Under the Sun/Elephants
They are Square Animals with a Leg at each Corner and a Tail at both Ends. — “My Lord the Elephant.” — That it picks up Pins. — The Mammoth as a Missionary in Africa. — An Elephant Hunt with the Prince. — Elephantine Potentialities.— A Mad Giant. — Bigness not of Necessity a Virtue. — A Digression on the Meekness of Giants.
ELEPHANTS are square animals with a leg at each corner and a tail at both ends. This may be said to be the popular description of the Titan among mammals.
Nor is its moral character more accurately summed up by the crowd. It has, indeed, come to be a time-honored custom when looking at Jumbo, the elephant which Barnum has bought from “the Zoo” in London, to applaud first its sagacity, as evidenced, they say, in that old story of the tailor who pricked an elephant’s trunk with his imprudent needle; next, its docility, as shown (so the crowd would have us believe) by its carrying children about on its back; in the third place the great sensitiveness of its trunk, inasmuch as it can pick up a pin with it; and, finally, its great size. After this, nothing apparently remains but to congratulate ourselves, in a lofty way, upon having thus comprehensively traversed all the elephant’s claims to respect, and to pass on to the next beast in the show.
But, as a matter of fact, nothing could well be more offensive, more unsympathetic, more unworthy of the elephant, than this stereotyped formula of admiration. That an elephant did once so unbecomingly demean himself as to squirt the contents of a puddle over a tailor and his shop is infinitely discreditable to the gigantic pachyderm; and every compliment of sagacity paid to it on account of that dirty street-boy trick is an affront to the lordly beast which ranks to-day, in the Belgian expedition to Africa, as one of the noblest pioneers of modern commerce and the greatest of living missionaries, and in the Afghan war as one of the most devoted and valued of her Majesty’s servants in the East.
His docility, again, is an easy cry, for was not Jumbo to be seen, every day of the week, carrying children up and down a path, and round and round a clump of bushes, backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards, without doing the children any harm, or even needing the keeper’s voice to tell him when a fair pennyworth of ride had been enjoyed? But upon such docility as this it is an insult to found respect, for surprise at such results argues a prior suspicion that the elephant would eat the children or run amuck among the visitors to the Zoological Gardens. Of its splendid docility there are abundant anecdotes, and among them are some which are really worthy of the sole living representative of the family of the mastodon and the mammoth.
Such a one is the old Mahratta story of the standard-bearing elephant that by its docility won a great victory for its master the Peishwa. The huge embattled beast was carrying on its back the royal ensign, the rallyingpoint of the Poona host, and at the very commencement of the engagement the elephant’s mahout, just as he ordered it to halt, received his death wound and fell off its back. The elephant, in obedience to his order, stood its ground. The shock of battle closed round it and the standard it carried, and the uproar of contending armies filled the scene with unusual terrors. But the elephant never moved a yard, refusing to advance or to retire the standard entrusted to it by so much as a step; and the Mahrattas, seeing the flag still flying in its place, would not believe that the day was going against them, and rallied again and again round their immovable standard-bearer. Meanwhile the elephant stood there in the very heart of the conflict, straining its ears all the while to catch above the din of battle the sound of the voice which would never speak again.
And soon the wave of war passed on, leaving the field deserted; and though the Mahrattas swept by in victorious pursuit of the now routed foe, still as a rock standing out from the ebbing flood was the elephant in its place, with the slain heaped round it, and the standard still floating above its castled back! For three days and nights it remained where it had been told to remain, and neither bribe nor threat would move it, till they sent to the village on the Nerbudda, a hundred miles away, and fetched the mahout’s little son, a round-eyed, lisping child; and then at last the hero of that victorious day, remembering how its dead master had often in brief absence delegated authority to the child, confessed its allegiance, and with the shattered battle harness clanging at each stately stride, swung slowly along the road behind the boy.
Such splendid docility as this — the docility which in our human veterans we call discipline — is worthy of our recollection when we look at our great captives. But why should we offend against the majesty of the elephant by applauding him for carrying children to and fro unhurt? A bullock could not do less.
Then, again, the marvel that the elephant should pick up a pin! It can do so, of course, but it is a pity that it should; for elephants that go about picking up pins derogate something from their dignity, just as much as those others who, to amuse the guests of Germanicus, carried a comrade on a litter along tight ropes, and executed thereafter a Pyrrhic dance. It is surely preferable, recalling the elephants of history, to forget these unseemly saltations and the mocking records of Ælian and of Pliny, and to remember rather that one single elephant alone sufficed to frighten the whole nation of Britons into fits; that as the leaders of armies they played a splendid part in nearly every old-world invasion, from that of Bacchus to that of Hannibal; and that their classic glories and the traditions of their intelligent co-operation with men have invested them with special sanctity for millions of men and women in the East. How magnificently they loom out from the military records of Pyrrhus and Mithridates, Semiramis and Alexander and Caesar; and what a world of tender reverence gathers round their name when we think of them to-day as the objects of gentle worship in India, — “My Lord the Elephant!” To look at an elephant through the wrong end of a telescope is to put an affront upon the animal to whom Asia and Africa now appeal for an assistance, otherwise impossible, in war and in commerce.
It was they who dragged to Candahar and Cabul the guns that shook Shere Ali from his Afghan throne and avenged the British Envoy’s murder; and now they are swinging across Africa from the East to meet the steamers coming up the Livingstone from the West, and thus clasp the girdle of commerce round the Dark Continent.
But the narrative of this expedition is so full, as it seems to me, of picturesque interest, that I think it may find a place in these discursive pages.
The animals, then, were supplied by the Poona stud — at the expense of the King of the Belgians — and in marching them along the high road to Bombay, elephants being common objects of the country in that presidency, no exceptional difficulties presented themselves.
Arrived, however, at the seashore, where elephants do not abound, it was discovered that no one knew what to do with the bulky pachyderms, or how to get them off the wharf into the ship. A crowd collected round the strangers, and, while everybody was offering advice, the elephants took fright and charged the council, who precipitately fled. To a practical person, who, it would appear, had remained out of the way while the charging was going on, it then suggested itself, that, as elephants had been slung on board ship during the Abyssinian war, they might be slung again, provided the gear was of elephantine calibre. The weight of an elephant, however, was an unknown quantity, but a general average of twenty tons being mooted was accepted by the company as a safe estimate — an elephant as a rule being something less than three tons. The gear was therefore adapted to a weight of twenty tons, and the mammoths, being got into position, were safely slung on board, and the steamer sailed.
During the voyage the elephants would persist in standing up all day and night, and the swaying of their huge bodies with the motion of the ship nearly dislocated even their columnar legs, — nearly fractured also the timbers of the deck. But at last they were urged into kneeling down, while a judicious addition of props kept the deck in its place: and thus the elephants got safely across the seas to Zanzibar. Then came another, difficulty: how were the creatures to be landed? The ship could not go nearer to the shore than two miles, and there was neither raft, nor lighter, nor any other appliance for transporting them to land. Could they swim? No one knew.
There was nothing for it but to try. So one of the monsters — its name was the Budding Lily and it stood ten feet high — was gravely dropped overboard, with a man on its back. The elephant solemnly sank until the man was under water, and then as solemnly reappeared. One look round sufficed to explain the position to the poor beast, which, hopeless of ever reaching the distant shore, turned round and made frantic efforts to get on board again! In vain the mahout belabored it. The elephant kept its head against the ship’s side. In vain they tried to tow it behind a boat, for though, when exhausted with, the huge bulk was dragged a short distance, returning strength soon enabled it to drag the boat back to the ship.
And so for an hour, rain pelting hard all the time, the wretched monster floundered about in the sea, and scrambled against the ship’s timbers, now floating alongside without any sign of life, now plunging madly round with the ridiculous boat in tow. That it would have drowned ultimately seemed beyond doubt, but on a sudden the great thing’s intelligence supplemented that of the human beings who were with it, and making up its’ mind that life was worth another effort, and that the ship was unscalable, the elephant began to swim. Again and again, before it reached the first sandbank, its strength or pluck failed; but the boat was always at hand to encourage or irritate it to renewed exertions, and so at last, after nearly four hours’ immersion, the first Behemoth got on shore. Away in the distance those watching from the ship could make out the great black bulk creeping up the sward. Under a tree close by stood its attendant, and in the enjoyment of the monstrous cakes of sugar, rum, flour, and spices which had been prepared for it, and the luxury of a careful rubbing down with warm blankets, the Captain Webb of the elephant world recovered its equanimity and spirits.
Her companions, the Flower Garland, Beauty, and the Wonder-Inspirer, emboldened by Budding Lily’s performance, soon joined her on African soil.
The object of their deportation was twofold, for they had in the first place to prove, in their own persons, the adaptability of their kind to be the carriers of merchandise across the Central African solitudes, and in the next to tame and civilize to the service of man the great herds of their wild congeners, the, African elephants, roaming in the forests through which the highways of Arab trade now pass.
There is very little difference between the two species, the Indian and the African. The latter has much larger ears and finer tusks, and its forehead is convex, while the Asiatic animal prefers to have it concave. The African elephant, however, is as amenable to discipline as the other. For there can be no doubt that it was the African elephant which charged with the armies of Hannibal and Pyrrhus, and danced before Nero and Galba.
He is, indeed, a truly splendid mammal, a remnant worthy of the great diluvian period when giant pachyderms divided among them the empire of a world of mud. He remains, like the one colossal ruin of the old Egyptian city, to remind us what the old Africa was like.
But the world of trade stands in need to-day of the African elephant; and out of his stately solitude, therefore, he must come to carry from the forest to the coast the produce which our markets demand. And for his capture the Arab and Zanzibari can have no more skilful assistants, or it may be teachers, than the veterans of the Indian khedda that have now gone out. Many a wild tusker, no doubt, has Beauty pommelled into servility, and many a one has Budding Lily coaxed by. her treacherous blandishments into the toils of the Philistines. The tame females, it is well known, seem to take a positive delight in betraying the Samsons of the jungle into slavery; for, after lavishing their caresses upon them till they have tempted them within the fatal circle, they leave them, with a spiteful thump at parting, to the mercy of their captors.
When the Prince of Wales was in India, an elephant-hunt was among the amusements provided for his Royal Highness by that most royal of entertainers, and of murderers, Jung Bahadur, of Nepal, and in the contemporary records of the expedition, full justice has been done to that thrilling episode of the Prince’s visit. The heroes of the capture were Jung Pershad and Bijli Pershad. The former, in height, weight, and courage, was superior to all the eight hundred elephants of the Nepalese stud, while Bijli, “The Lightning,” had no match for speed and pluck combined. The first wild tusker sighted was a magnificent fellow, sulking and fuming in a clump of tall jungle grass, and whenever he charged out of it the ordinary fighting elephants brought up at first against him fled before him. Then, with all the leisurely solemnity befitting his renown, old Jung Pershad came swinging up. But, no sooner had the huge bruiser hove in sight than the wild giant, measuring him at a glance, confessed his master, and fled before the overpowering presence. The grand old gladiator did not attempt pursuit. His bulk forbade it, and so did the etiquette of his profession.
To his friend and colleague in many a previous fight, Bijli the swift-footed, pertained the privilege of pursuit, and from the moment when the quarry perceived the strangely rapid advance of his new antagonist, he professional just the one point he needed to beat so splendid an amateur; and he beat him “by sometimes ramming him against a tree, sometimes poking him in the side so as almost to knock him over, sometimes raising his trunk above his head, and bringing it down on the poor tusker’s neck. At last the wild elephant fairly gave up, surrendered, and made no further pretence of either fighting or flying.”the gravity of his peril. Flight from Bijli was as vain as contest with Jung. So he swung round in his stride, and for full two minutes the pursuer and pursued stood absolutely motionless and silent, face to face. And then, on a sudden and with one accord, “with their trunks upraised and their great ears spread, and with a crash like two rocks falling together, the giants rushed upon each other. There was no reservation about that charge: they came together with all their weight, and all their speed, and all their heart.” But the skill that comes of practice gave the
Henceforth, in far other scenes, other Jung Pershads and other Bijlis, mighty in battle, will win renown, and, winning it, will do for Central Africa what the camel has done for Central Asia, and what ships have done for all the world’s coasts. They will be the pioneers of trade, true missionaries, Asia’s contingent in the little army that has set out to conquer, but without bloodshed, the desperate savagery of the Dark Continent.
At any rate it was a finely picturesque conception, this of compelling the Behemoths of the Indian jungles to serve in the subjection of the Titans of the African forests, and to bring face to face, in the centre of a continent, the two sole survivors of a once mighty order; and I could never look at Jumbo lounging along the path in the Zoölogical Gardens without thinking also of his noble kinsmen working their way in the cause of civilization and of man across the Dark Continent.
Sagacity and docility are, no doubt, therefore, virtues which the elephant shares with man, but it is hardly fair to it to illustrate its intelligence by quoting the deplorable incident of the tailor, unless we are also prepared to illustrate the sagacity of men and women by referring to the performances of the Artful Dodger. Let us rather generously forget that elephantine lapse, just as we remember that, after all, Noah — in that “aged surprisal of six hundred years” only got drunk once.
Nor, when we speak loftily of the elephant’s docility, should we forget that the measure of this virtue may be gauged by the individual’s capacities for the reverse. A white mouse is one of the most docile of animals, but w^hat would it matter if it were not? A pinch of the tail would always suffice to frighten it into abject submission. But when the sagacious elephant decides for itself, as it often does, that docility is not worth the candle, that occasional turbulence, good-all-round rebellion, is wholesome for its temper and constitution, — who is going to pinch its tail? With one swing of its trunk it lays all the attendants flat, butts its head through an inconvenient wall, and is free! They are brave men who capture the wild elephants, but no one, however brave, tries to capture a mad one. It has to be shot in its tracks, dropped standing, for it is then something more than a mere wild animal. It has developed into a creature of deliberate will and, having in its own mind weighed the pros and cons, has come to the fixed conclusion that captivity is a mistake, and proceeds therefore on a definite line of intelligent and malignant action.
Indeed, among the episodes of Indian rural life there are few more appalling than such a one as that of the Mad Elephant of Mundla. It had been for many years a docile inmate of a government stud, but one day made up its mind to be infamous. Wise men have before now told the world that it is well to be drunk once a month, and others that we should not always abstain from that which is hurtful; so the elephant, determining upon a bout of wrong-doing, had some precedent to excuse him. The elephantine proportions of his misdemeanors, however, made his lapse from docility appalling to mere men and women whose individual wicked acts are naturally on so diminutive a scale; but, comparatively speaking, the gigantic mammal was simply “on the spree.” Neverthless, it desolated villages with nearly every horrible circumstance of cruelty lately practised by the Christians of Bulgaria, and laid its plans with such consummate cunning that skilled police, well mounted and patrolling the country, were baffled for many days in their pursuit of the midnight terror. It came and went with extraordinary secrecy and speed from point to point, leaving none alive upon the high roads to tell the pursuers which way it had gone, and only a smashed village and trampled corpses to show where it had last appeared. It confused its own tracks by doubling upon its pursuers and crossing the spoor of the elephants that accompanied them.
It was not merely wild. It was also mad — and as cunning and as cruel as a mad man.
But insanity itself may be accepted, if you like, as a tribute to the animal’s intelligence, for sudden downright madness presumes strong brain power. Owls never go mad. They may go silly, or they may be born idiots; but, as Oliver Wendell Holmes says, a weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself Stupidity often saves a man from insanity.
It is also curious to notice how the size of Jumbo strikes so many as being somehow very creditable to Behemoth. But praise of such a kind is hardly worth the acceptance of even the hippopotamus. “The wisdom of God,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “receives small honor from those vulgar heads that rudely stare about and, with a gross rusticity, admire His works;” and it is certainly gross rusticity to attribute credit to the elephant for being big. After all, he is not so big as other creatures living, nor as he himself might have been a few centuries ago. Moreover, though giants seem always popular, there is little virtue in mere size. The whale, driving along through vast ocean spaces, displaces, it is true, prodigious quantities of water, but the only admirable points about him, nevertheless, are his whalebone and his blubber. He is simply a wild oil barrel, and the more cheaply he can be caught and bottled off the better.
But speaking of personal bulk as a feature to be complimented, there is an illustration at my hand here in the next enclosure — for who could honestly congratulate the hippopotamus upon its proportions?
Men ought to have a grudge against this inflated monster, for it is one of the happiest and most useless of living things. Its happiness in a natural state is simply abominable when taken in connection with its worthlessness; and the rhinoceros, next door there, is no better. Providence, to quote the well known judge, has given them health and strength — “instead of which,” they go about munching vegetables and wallowing in warm pools. They do absolutely nothing for their livelihood, except now and then affront the elephant. Even for this the hippopotamus is too sensual and too indolent; but the rhinoceros often presumes to hold the path against the King of the Forests. Their bulk, therefore, is either abused by them or wasted, so that their monstrous size and strength really become a reproach.
With the elephant it is very different. Every ounce of his weight goes to the help of man, and every inch of his stature to his service.
I have said above that giants are always popular, and as perhaps the observation may be contested in the nursery, I would here, in the chapter on gigantic animals, interpolate my defence. Once upon a time, and not so long ago either, two bulky Irishmen were walking in San Francisco, when they met a foreigner sauntering along the street. Now they both hated foreigners, so they proceeded to assault him, whereupon the stranger took his hands out of his pockets, and, catching hold of the two Irishmen, banged their bodies together until they were half dead. The foreigner's performance drew the attention of passers-by to him, and they noticed, what the Irishmen had not discovered until too late, that the stranger was a man of gigantic physical strength. They also remarked that but for the feat he had performed this Hercules might have gone to and fro unsuspected, for not only was his demeanor modest and unassuming, but his face wore a gentle and benevolent expression. He was, in fact, of the true giant breed, reduced in proportions to suit modern times, but having about him, nevertheless, all the thews and the inoffensive disposition of the original Blunderbore.
To explain my meaning further I need only refer to the history of that overgrown but otherwise estimable person whose lodgings were burglariously entered by a young person named Jack, who for no apparent reason — such was the laxity of the public morals in those days — climbed up, so we are asked to believe, the stalk of a leguminous vegetable of the bean kind, and, having effected a forcible entry into the giant’s premises, robbed the amiable but stertorous Blunderbore of the most valuable of his effects. Here, then, is a case in point of a person of retiring habits being assaulted simply because he was of gigantic size and strength, and of the public condoning the assault on that account alone. It is contended, I know, that Jack was incited to his crimes by a cock-and-bull story about the giant’s castle having belonged to Jack’s father, told to the boy by an old woman whom he chanced to find loitering about his mother’s cottage, — with one eye, depend upon it, all the time on the linen spread out on the hedge. But it was just like the vagabond’s impudence to foist her nonsense on a mere child. For after all, how could Jack’s father have had a castle in the clouds, unless he had been a magician? — in which case Jack himself was little better, and his mother, by presumption, a witch; in which case they ought all to have been ducked in the horse-pond together.
Whether this Jack was the same person who, in afterlife, settled down to industrious habits, and, presumably unassisted, built a House for himself, chiefly remarkable for the zoological experiences in which it resulted, I am unable to determine. But looking to the antecedents of the Giant-killer, his laziness at home, and his unthrifty bargain in that matter of his mother’s cow, I should hesitate, even with the memory of Alcibiades’s conversion to Spartan austerity in my mind, to believe in such a reformation as this, of a young burglar turning into a middle-aged and respectable householder. In the mean time it is noteworthy that the Jack of the Beanstalk was a boy of forward and larcenous habits, that he committed an unprovoked series of outrages upon a giant in whose house he had been well treated, and that the giant was an affable personage of great simplicity of mind and easily amused, kind to poultry and fond of string music.
Indeed, had he not been so excessively large it is probable he would have been a very ordinary person indeed. This, at any rate, seems certain, that if he had been any smaller he would not have been either so simple or so shabbily treated. It has always been the misfortune of huge stature to be taken advantage of, and so many men of strength have been betrayed and brought to grief by Jacks and Aladdins, Omphales and Delilahs, that it has come to be understood that when a man is preternaturally strong he should be also extremely unassuming in demeanor, and liable, therefore, to unprovoked aggression.
It has, I know, been gravely endeavored, by a certain class, to shake the world's belief in the existence of giants, but the attempt has been fortunately unsuccessful. No argument, however ingenious, erudite, or forcible, can knock out of sight such an extremely obvious fact as a giant; and I consider, therefore, that Maclaurin, who attempted to demonstrate, by the destructive method and mathematics, the impossibility of giants, might have saved himself the labor of such profane calculations. The destructive argument, however, I confess, has this much in its favor, that it explains why many of the Anakim are weak in the knees, for, inasmuch as the forces tending to destroy cohesion in masses of matter arising from their own gravity only increase in the quadruplicate ratio of their lengths, the opposite forces, tending to preserve that cohesion, increase only in the triplicate ratio. It follows, therefore, that if we only make the giant long enough he must, by mathematics, go at the knee joints.
Indeed, in our own modern literature will be found much excellent matter with regard to weak-kneed giants from which it appears that the show-frequenting public take no delight whatever in infirm Goliaths; and those who may have any to exhibit will do better to put the feeble-legged Gogs and Magogs to useful tasks about the house or back-garden than display them in public for gain. In one of these stories the giants, when they became decrepid, waited upon the dwarfs attached to the show. The tendency to mock at a giant becomes, among the lower orders, uncontrollable when Blunderbore is shaky in the lower limbs; and under these circumstances, as it is not legal to make away with giants when used up, he should be either kept in entire obscurity, or only have the uppermost half of him exhibited.
This inclination to make fun of men of exceptionally large stature or extraordinary strength may be due to a half-recognized impression on the mind that such persons are out of our own sphere, superhuman, and preposterous. The}^ are out of date, too, being, as it were, relics of fables and the representatives of a past world, in which they kept the company of gnomes and dwarfs, ogres, hobgoblins, and other absurd gentry of the kind, living irregular lives, perpetually subject, from their great size, to dangerous accidents, and, as a rule, coming to sudden and ridiculous ends. It was very seldom, indeed, that a giant maintained his dignity to the last, and there hangs, therefore, a vapor of the ludicrous about the memory of the race, so that nowadays men speak of them all as laughable and rather foolish folk.
In the stories which are so precious to childhood, giants, when they have not got ogresses as wives, are never objects of complete aversion. On the contrary, the young reader rejoices over the downfall of the bulky one, not on the score of his vices, or because he deserves his fate, but because the child’s sympathies naturally incline towards the undersized personages of the story; and if the poor blundering old giant could be only brought up smiling over a hasty pudding on the last page, the story would not be thought, in the nursery, to be any the worse for that — so long, of course, as there was no doubt left in anybody’s mind as to Jack being able to kill Blunderbore again, should Blunderbore’s conduct again justify his destruction. Sometimes, I regret to remember, the giants went about collecting children for pies, and from such as these all right- minded men should withhold their esteem; but for the rest, the ordinary muscular and inoffensive giant, it is impossible to deny a certain liking, nor, when he is provoked to display his strength, a great admiration.