66: The first giraffe
Hello, I hope you’re doing well. Welcome to Border Crossing issue #66.
Thank you very much for reading this. And if you’re a new sign-up, a very warm welcome.
This time, a favourite old story, the first giraffe in Britain and how writing it down, after sharing it informally, verbally with friends over the years, has hit me with the fragility and complexity of my memory.
In my world, this weekend will be all about my formidable wife Rifa, who is celebrating a significant birthday. She’s an awe-inspiring woman and has of course shaped my life immeasurably. Rifa wears her intellect lightly, she’s fearless, fierce, hilarious. Supremely honest and direct — never a politician — she follows her heart and wears her truth on a pin-badge, yet sometimes she’s the silliest person in the room. Rifa works her arse off to help people change their lives for the better. If you know her (and if you don’t) please think happy birthday thoughts and waft them in her direction. We’ll be partying hard.
One of my very favourite ever TV dramas, Edge Of Darkness from 1986, is making a brief appearance on the BBCiPlayer. It’s a six-part nuclear conspiracy eco-thriller starring Bob Peck and I can’t recommend it highly enough. A truly stunning series, it is clearly from a different era, yet feels prescient and unique and ahead of its time even now. You’ve got a week to get started before the episodes begin to vanish, one by one.
A fascinating Twitter thread by @Labour_History explores Peter Tatchell’s ill-fated attempt to become Labour MP for Bermondsey in 1983.
Sara Gunnarsdottir’s animated short films, including Pamelo Ribon’s My Year Of Dicks which is nominated for an Oscar, are free to watch on Vimeo. You’ll need to sign up if you’re not already on there, but Vimeo is worth signing up for, if you’re even half-interested in film. Hat tip Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast for discussing My Year Of Dicks. I used to love short film: in previous years I’d try to watch every short nominated across awards season — but I seem to have given up on that altogether, without even noticing. Watching this made me miss it.
Hamid Dabashi writes for Middle Eastern Eye on Andy Warhol’s trip to Iran in 1976 and what it says about western culture’s approach to that country.
Researchers have developed a potato fortified with saffron.
Lomond Campbell’s Under This Hunger Moon We Fell from last November and Jim Ghedi’s 2021 album In The Furrows Of Common Place. I found both on 12” for £12 each at Rarekind Records two days ago. Campbell produced last year’s Kathryn Joseph record.
The first giraffe
I realised I haven’t told you one of my favourite stories, which is the tale of the first giraffe in Britain. It’s not really my story. If any small slice of history can be said to belong to one person, then Britain’s first giraffe belongs to the Sussex-based art historian, lecturer and polymath Dr Alexandra Loske, who researched it in the early 2010s and turned it into a brilliant talk.
Dr Loske told me about the first giraffe not far off a decade ago, on the first episode of the first podcast series I ever put together, when I was writing in residence at The Royal Pavilion. Giraffes weren’t her main focus obviously, this was a side quest. Dr Loske mostly works on the history of colour, taking in everything from fine art, to fashion, to interior design. She wrote The Tate’s Colour: A Visual History, as well as lots of other things (including co-editing with Robert Massey a lovely collection about the Moon). She also had no clue that I was already obsessed with giraffes, when she launched into the story.
One day, a folder of Georgian satirical cartoons appeared on her desk. Among the many jokes at King George IV’s expense she spotted recurring images of giraffes, toy giraffes, real giraffes, always hanging out with the nasty cartoon depictions of the fat, profligate king. From this lead, Dr Loske uncovered a beautiful journey that mixes natural history with nineteenth-century European geopolitics.
One bit of context first: it’s worth understanding that at the turn of the nineteenth century, British people were long familiar with lots of exotic animals, but not giraffes. We’d seen accurate illustrations of — or sometimes seen in real life — creatures like elephants, lions, gorillas, rhinos, bears, going back centuries. There weren’t yet any public zoos, however there were travelling curiosity shows, lions and bears in the Tower of London and circuses and such. But giraffes were different: pretty much nobody in northern Europe, let alone England, had ever encountered an accurate image or description of a giraffe.
This really was still a word-of-mouth creature. The camelopardalis (yes, camel-leopard) was more commonly regarded akin to mythological beasts, dragons or sea monsters, than alongside viable natural animal life. There’s a sad reason for this: when you try to capture your giraffe alive, it struggles to the point of breaking its legs, then it dies. Historically, the spindly shape of the animal made it near-impossible to transport out of sub-Saharan Africa.
Very occasionally giraffes did show up in Ancient Rome, for example in 46 BC, there was one taking part in Julius Caesar’s animal parade to celebrate defeating Pompey. It got immediately eaten by the lions. But after the Romans, right up to 1826, there is only one other confirmed example of a living giraffe in Europe: the ‘Medici Giraffe’ given to Lorenzo Medici as part of a bigger gift of an exotic menagerie, by the Egyptian Sultan al-Ashraf Qaitbay. This giraffe arrived in Florence in November 1487 and was used for showing off, as a tool to enhance Lorenzo’s status during diplomatic and business gatherings. It survived for about three months, before getting its head stuck in the attic rafters of a barn and breaking its own neck.
Fast-forward to 1826, more than three hundred years later. Muhammad Ali, the Viceroy of Egypt, who held the rank of Pasha in the Ottoman Empire, managed to capture not just one but three live baby giraffes. Ali’s territory was vast. He controlled all of Egypt, Sudan and the Levant, including the Nubian Desert, where the giraffes were caught.
They were likely carried across Sudan, first by camel, then on a felucca sailing boat to Khartoum. Then they were brought down the Nile through Egypt, eventually making their way to Alexandria. Each young giraffe had boy keepers travelling with it the whole way and each was also accompanied by three cows, to supply the more than twenty litres of milk needed daily to feed it. Once safely stored on the banks of the eastern Mediterranean, the Viceroy made gifts of his three giraffes. One for the King of France, Charles X. One for the King of England. Lastly, one for the Emperor of Austria, Franz II. The only wrinkle was, in order to claim their giraffe, each nation had to go collect it.
There’s a wonderful cinematic visual from the various sea and river voyages of these giraffes: each time the giraffes are placed on a boat, crews have to cut holes in the cabin roofs, so the giraffes can stick their heads out.
The French were brilliant. King Charles X made sure they went straight away and grabbed the best of the three giraffes (either by arriving first, or because they drew lots with the English and won). Then they took her back to France by sea. After landing her at Marseille on 31st October, they overwintered, apparently in great comfort. The following spring, the French decided to walk her all the way up through the country to Paris — eight hundred kilometres — heavily promoting the giraffe’s appearance ahead of time along the route.
As a result of this celebrated giraffe walk, we know far more about the French giraffe than the other two. There are books and films about her, and many more that mention her in passing. The naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire looked after the giraffe from Marseille onwards. Thousands of people came out along the route, joined the procession and witnessed for themselves this mysterious creature walking loftily by. On the 9th July, the giraffe arrived in Paris and met King Charles X at Chateau Saint-Cloud, where 100,000 Parisians showed up. She ate rose petals off the King’s hand.
She went on to live for eighteen years in the animal house at Paris’ Jardin des Plantes. At the time, her name was La Belle Africaine, or Her Highness. Nowadays she’s usually called Zarafa. I thought this was her actual name when she was alive, but it turns out she only got given it in 1998 by the writer Michael Allin. But now everyone in France uses it, which is annoying. Apparently you can see Zarafa’s stuffed body today, in Las Rochelle at the Natural History Museum.
The King of England at the time was George IV, who’d been crowned seven years before in 1820, after a life spent partying his nuts off in Brighton, begging large amounts of public cash from Parliament and illegally marrying Maria Fitzherbert without the approval of his father, King George III. By 1827, now in his sixties, George was a changed man, with significant mental health problems. He’d long abandoned the party scene he’d instigated, leaving behind the Royal Pavilion he loved so much as a Prince. Instead, he was mostly holed up in Windsor Castle.
George had always adored riding. That gluttonous arts venue in Brighton, the Dome, was built for his stables, and completed ahead of the Royal Pavilion, so he’d even housed his horses before himself. Later on, the older King George still loved animals and collected exotics, with a growing private menagerie at Sandpit Gate on the Windsor estate. Some accounts say that once he got hold of the giraffe, he became obsessed with her. It’s hard to tell if that’s real or just the tone of satirical mockery of the day. In fact, when the King first learnt of this diplomatic gift that needed collecting from the east, it took him weeks to get around to sending anyone. This meant that England got the last remaining giraffe, which was the smallest and honestly a bit of a shit one, with a gammy leg. King George’s people didn’t show her off on the way home: the giraffe was collected from Alexandria, shipped to Malta for winter, with a bunch of other exotic livestock and human keepers, then travelled the whole way back by boat, round Spain and up the Atlantic coast past the Bay of Biscay, arriving at the Thames in May 1827, onboard the Penelope. Then the poor giraffe got stuck again: she sat for many days in a shed on a dockyard at Waterloo Bridge. Finally she was transported privately, no fanfare, to Windsor Castle. This difference in treatment is fascinating — that the French would understand so clearly the value of sharing the beast with the people, where the British would entirely fail to, and treat her instead as a private toy for one man’s pleasure.
She was definitely a wonky giraffe and not looked after properly. I’ve read one account saying the giraffe’s legs were damaged severely enough that she couldn’t stand without a strange custom-made support harness, which may explain why she wasn’t shown off to the British public. She surely must’ve had a name, or names, but nobody’s written one down that we know about today. Barely two years after arriving, before the end of 1829, King George IV’s giraffe was dead. George himself lasted only six months longer, before conking out in the early summer of 1830.
In 1831, England’s first proper public zoo, the Zoological Gardens at Regent’s Park, was opened by the Zoological Society. When George IV died, he’d left his private menagerie collection to the Society, so they used it to help stock the zoo. This included the dead giraffe, which was stuffed by renowned naturalist and taxidermist John Gould, who was Curator of the Society at the time. It was displayed there for several years but, unlike the French one, this full-size stuffed giraffe is now missing. Someone’s almost certainly got it somewhere, out among our wealthy aristocracy, but we don’t know who.
Meanwhile the French giraffe was alive and well, and incredibly popular. That journey on foot up had caught fire in the public imagination and in the late 1820s, in France, England, Austria and beyond across Europe, giraffes were lit. They started appearing everywhere in fashionable art, and design, in beautiful paintings, edgy satire cartoons and stitched into fine outfits. By the way, the Viceroy’s extravagant diplomatic gift didn’t actually work: by October 1827, the British, Russians and French had joined forces at the Battle of Navarino, to defeat the Ottomans and therefore defend the Greeks.
Less than a decade later, on 25th May 1836, four junior giraffes arrived at Blackwell docks, headed for Regent’s Park Zoo. This time they were walked up through central London with an entourage of people to protect them, and crowds gathering to see. King William IV (George’s younger brother and successor) had sent the French trader and adventurer Monsieur Thibaut to Sudan to hunt or buy some. He brought back a female, Zaida, and three males, Selim, Mabrouk and Guiballah. These lived at first in a re-purposed elephant house, until their own customised enclosure was built the following spring. We’d learnt our lesson: this time the giraffes were huge news.
When Dr Loske first told me the backbone of this story, it was super-fresh. She’d just recently uncovered the narrative. When I started to write this down, it was drawn from much repeated (verbal) memory. But when I looked up the details and researched a bit further, to double-check things, I found a great pile of odd tweaks that I’ve made to the story, in my memory, over the years of retelling it in the pub or over dinner, of course without realising it. In my mind the third giraffe went to the Emperor of Rome, the Pope, rather than some Austrian royal. There are many elements like this that I had totally wrong.
This is making me think a lot about the fluidity and unreliability of memory, not only around important, stressful stuff, or trauma, but also around just casual, anecdotal fun storytelling, like a crazy journey of some giraffes. It feels useful to be reminded of our mind’s fallibility sometimes.
It’s no biggie though. Storytelling isn’t quite history, until it’s written down. As soon as I started reading around the topic, a pile of other fascinating giraffe-related stories are emerging. I only learnt today about Caesar’s ridiculous parade parade. I’m greatly enjoying th icy shock of realisation at those flexes of memory.
get in touch
Insta: @cjthorpetracey @thebordercrossing @folkhampton
Twitter: @christt | @folkhampton | @lofiarts
A lot more of my nonsense via LinkTree.
Last handful of tickets for Jim Bob’s UK summer shows in Leeds, Nottingham, Bristol and Brighton.
Purchase my complete annotated Chris T-T lyric book Buried in the English Earth via the Border Crossing shop.
My Pact Coffee discount code is CHRIS-A8UKQG. Sign up for coffee bean delivery, use this code, you get £5 off and I get £5 off a bag too.
Please look after yourself and your people.
All my love, as always.