sounds for her on the Trumpet; but for the Grand Turk he will do nothing but make a dreadful Noise shaking his Head. He exercises the Musquet, and discharges the same at the word of Command like a Soldier, likewise flourishes the Colours to Admiration, Takes a piece of Money from the Ground and delivers it to his master. He Kneels down to receive People upon his Body, and bears two on his Trunk, and two on his Ears, and ten on his Back. He walks about with a Kettle on his Trunk, begging of the Company some Money to drink their Healths; then he makes his Reverence to the Company as a Testimony of Thanks: And performs abundance more of very rare and curious Actions, than can be incerted in this Paper, to the great Wonder and Admiration and S[a]tisfaction of all Spectators.'