Jumbomania; or, the English, their Elephant, and the Imperial Politics of the Early 1880s

Peter Yeandle

Research output: Contribution to conferenceOther


When the superintendent of London Zoo made the decision to sell Jumbo – the nation’s favourite elephant – to great American showman P.T. Barnum, he could not have anticipated the subsequent uproar. In February, March and April 1882, newspapers were awash with reports about how the nation was in the midst of a “jumbomania”. Daily visitor numbers to the zoo increased by thousands. Sales of all things ‘elephant’ had sky rocketed: clothing, furniture, toys, books, decorative mementoes, to name but a few cultural sites. Jumbo’s image was widespread: for instance he was not only used in advertising, but as topical referencing in the press for political issues as diverse as the radical MP Charles Bradlaugh’s expulsion from Parliament, Irish Land Reform and the Married Woman’s Property Act. Close analysis of Jumbo’s story, and the way it played out in the press, reveals much about British attitudes to race, migration and empire in the early 1880s. Focus on how the press anthropomorphised Jumbo suggest contemporary anxieties not only about the exotic body but the nature of the national character too. Jumbo was an African elephant and African elephants were notorious for their refusal to become domesticated in the way that Asian, especially Indian elephants, had been: that was significant in the context of the Scramble for Africa in general and the Monrovian (Liberia) and Urabi (Egypt) revolts in particular (both of the same month). It was also significant that Jumbo was being sold to an American with a reputation for the poor treatment of human and other animals: was Jumbo being sold into slavery? Much, additionally, was made of Jumbo’s ethnicity. Was he a black African or, now he had fully assimilated into English culture, was he a Londoner? These questions and others provide an opportunity both for a fresh look at the imperial politics of the early 1880s in general but also contemporary concerns about race and the imperial ‘body’
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 26 Sept 2014
EventThe Exotic Body in Nineteenth-Century British Culture - University of Oxford
Duration: 25 Sept 201426 Sept 2014


ConferenceThe Exotic Body in Nineteenth-Century British Culture
CityUniversity of Oxford


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