No.31 The Travelling Menagerie

Noah’s Ark

After last week’s edition recounting my challenge to go quackers retrieving soggy bread out of the water, I received another challenge: the most unusual livestock or ‘animal passengers’ on board a wreck. Never one to shirk a challenge . . .

We don’t have anything quite as extensive as the wreck of the Royal Tar which went down with circus animals off New England in 1836.

Elephant tusks are regularly reported as cargo, but in 1730 a live elephant died in the wreck of an East Indiaman. It wasn’t just any old elephant, but a ‘fine white elephant, for whom 500l. (£500) had been offered the same day’ and ‘perished in the flames’ when the Marlborough Indiaman docked in London. There is something ironic about surviving the travails of an arduous journey from the East Indies only to perish on arrival. Poor thing.

Shipwreck seems to have been a recurrent theme in the export of exotic animals, which is hardly surprising, given the distances involved from their places of origin, and their subsequent fate of being exhibited around Europe to paying audiences, which might have happened to our elephant had it lived. When you come to think about it, this theme of the wreck of a travelling menagerie is literally as old as the Ark (!) and has inspired countless works of literature, right up to the Life of Pi.

Clara the rhino was pretty much contemporary with our white elephant and was likewise brought over to Europe on a Dutch East Indiaman from her original home in Indonesia. She was an absolute sensation, and is immortalised in paintings for the rich and handbills for the poor. A very well-known image of her exhibited at Venice in 1751 is in the National Gallery, London.

Shipwrecks featured heavily in the real-life tale of Clara’s adventures, very ably told by Glynis Ridley in a recent book although she luckily survived every time. It was a PR gift and simply made her seem more interesting. Ms Ridley also draws attention to the sad tale of Dürer’s rhino, drawn, but clearly not from life, in 1515, which also perished in a shipwreck bound for Italy as a gift for the Pope.

Closer to our own time, the Terukuni Maru struck a mine in the Thames Estuary in 1939. She was an unusual wreck for two reasons, firstly in being a rare Japanese casualty of the Second World War prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Secondly, all hands were saved including a doggy passenger and an unusual stowaway, a disorientated falcon which had flown on board at Beirut. One of the crew cared for it all the way to London, although the more superstitious members of the crew felt it was a bird of ill-omen. Having had its feathers ruffled, it was placed in the care of London Zoo and featured in the Illustrated London News.

Animals have been a regular theme of Wreck of the Week and there will be more essays on other animals in future editions. See No.5 for dogs aboard wrecks and No.22, for those common stowaways, Rattus norvegicus.

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