Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The old elephant in Exeter 'Change

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX  (1863) 
The old elephant in Exeter 'Change
by Edward Jesse

Illustrated by Joseph Wolf.


How well I recollect the old elephant in Exeter ’Change! He had been confined there for many years, and, in consequence of his having been regularly and well fed, his size was enormous. He was very obedient to his keepers, very susceptible of kindness, but mindful of an injury and ready to resent it. In proof of this, I may mention that a man, while looking at him, struck the proboscis of the elephant with his stick, when the animal projected it in hopes of receiving some food. The keeper immediately pulled the man out of the reach of the elephant, advising him at the same time not to go again within his reach. The fellow went with his companions to see the other animals, and on his return thought he would take another look at the elephant, forgetting what he had been told. As soon as he was well within its reach he was knocked down by the trunk of the animal, who selected him out for his revenge amongst several of those who accompanied him. This is no solitary instance, for many similar ones are on record. One is somewhat ludicrous. An elephant passed a tailor every day, who was at work in his small shop by the roadside, and this man was in the habit of giving the animal something to eat. One day, however, when the elephant put out his proboscis to receive his accustomed donation, the tailor pricked it with his needle. The animal took no notice of it at the time, but on his return he collected a quantity of filthy water in his trunk, and deluged the unfortunate tailor with it.

I used often to go to Exeter ’Change to see the old elephant, who was, as I have remarked, of a most stupendous size. When it was arranged that the buildings in which this animal was confined should be taken down, and houses built on the site, forty beasts were removed to the old stables near Carlton House, besides the monkeys; but as it was found impossible to remove the elephant, it was decided that he must he killed. The way in which his death was at last accomplished, not only shows an extraordinary tenacity of life, but is not a little affecting. The account was furnished by the head keeper at the time, a very intelligent man. They first of all tried to poison him, and for this purpose a pound of arsenic was mixed in three mashes, but it produced no effect. Then corrosive sublimate was put into three buns out of twelve. He ate nine of them, but refused to touch the three poisoned ones, although there was neither taste nor smell in them. His hay was then poisoned with a solution of arsenic, but he would not touch it, although he began to be famished, but refused all food, as if he had a suspicion that it was intended to destroy him.

Under these circumstances, a detachment of the Foot Guards were called in, and they fired one hundred and twenty shots into the elephant—three balls entering his brain, and seven into other parts of his head. Still he survived; his keeper next ordered him to kneel down; the poor animal immediately obeyed the order, and his head thus presenting a surer mark, the last shots caused his death, but he survived the one hundred and twenty shots for an hour.

Killing the Elephant.png

There is something to my mind extremely affecting in this account of the torture inflicted on a poor beast, and of his docility and obedience to his keeper under his sufferings. That he was possessed of no common intelligence is proved by the fact of his refusing to eat the poisoned buns and hay, and the following instance will also show that he occasionally evinced qualities which almost amounted to reason.

On one occasion I went to see this elephant, and on entering the space before his den I observed a bucket containing a quantity of small round potatoes. I took one of them, and as he was in the act of removing it out of my hand it dropped on the floor by accident. The animal tried to reach it with his proboscis, but as it was round it rolled away from him. After two or three ineffectual efforts to pick it up, he leant against the bar of his den, straightened his trunk, blew strongly against the potatoe, and sent it against the opposite wall, from which it rebounded towards him, when he was enabled to secure it. Here was an instance of sense or sagacity, and, as I said before, almost of reason. Indeed the elephant has been called a half-reasoning animal, and in this instance it could not have been instinct alone which taught him to procure his food in the manner I have described. It must have been some intellectual faculty which I am unable to define, but it was at all events an extraordinary circumstance. Milton, in speaking of animals, says,

They also know
And reason not contemptibly:—

and the more I have watched the proceedings of some animals, the more I become convinced that this is the case.

I may here mention, that on the occasion above referred to, when the animals in Exeter ’Change saw the scarlet coats and fur caps of the soldiers who were called in to destroy the elephant, they manifested the greatest surprise and alarm at the sight of them.

Amongst the animals there was a large old lion, so tame that he was often suffered to walk about, when he would gently rub himself against any person present, although I must confess I felt inclined to decline his caresses.

It is a curious fact, with reference to what has been said about poisoning the elephant, that the cage of one of the tigers was painted white, and the animal became paralytic in two days, and remained so when the menagerie was removed to the old stables at Carlton House.

Nothing can show the intelligence of elephants more than the several accounts which have been published of the assistance they render when a troop of wild elephants has been driven into a corral. A tame elephant will then assist in fastening ropes round the legs of the wild ones; will push them towards the trees round which the ropes are to be wound in order to secure the victim. When this has been done, and he becomes aware of his captivity, the poor animal evinces the greatest rage, and struggles violently to free himself, but ineffectually, while the tame elephant shows much satisfaction at what has taken place. When thus subdued and no longer able to roam undisturbed amongst the beauteous forests of Ceylon, or to ascend those sunny hills covered with gorgeous flowers and the brushwood on which he delights to browse; instead of this, the poor brute utters choking cries, while the tears trickle down his cheeks, and his captivity is from thenceforward secure. His ropes are slackened, and he is marched down to a river between two tame elephants, to whom he is fastened, to drink and bathe, the tame ones having the greatest control over him.

It generally takes two months before the captive elephant can he put to work, his first ignominious employment generally being to tread clay in a brick-field.

Sir Emerson Tennent, in his pleasing work on the natural history of Ceylon, gives so interesting an account of a young elephant captured with its mother, and sent to the government house at Colombo, that I cannot resist transcribing it. He says;

“This young elephant became a general favourite with the servants. He attached himself particularly to the coachman, who had a little shed erected for him near his own quarters at the stables. But his favourite resort was the kitchen, where he received a daily allowance of milk and plantains, and picked up several other delicacies besides. He was innocent and playful in the extreme, and when walking in the grounds he would trot up to me, twine his little trunk round my arm, and coax me to take him up to the fruit trees. In the evening the grass-cutters now and then indulged him by permitting him to carry home a load of fodder for the horses, on which occasions he assumed an air of gravity that was highly amusing, thus showing that he was deeply impressed with the importance of the service entrusted to him. Being sometimes permitted to enter the dining-room, and helped to fruit and dessert, he at last learned his way to the side-board; and on more than one occasion having stolen in during the absence of the servants, he made a clear sweep of the wine-glasses and china in his endeavours to reach a basket of oranges. For these and similar pranks we were at last forced to put him away. He was sent to the government stud, where he was affectionately received and adopted by one of the tame female elephants, and he now takes his turn of public duty in the department of the commissioner of roads.”

Edward Jesse.