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A Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century London November 5, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval, Modern , trackback


 Beach has a longstanding thing about elephants (see many previous posts and many posts to come) and has been wondering recently about opening up a second front on the rhinoceros: a distant reading of a text about Romans importing this beast for their games has been jumping up and down in his head. He has been spurred on by this late but fascinating reference to an eighteenth-century rhinoceros in London, one of the earliest to come to the British capital. Pity the beastie. Bizarrists might remember that 1739/1740 was the winter of the Great Frost.

‘This creature was first shewn in London in Jun 1739 at 2s and 6d for each spectator, being esteem’d a very great curiosity, there not having been a Rhinoceros in England since 1685. He was fed here with rice, hay and sugar. Of the first he eat 7 pounds to about 3 pounds of the sugar; they were mixed together, and he eat this quantity every day, divided into three meals, and about a truss of hay in a week, besides greens of different kinds, of which he seemed fonder than of his dry victuals; and drank large quantities of water. He bore to be handled in any part of his body; but was outrageous when struck or hungry, yet pacified in either case only giving him victuals. In his outrage he jumps about, and springs to an incredible height, driving his head against the walls of the place with great fury and quickness, notwithstanding his lumpish aspect… A very particular quality is observable in this creature, of listening to any noise or rumour in the street; for though he were eating, sleeping or under the greatest engagements nature imposes on him, he stops every thing suddenly and lifts up his head, with great attention till the noise is over.’

There follows a detailed and often amazed description of this strange beast. Beach hopes he will not seem too puerile if he concentrates on the passage relating to the rhinoceros’ pudenda. In part because it gives us a glimpse of how the locals interacted with him and, in part, because Beach is used to Victorian (non-)descriptions where such things would never appear in a popular magazine.

The penis of the Rhinoceros is of an extraordinary shape. There is first a theca or praeputium, arising from the inguinal part of the belly, nearly like that of a horse, which conceals (as that does) the body, and glands, when retracted… His keeper, who was a native of Bengal, would make him thus emit his penis when he pleased, while he lay on the ground, by rubbing his back and sides with straw; and, in its utmost state of erection, it never was extended to more than about eight or nine inches.

Imagine that being printed up in the Graphic or Science Gossip in the 1870s. there would have been questions in Parliament!

There is also an interesting history of the Rhinoceros from the earliest times. Some of this is erroneous, some  is missing and some was new (at least to Beachcombing): but it represents early eighteenth century English knowledge on the question.

He was not known to the Greeks till the time of Aristotle, nor to the Romans till 85 years before the Christian era, so that he seems to be scarcest of all the quadrupeds; Rhinoceros is his Greek name, from the horn on the nose, and he is with great probability supposed to be the unicorn of the ancients.

The author then goes on to theorise that the Rhinoceros is the unicorn of the Old Testament: a thesis that is almost certainly wrong (another post, another day) and offers a discussion of the one horn vs two horn rhinoceros.

Now that brought from Asia to the King of Portugal in 1513, and those brought from thence to England in 1685, in 1739, and in 1741, were single horned, and a great number of hors in the museums of the curious brought from the East Indies are also single. We may therefore venture to assert, that all those of Asia have but one horn n the nose; and this is confirmed by many gentleman who have seen those creatures in Persia. On the other hand we are sure the Romans  had always a great commerce with the Africans, and had many cargoes of wild beasts from that quarter of the world; it is therefore probable that they might more conveniently have obtained the several Rhinoceros’s which were shewn in that city from Africa than Asia, as the former is much nearer to Italy. And we do not want proof that the African Rhinoceros has 2 horns. Peter Kolbe, a Dutchman, in his voyage to the cape of Good-hope, says there is one in the summit of the nose like the other’s but having a smaller close behind it. There are also two horns in Sir Hans Sloan’s museum sticking to the same integuments, not more than an inch from each other; all of which makes it probable, at least, that the Asian Rhinoceros was the Unicorn of the ancients notwithstanding those exhibited at Rome had two horns; and probability, in questions of this nature, is all that can be reasonably expected by the most diligent enquirer.

Personally Beachcombing is all in favour of the rhinoceros as unicorn theory. However, the Africa one horn and Asia two horns is, of course, an oversimplification. Any other Rhinoceros stories? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


5 Nov 2011: First there is Mark L. ‘You might find this item to be of interest. The URL linked below points to an item on a site I maintain for the benefit of the academic community. It shows a Quadrans - or 1/4 of a As – the smallest denomination of Imperial coin ever used in the Roman Empire. You might think of it as equivalent to a Farthing, although it is difficult to assign it a relative value.  All Roman base-metal coins were token or fiduciary issues (yes, as far back as that – and earlier still) so its real purchasing power was a function partially of what was decreed for it and partially as the amount at which the market accepted it. You might recall the story about Vespasian, who when challenged about charging an admission price for the public “conveniences” (still called “Vespasianos” in some parts of Italy, I am told) held up a coin – presumably a quadrans, and as the smallest coin of the realm is most likely what the charge for use was – and said “Yet, this has no bad odor.” (or Latin to that effect). This piece with a main device of a rhinoceros was one issued by his son, Domitian – under whose reign a large number of small denomination types were issued. PS – Quadrantes almost never carried the portrait of the Emperor – perhaps due to their lowly status?’ Then up comes Invisible: ‘Here is a reference to the earlier rhino of 1684.  This is a quote from The Shows of London, Richard Altick p. 37 “the strange Beast called the Rynnoceros’. Evelyn, like most of the learned, identified the breed with the fabled unicorn, although the reality somewhat belied the myth, for ‘it more ressembled a huge enormous Swine, than any other Beast amongst us.’ Arriving aboard an East Indiaman in August 1684, the ‘rhinincerous’ (the spelling presented insuperable difficulties to contemporary pens) was valued at £2,000—an impressive indication of its worth as a commercial showpiece. The Rhinenceras was immediately put up for sale and was ‘bought for £2320 by Mr. Langly one of those that bought Mr. Sadlers well at Islington & in a day or two will be seen in Bartholomew faire.’ But Mr. Langley was unable to raise the money and lost his £500 deposit; whereupon the owners took back their Rhinonceros and put it up for resale, ‘but noe person bid a farthing soe lyes upon their hands.’ By the end of September the Rhynonceros was at the Belle Sauvage inn at the foot of Ludgate Hill, where the proprietor was said to take in 15 a day at a price of 12d. for a look and 2s. for a ride. The Rhynoceros continued to attract crowds until its premature death two years later (September 1686); ‘the severall proprietors having Ensured £1200 on her life the Ensurers are catched for much money.’” Here is an ad for said Rhino.  The inimitable Jan Bondeson on the famous Clara.  And a whole crash of early rhinos from this site‘. Thanks Mark and Invisible!

7 Nov 2011: Ricardo writes in ‘You know, certainly, that image was made by Durer from descriptions of the rhino King Manuel of Portugal brought to Europe (or gave orders to be brought) in 1515. The king allegedly walked the beast in the Lisbon streets and the next year sent it as a present to the Pope but it perished in a shipwreck near Italy. A half century would elapse before another rhino would set foot again in Europe. Just imagine the Portuguese King, XVI century, walking his newest pet through the streets of the capital…’ Thanks Ricardo, I found the image in the Gentleman’s Magazine and was completely unaware of its provenance!