The year was 1861. A group of hunters brought down a large female savanna elephant in Ethiopia. They then took her calf to the border of the neighbouring Sudan and sold the little one to the owner of a travelling menagerie. Going from town to town, its caravans bursting with exotic wildlife, the menagerie would halt at a particular venue, set up a tent and parade the animals or have them put up entertaining acts for the locals.
The baby elephant, along with several other animals who shared his fate, came all the way from Africa to Europe. He was then sold and resold a number of times until he landed up at the London Zoo.
“Hello, chief!” one of the zookeepers greeted the little one.
“Hey, I just thought of something!” another zookeeper exclaimed. “The Swahili word for ‘hello’ is hujambo, and “chief” is jumbe! Maybe we should call this baby... umm...Jumbo!”
While the others were excited about this name, Matthew Scott (the elephant’s new keeper) was aghast when he noticed that the calf’s skin was sore all over. The little one also had a serious eye infection that in all likelihood could turn him blind. Oh my, what a filthy, sickly animal! Scott thought.
But when the creature held out his trunk and touched Scott’s hand, the keeper made up his mind to save him. “All right, I’m going to make sure you’re completely healed, Jumbo!” he said. Scott kept his word.
When Jumbo grew up, Scott convinced the zoo authorities to find him a partner. That’s how Alice, a female African elephant, walked into Jumbo’s life. The two elephants spent many years together at the zoo, under the care of Scott.
One of the main attractions at the zoo was a ride on Jumbo’s back. This was a thrilling experience, particularly because no one in the country had ever seen an animal as tall and large as Jumbo – he was close to 11 feet in height!
He was extremely popular among the visitors, especially children – not just because he was majestic, but also because he was very sharp. Once, when Jumbo was going around the zoo with several children on his back, he suddenly stopped in his tracks. Scott instructed him, “Move! Move, Jumbo!” But the elephant refused to budge.
Just then, a woman came running towards them, screaming, “My child is going to be killed! Save my child!” Confused, Scott looked at the children sitting behind him on Jumbo’s back. All of them seemed to be safe. That’s when he noticed that a kid, who had been running alongside the sauntering Jumbo, had tripped and fallen right in front of the gigantic animal.
Any other beast would have probably stepped ahead, squashing the child – but not Jumbo. He was always especially careful when he had children around him. Scott looked on as Jumbo wrapped his trunk gently around the tiny boy, lifted him lightly and placed him on the side of the path. By this time, the mother had also reached the spot. Only then did Jumbo continue walking ahead.
Around this time, Phineas Taylor Barnum, the celebrated American circus owner, came to know about Jumbo. He decided to acquire the giant elephant and make him the star attraction of his shows. So he wrote to the zoo asking if they would sell him the elephant. The zoo’s superintendent immediately agreed because Jumbo was becoming increasingly irritable when kept chained at night, and the zoo was finding it difficult to deal with him.
Thinking it might be a good change for Jumbo, and curious to know how Americans would react to “the world’s largest elephant”, Scott agreed to the sale as well but on the condition that he would accompany the elephant on the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, from Europe to America.
“It’s going to be hard for both Jumbo and Alice,” Scott told a friend. “Alice may not be her old self. Maybe we could take Alice to America someday to meet Jumbo! They can’t telephone or write letters to each other like we humans do!”
Londoners, especially the children, were grief-stricken when they found out that their dear Jumbo was off to America. Some even offered to pool in money and buy him from the zoo! And they did indeed manage to collect an amount large enough to buy Jumbo. But their plan failed because Barnum said the zoo could not cancel the deal they had signed with him. And he definitely didn’t want to sell the elephant to anyone.
On the day of Jumbo’s departure, more than 8,000 Londoners queued up to bid the elephant adieu, tears streaming down their cheeks.
“Come back soon, Jumbo! We’ll miss you!” the children cried. Many carried farewell gifts for him, which included everything from cakes and pastries to even a pumpkin!
For reasons known best to him, Jumbo refused to enter the special enclosure that was built for him for the journey.
He held Scott’s hand with his trunk, imploring him not to take him away. Scott scolded him but Jumbo just sat down, rolled over and kept lying there for several hours. Much later, with Scott goading him again and again, he finally entered the enclosure.
When the elephant and his keeper reached America in April 1882, it took several horses to pull Jumbo’s enclosure even as two other elephants pushed it from behind.
Soon enough, Barnum travelled in and around the continent with his prized possession. As he had expected, Americans began thronging to his circus to see the “greatest show on earth” – Jumbo!
It was around this time that the elephant’s name came to mean anything that was enormous and monumental. People across industries began using the word as an adjective or a brand name – that is how popular he got!
Although he became a superstar in America (the land of Hollywood), Jumbo’s affection for Scott did not change. He even saved his life once when 30 elephants, who were also a part of the circus, suddenly broke loose and entered the special tent where Jumbo and Scott were waiting before a performance.
Sensing the unfriendly mood of the elephants approaching Scott, Jumbo quickly lifted and placed his friend beneath his belly, with his four sturdy legs and trunk guarding Scott from all sides. Each time one of the other elephants tried to get to the keeper, Jumbo pushed them aside. He did this again and again until the other keepers came and led their elephants away.
“You’ve saved my life and of many others. I can’t even imagine what a gory scene it would have been if those elephants had run amok through the visitors today!” a shaken Scott said, gently patting the tip of the elephant’s trunk. Jumbo let out a squeal in response and tightened his trunk around Scott’s hand.
In September 1885, the circus travelled to St Thomas in Ontario, Canada. There, the tents had been put up next to a railway line, while the circus boxcar was parked on one of the tracks. In those days, the circus boxcars that transported the animals were allowed to use the free railway lines in any place the troupes travelled to.
The Barnum & Bailey troupe had to cross the tracks from the circus boxcar’s side to go to the main tent where the acts were being performed. The circus team had removed the fence on one side of the tracks, creating a shortcut for the troupe to cross over easily without having to walk further down to the railway signal.
After their act one day, Scott and Jumbo were walking back across the tracks with another little elephant named Tom Thumb. (According to some accounts, Tom Thumb was a calf, while others say that he was an adult dwarf elephant.) Suddenly, Jumbo sensed danger approaching and trumpeted loudly. A light shone brightly at the far end of the tracks.
Realising that a train was speeding towards them, Scott yelled, “Run!” All three of them raced further down the railway line, away from the train.
The driver had seen the animals by then, but he couldn’t work the brakes quickly enough. Scott shouted in panic, “Jumbo, to the left! Move to the left!” With the boxcar parked on the right, the only way to get off the tracks was to go left.
But there was a six-feet-deep moat to his left, and so Jumbo hesitated and continued to run ahead of the train instead. The train came at full speed and pushed Tom Thumb away. Scott leapt out of its path in the nick of time and avoided being hit, but the train collided with Jumbo, injuring him grievously.
Scott rushed to Jumbo’s side and tried to calm him.
Not taking his eyes off his closest friend, Jumbo held Scott’s hand with his trunk...one last time. In a matter of minutes, the “largest living creature in the world” was gone.
Unable to wrap his head around what had just happened, Scott broke down and sobbed uncontrollably.
Barnum had Jumbo’s body skinned, stuffed and mounted. Within weeks, the stuffed carcass and its towering skeleton became two separate displays of his touring show. To travel along with the dead elephant’s stuffed and skeleton exhibits, Barnum bought Alice from the London Zoo. And so, Jumbo and Alice were united once again, but in the saddest way possible.
Later, during one such tour, the circus tent caught fire. Jumbo’s remains survived, but Alice lost her life.
Barnum then had Jumbo’s stuffed body sent to Tufts University in Massachusetts and the skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Jumbo was considered a lucky charm by the students at the university. They would place coins near the tip of the stuffed elephant’s trunk – the very trunk that Jumbo used to lovingly place in Scott’s hands – and wish for good luck.
Unfortunately, a fire at the university burned down the entire exhibit. Only Jumbo’s ashes are left preserved in a glass jar now.Touted as the world’s most massive elephant once, Jumbo seems to be occupying very little space today. But then, he continues to live on as the mascot of Tufts University, as the brand name of many products in the world and as a grand word in the English language.
Excerpted with permission from Trumpet Calls: Epic Tales of Extraordinary Elephants, Nalini Ramachandran, Hachette India.