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; mike­fish­es­bru­

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