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Animal Magnetism

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page C03


Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe

By Glynis Ridley

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Atlantic Monthly. 222 pp. $22

Sometime in 1741 a young Dutchman named Douwemout Van der Meer, a captain in the Dutch East India Company, sailed from Calcutta with a most unusual cargo: a young female Indian rhinoceros named Clara. He had acquired her from one of the company's directors in India, who had taught her "to walk indoors, navigating her way around the elegant furniture, and to eat from a dinner plate." There could be no more of that as she neared the immense dimensions of rhino adulthood, though, so Van der Meer purchased her, in hopes of a "lifetime's income" to be earned exhibiting her around Europe, to which a rhinoceros was strange, alien and exotic.

As Glynis Ridley demonstrates in this exceptionally intelligent and occasionally witty book, it was a genuinely remarkable undertaking: "Since the fall of the Roman Empire, no one had managed to bring a rhinoceros to Europe and keep it alive long enough to understand anything about the care of the species." Van der Meer was winging it, and apparently without any particular knowledge of or training in the care of exotic animals. It was not much short of miraculous that he was able to sail her safely from Calcutta to Rotterdam, considering the length of the journey and the cramped conditions aboard a Dutch East Indiaman, but that was only the beginning: For 17 years, until Clara's "sudden and wholly unexpected" death in 1758, she and Van der Meer traveled Europe and crossed the channel to England, elevating her to "the status of an international celebrity."

Little is known about Van der Meer. He was 36 when he acquired Clara, "without either money" (though obviously he had enough to purchase her) or "civic status." In an age when nobility counted for much, he had no title until 1746, when a baronetcy was bestowed upon him by the imperial family of the Holy Roman Empire; its members, especially Empress Maria Theresa, greatly enjoyed the private viewings of Clara -- indeed "Clara delighted her Habsburg hosts beyond even Van der Meer's wildest hopes."

What does seem fairly certain about Van der Meer is that he treated Clara with solicitude and kindness. She required huge amounts of food ("a rhinoceros lives to eat"), "prodigious quantities of vegetation in order to maintain [herself] in peak condition -- at least 150 pounds a day." Occasionally Van der Meer arranged breaks in which Clara was able to graze happily on meadows or farmlands, but mostly they were on the road, which meant that Van der Meer was significantly out of pocket to keep her fed and healthy. "However we finally judge Van der Meer," Ridley writes, "it is important to remember that he himself judged Clara's most basic and most necessary requirements absolutely right."

So it is fortunate that Clara pulled in significant amounts of money. Precisely how significant we do not know, but Van der Meer usually charged admission (sometimes set according to customers' ability to pay or the place they were assigned in the viewing hierarchy), and he peddled souvenirs with the avidity of a theme park operator. These included woodcuts, copper-engraved posters, bronze and silver medallions, and "marble, bronze and porcelain models" designed for the great German firm of Meissen by its master modeler, Johann Joachim Kaendler. Not merely was this much to Van der Meer's profit, but "the sketches and resulting models that [Kaendler] made of her were to change for ever the way Europeans imagined the species and represented the rhinoceros in the plastic arts."

Clara was taken to the great courts of Europe -- where, invariably, she was fawned over -- but also to cities and towns where ordinary citizens, especially those of the relatively new and rapidly rising wealthy entrepreneurial class, paid to see her and to acquire proof that they had done so. "Wealthy Germans wanted Clara memorabilia of high status, fit to be put on display," hence the arrangement with Meissen. But "knowledge of and access to her was not limited to a moneyed intelligentsia," hence cheaper souvenirs. Whatever their cost, all of these "became enough to conjure up new or exotic worlds," as is suggested by one stop on her astonishing tour:

"Clara's visit to Stuttgart in May 1748 was the occasion of a very public weigh-in. It is therefore possible to record that, on 6 May 1748, she was a healthy 5,000 pounds. In the twenty-first century, we can readily conceive of Clara's weight in relation to that of, say, a car. A mid-eighteenth-century audience had no such point of comparison. Clara was bigger, heavier and stranger than anything in their wildest imaginings. The notion that there were places where such creatures were not uncommon must have seemed incredible."

To transport his very large cargo, Van der Meer commissioned the construction of "a travelling coach unlike any other." It was an immense wagon, a "long, low and crudely constructed box" with wheels "at least half the height of the wagon," pulled by eight horses. When Clara traveled by waterway, it was aboard a barge that also was pulled by a team of horses. Wherever she traveled, people gathered along the roadway or riverside to gawk and shout.

This "rarest and most lucrative animal to have been displayed in Europe" was six feet tall, 12 feet in circumference and 12 feet long. She was as sweet as she was large: "Had Clara . . . been given to bouts of aggressive or unpredictable behavior, she would never have been placed within reach of the assembled heirs of any royal house -- and the frequency of her royal visitors, of all ages, is powerful proof of her gentle and unthreatening nature." With regard to that, it is useful to bear in mind that from a very young age she had been "accustomed to taking food from humans," which suggests that if by nature she was trusting, her experience with humans made her all the more so.

Almost nobody has heard of her now, but in her day Clara was what we now call a media phenomenon. It is in great measure what was written about her in papers and journals of the day that gives Ridley the raw material for this meticulous and unexpectedly moving book. Her judgment of Clara is wise and kind:

"Clara may long since have been reduced to a set of skeletal remains, currently gathering dust in some London museum, but in a very real sense she is still physically present in our culture. Before her, only a handful of early modern Europeans had seen an Indian rhinoceros. Many believed the animal to be a myth. Those who had seen -- and faithfully reproduced -- a copy of Dürer's 1515 engraving, Rhinoceros, were unaware that they saw a beast in armour rather than an armour-plated beast. But as Clara toured 18th-century Europe, and as images of her proliferated in a variety of media and permeated European culture, she became the archetypal rhinoceros. Few animals have ever had such an impact and changed for ever the way in which we see and understand their species. This, then, is Clara's achievement and, finally, her obituary."

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