The journey from jambo to Jumbo
Here’s an interesting quiz question for dinner time: how did the word ‘jumbo’ come about, meaning very big, as in jumbo jet or a jumbo packet of popcorn?
It apparently comes from the name of a giant elephant who was born in Sudan and lived from 1860 to 1885. He was, in turn, named after the Swahili word for hello, ‘jambo’.
Jumbo became famous in Europe and was eventually sold to the legendary circus impresario, P. T. Barnum, who took him to America. Jumbo's height was estimated as 3.23 metres at the shoulder and may have reached 4 metres at the time of his death, giveor-take a metre, taking into account Barnum’s unequalled talent for hyperbole.
Jumbo’s mother was killed by hunters and the baby elephant was captured by a Sudanese elephant hunter, Taher Sheriff, who sold him to an animal dealer, Lorenzo Casanova, who was Italian, of course.
‘Lover boy’ transported the animals that he had bought north to Suez and across the Mediterranean Sea to Trieste, and sold his collection to a menagerie in Germany. Soon after, Jumbo was imported to France and kept in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. In 1865 he was sold to London Zoo, where he became famous for giving rides to visitors, especially children.
Jumbo was sold in 1882 to the Barnum & Bailey Circus for £2 000, a huge sum in those days. There was public outrage when the sale became public, and 100 000 school children wrote to Queen Victoria begging her to stop the transaction. Despite a lawsuit against the zoo alleging that the sale was illegal, and the zoo's attempt to renege on the deal, the court upheld the sale and Barnum refused to sell Jumbo back.
In New York, Barnum exhibited Jumbo at Madison Square Garden, earning enough in three weeks from the enormous crowds to recoup all the money he had spent on buying him.
In May 1884 Jumbo was one of Barnum's 21 elephants that crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to prove that it was safe after 12 people had died during a stampede caused by mass panic over collapse fears a year earlier.
Tragically, Jumbo died in an accident in a railway junction yard in St Thomas, Ontario, while out exercising.
He tripped and fell on the train tracks, impaling himself on his tusk and dying instantly. Then, to add insult to injury, a train ran over him. An autopsy revealed that he liked eating metal objects; and English pennies, keys, rivets and a police whistle, were found in his stomach.
But that was not the end of Barnum’s exploitation of Jumbo. Ever the showman, Barnum cut the carcass up, donated the skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History, sold the heart to Cornell University, and had the hide stuffed by taxidermists so that it could continue travelling with his circus, eventually donating it to Tufts University.
The hide was destroyed in a fire in 1975 but some of its ashes are kept in a peanut butter jar in the office of the Tufts athletic director, while the stuffed tail, saved from the fire, rests in the Tufts Digital Collection and Archives. Today, Jumbo lives on as the mascot of Tufts University and, in St Thomas, he is commemorated by the Railway City Brewing Company in the name of their IPA, ’Dead Elephant Ale’. What a story!
•Mike Bruton is a retired scientist and a busy writer; firstname.lastname@example.org