Indian elephants in Portugal

A long and fascinating history is associated with Indian and Sri Lankan elephants,
which reached Europe in the 16th century

ONE knows, of course, that the elephant — "nature’s great masterpiece... the only harmless great thing", in John Donne’s famous description — was not unknown to the Europeans. Alexander knew the animal, having encountered him on the battlefield in India; his successors fashioned effigies wearing a headgear in the shape of an elephant’s head to mark their ‘conquest of India’; in the 3rd century BC, as one knows, Hannibal, the ‘scourge of Rome’, crossed the Alps bringing African war-elephants with him in what is known as one of the greatest feats of strategy in the history of war.

But, for all practical purposes, as has been said, elephants disappeared from Europe after the Roman Empire. For centuries, thereafter, they remained exotic animals, objects of curiosity or amusement, even disbelief.

Occasionally, an elephant might land up at one court or another, received as a gift from some Asian potentate, and land up in the royal menagerie. But myths about them kept circulating; curiosity never waned. The appearance of an elephant in the royal stalls, but more so on a street, caused, almost invariably, a sensation.

The Elephant of 1563. Hand-coloured Woodcut; Antwerp, 1563.
The Elephant of 1563. Hand-coloured Woodcut; Antwerp, 1563. The British Museum, London

The elephant Hanno. By Raphael (or after Raphael by Giulio Romano). Brush drawing on
The elephant Hanno. By Raphael (or after Raphael by Giulio Romano). Brush drawing on
paper; Rome, ca. 1514. Staatliche Museum, Berlin

I was only vaguely aware of all this till I chanced upon several references while delving into Indo-Portuguese encounters. That monarchs everywhere prided themselves upon adding curiosities to their possessions, especially those from other lands, I knew about: there are those famous paintings, for example, of a turkey-cock and a zebra, newly arrived from overseas, that great Mughal painters made for their patron, the emperor Jahangir.

I was also familiar with a wonderful rendering in the hand of Albrecht Durer of a rhinoceros, that animal having been sent in 1515 to the King of Portugal as a gift by the Sultan of Gujarat: obviously in recognition of the rising power of that land in the east. But I did not know that there is a long and fascinating history that attaches to Indian/Sri Lankan elephants that reached Europe in the 16th century.

And in that little known history figure not only the animals but also Indian mahouts and elephant-trainers, the names of two ‘nairs’, Dharma and Draman, having survived in Portuguese chronicles dating back to 1517.

Possibly the most celebrated of all elephants in this period belonged to king Manuel I of Portugal (ruled 1493-1521). His menagerie had already become the envy of all rulers of the continent and was slickly used by him to demonstrate to all, who mattered the vast reach of his empire, considering the ‘treasures’ it held from all parts of the world.

This relatively small-sized elephant (generally referred to as ‘white’, being possibly an albino), had come to the Portuguese king by ship, either as a gift from the ruler of Cochin in south India or had been purchased for him by Albuquerque, his ‘Viceroy’ in India.

Given the name Hanno, the elephant, barely four years old when it arrived, was an instant success everywhere it went. But it was not to stay long in Portugal, for when the Papacy changed and a Medici prince became Pope, Leo X, the king, sent it to the new Pope as a gift on the occasion of his coronation: a mark of homage.

Apparently the Pope — he was the one for whom some of the greatest Renaissance artists worked and under whom ‘Latin Christianity assumed a pagan, Greco-Roman character’ — took a great liking to the gentle animal: special housing was ordered to be made for him, not far from the St Peter’s; the animal became a regular feature of the papal processions; the Pope asked his favourite painter, the celebrated Raphael, to take a likeness of him; poems were composed on Hanno: for example, in Malaspino’s verse,

"In the Belvedere before the great Pastor
Was conducted the trained
Dancing with such grace and such love
That hardly better would a man have danced

Unfortunately Hanno did not live long, dying from a sudden illness and the administration of wrong drugs. But, even in his death, the animal was celebrated. Raphael was asked to design a memorial fresco for him and the Pope himself wrote an epitaph in which he spoke, in the elephant’s own voice, of

"Me upon whom the Roman people marvelled
A beast not seen for a long time
And in my brutish breast they perceived human feelings".

From Portugal went out other gifts, too. Queen Catherine, wife of Johann III of that land, was an avid collector of ‘curiosities’, and to her belonged one of the most brilliant of all European menageries. Standing instructions were sent out, after 1521, to the kings of Jaffna in Ceylon to dispatch to her 10 elephants each year as tribute to the Portuguese ‘overlord’.

Almost on a regular basis, she would receive requests from different European princes, including Francis I of France, asking for the gift of elephants or other rare animals: an antelope, a civet cat, a West African monkey, and the like.

But with her period is most easily associated the name of an elephant, who became nearly as famous in Europe as Hanno was. This was Suleyman, the name having been given to him to denigrate the Turkish monarch, Suleiman, the Magnificent — an inveterate enemy of Christian Europe — for here was a Suleiman that a European king could ask to bend before him and ride on the back of. The elephant had travelled ca. 1549 to Portugal from the kingdom of Kotte in Ceylon and Goa in India, went on to the, then, capital of Spain, Valladolid, and eventually ended up at Vienna in 1554 to become part of the retinue there of Maximilian II, the Holy Roman Emperor.

Long accounts of the reception the elephant received everywhere that it stopped on these journeys have survived. The celebrations, the jubilation that went with his arrival, seem to have been beyond belief. And when the elephant died — once again due to a poorly diagnosed ailment — his bones were collected and out of them was fashioned a stool-like chair, which still survives.

A footnote: All of this might sound a bit strange to our ears, perhaps even bizarre, considering that elephants are not an unfamiliar sight in our land. The question, however, might be: what impels me to write on elephants about which I know remarkably little?

The answer is simple: I was completely seduced by the delicacy of line and the crispness of observation that one sees in Raphael’s ‘portrait’ of Hanno. It is a remarkable work, completely unpretentious, and yet strangely affecting.