race divide

How the arrival of a white elephant started a debate around race in 19th century America

A bizarre episode in American circus history became an unlikely forum for discussing theories of race.

The Lydian Monarch had been sighted from Fire Island and was expected in Jersey City that evening. Everybody in New York City was already buzzing about what was on board. It was March 28, 1884, and PT Barnum, the circus proprietor and showman, after great effort and expense, had brought the first “sacred white elephant” to America.

An earlier attempt to buy a white elephant from Siam (Thailand) had ended in failure, but now Barnum’s agent, JB Gaylord, had successfully purchased an elephant named “Toung Taloung” – or “Gem of the Sky” – from King Thibaw of Burma. From Rangoon, Toung Taloung was brought by ship through the Suez Canal, and arrived in Liverpool, England, on January 14. After several weeks at the London Zoological Gardens, where it became something of a sensation in both the British and American press, the white elephant, its handlers, and Barnum’s agents eventually sailed for New York on March 8. When the Lydian Monarch arrived twenty days later, Barnum and his entourage rushed to New Jersey to meet Toung Taloung.

PT Barnum’s white elephant Toung Taloung, featured in an extra supplement to the Illustrated London News, January 26, 1884. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]
PT Barnum’s white elephant Toung Taloung, featured in an extra supplement to the Illustrated London News, January 26, 1884. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]

The following day, in a story titled “The Sacred Beast Here”, the New York Times offered a dramatic account of Barnum’s first encounter with his prized white elephant. “Of course we have all learned by this time,” Barnum told his retinue, “that there is no such thing as a really pure white elephant. This is a sacred animal, a technical white elephant, and as white as God makes ’em. A man can paint them white, but this is not one of that kind.”

Although readers who had followed the coverage of Toung Taloung’s reception in London would indeed have learned that white elephants are not literally white, Barnum’s matter-of-fact statement belied the controversy that the colour of white elephants had already engendered in the popular imagination. In 1884, Toung Taloung was the catalyst for a broader public debate about race and authenticity.

Front page of the Illustrated London News for January 26th 1884, celebrating the arrival of Barnum's Toung Taloung to London. Photo credit: Public Domain Review/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]
Front page of the Illustrated London News for January 26th 1884, celebrating the arrival of Barnum's Toung Taloung to London. Photo credit: Public Domain Review/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-PD-Mark]

A few months after Toung Taloung arrived in New York, Frank Vincent Jr., author of the popular 1874 travelogue The Land of the White Elephant: Sights and Scenes in South-Eastern Asia, used explicitly racialised terminology to explain the colour of white elephants to readers of the Manhattan. In an article titled “White Elephants”, Vincent writes:

“It should always be remembered that the term white, as applied to elephants, must be received with qualification. In fact, the grains of salt must be numerous, for the white elephant is white only by contrast with those that are decidedly dark. A mulatto, for instance, is not absolutely white, but he is white compared with a full-blooded negro. The so-called white elephant is an occasional departure from the ordinary beast.”

For Vincent, both the white elephant and biracial people share a kind of “qualified” whiteness that serves to distinguish them from “full-blooded” black bodies (Vincent refers to regular elephants as “black”), but stops short of aligning them with the kind of privileged white identity that Vincent himself possessed.

In his article Vincent constantly explains white elephants to his readers in terms of race, from noting the labour performed by “black” elephants and speculating about why whiteness is “worshipped” in Siam, to claiming that “[w]hen you possess an elephant whose color is that of a negro’s palm you possess a white elephant.”

Vincent’s descriptions reflect a truism that can be found throughout 19th-century writing on white elephants: although these animals are not literally white, they are approximately the same colour as white people. For example, the author of “The Sacred Beast Here” writes that Toung Taloung “has a large pink splash on his forehead, which extends over his eyes and half-way down his trunk. His ears, which are of a peculiar triangle shape, are edged with the same flesh-colored pink, and mottled in large spots, and his breast and shoulders are likewise spotted. The underside of his trunk is also flesh-colored.” (The “flesh” referred to here, of course, being the flesh of the presumed white author.)

In The Land of the White Elephant, Vincent makes a similar observation, noting that the body of “the so-called ‘white’ elephant” has “the peculiar flesh-coloured appearance termed ‘white.’” Vincent’s description reflects a broad cultural consensus that the epidermal signifiers of white identity must be carefully circumscribed so that they only have meaning and value when observed in white persons. When such physical characteristics are evident in a non-human form like an elephant, or in a human body that is considered to be biracial, these privileged markers become “qualified” or “so-called”.

The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company advertisement, featuring Toung Taloung. The back of the card includes text from Frank Vincent Jr.’s essay “White Elephants” — Collection of the author.
The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company advertisement, featuring Toung Taloung. The back of the card includes text from Frank Vincent Jr.’s essay “White Elephants” — Collection of the author.

Further complicating the relationship between human whiteness and white elephants is the fact that the English term “white elephant” is an inadequate and misleading translation of the Thai phrase for these animals. The Thai word for elephant is chang, and a white elephant is a chang pheuak. According to Rita Ringis, “chang pheuak... literally means ‘albino (or strange-coloured) elephant’, the usual word for the colour ‘white’ being different entirely.” Like virtually every other American or European who wrote about Siam and white elephants in the 19th century, Vincent was open about the fact that “white elephant” was a poor translation of chang pheuak. And yet he still describes these animals as “so-called ‘white’ elephant[s]”, glossing over what he admits is a semantic problem in order to cast creatures like Toung Taloung as racial imposters who – like a light-skinned African American – might try to pass as white in order to access the closely guarded privileges of white identity.

If the white elephant is viewed as an imposter because of its improper claim on whiteness, this conception of the animal as a kind of fraud is also supported by the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “white elephant” as both “a rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in some Asian countries”, and “A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value.”

Illustration of Siamese white elephant featured in A Pictorial Geography of the World, 1849. Photo credit: The New York Public Library Digital Collections
Illustration of Siamese white elephant featured in A Pictorial Geography of the World, 1849. Photo credit: The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Although this story of the Siamese king and his ruined courtier does provide a compelling explanation for why “white elephant” can mean “an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value”, it is nevertheless a complete fabrication. Indeed, if read together, the OED’s two definitions for “white elephant” present a paradox: If white elephants are “rare” and “highly venerated”, why would the king of Siam give one away to punish a subordinate? Unsurprisingly, there is no recorded instance of this practice in Thai history. Nevertheless, this figurative definition of “white elephant” as a kind of fatal gift has had a lasting influence on the English language. It can be detected today in phenomena like “white elephant sales” or “white elephant gift exchanges”, but in the 1880s, “white elephant” was a common expression for any kind of useless or burdensome object.

Puck front cover, from 1882, showing President Chester A. Arthur — beside a large white elephant with the likeness of Roscoe Conkling — wondering “How shall I ever get rid of him? It won’t do to have him on my hands in 1884”. Although he is referring to the year of the next election, it is oddly resonant in the context of Toung Taloung and co. Photo credit: Library of Congress
Puck front cover, from 1882, showing President Chester A. Arthur — beside a large white elephant with the likeness of Roscoe Conkling — wondering “How shall I ever get rid of him? It won’t do to have him on my hands in 1884”. Although he is referring to the year of the next election, it is oddly resonant in the context of Toung Taloung and co. Photo credit: Library of Congress

The story of Barnum and Toung Taloung illustrates the significant fascination with white elephants in 19th-century America. The controversy surrounding the reception of this animal was ironic since Barnum, who had made a fortune passing off frauds and imitations as genuine articles, now possessed a real curiosity but was afraid that nobody would accept it as authentic. Moreover, since Barnum supposedly paid a considerable sum to purchase Toung Taloung (in his autobiography he claims to have spent $250,000 – about $5.5 million in today’s money – although this is almost certainly an inflated figure) and the elephant was only a moderately successful attraction, we can also note the irony of Toung Taloung’s transformation from a literal to a figurative white elephant.

Toung Taloung became a flashpoint for broader cultural debates about racial identity. One of the most curious effects of this debate was the tacit admission, in newspaper articles and a series of soap advertisements, that whiteness and white privilege were socially constructed. If a white elephant had a merely tenuous grasp on its white identity, couldn’t something similar happen to white people? In order to best understand how the story of Barnum’s elephant intersected with broader ideas about race, it is necessary to consider two other elephants who were introduced to the American public in 1884: Forepaugh’s “Light of Asia” and Barnum’s own “The White Fraud”. Both of these animals were regular “black” elephants that had been painted white by their owners. Although Forepaugh’s elephant, originally named “Tiny”, was designed to be a whiter rival to Toung Taloung, and Barnum’s animal was created as a parody of Forepaugh’s obvious forgery, both “white” elephants demonstrated the considerable cultural anxiety about the malleability of whiteness as a racial category.

A lithograph, based on a photograph, of Forepaugh’s “The Light of Asia”. Photo credit: Public Domain Review/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under PD 1923]
A lithograph, based on a photograph, of Forepaugh’s “The Light of Asia”. Photo credit: Public Domain Review/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under PD 1923]

Eight days before Barnum welcomed Toung Taloung in Jersey City, the steamer City of Chester arrived in New York with Forepaugh’s white elephant on board. From the moment Light of Asia appeared in America there were doubts about its authenticity. In the two days after Light of Asia’s arrival, the New York Times published at least three articles that treated both the elephant’s skin colour – and the story of its acquisition from Siam – with a great deal of suspicion. All of these articles note that Light of Asia’s colour – a uniform white evenly distributed over its entire body – did not match any existing description of a Siamese white elephant, and spend some time speculating how Forepaugh must have dyed this animal (whether by using paint or some kind of chemical process).

An editorial titled “A Very Seasick Elephant” quotes at length a “gentleman... whose travels in Asia have fitted him for expressing an opinion on the genuineness of this elephant”. This elephant expert (possibly Frank Vincent Jr.) explains that Light of Asia’s white toes do not indicate that it is a genuine white elephant since this characteristic is “very often found in elephants of the ordinary kind, without any pretension whatever to ‘white blood’”. Whiteness, in this context, cannot be evaluated solely by physical characteristics. Rather, whiteness is dictated by “white blood”. A white elephant must not be judged by its appearance alone. In fact, its physical appearance – its toes, in this instance – could actually belie its true “black” identity.

While the Times reported that a panel of New York City white elephant experts had certified Toung Taloung as a genuine chang pheuak, there was far less agreement about Forepaugh’s elephant. At least one of the experts who authenticated Toung Taloung, David Ker, made a point of writing to the Times to express his doubts about Light of Asia’s genuineness, while an editorial published in that paper the same day strongly implied that Forepaugh’s animal had been painted white.

In the weeks following Toung Taloung’s arrival in the United States, the white elephant war between Barnum and Forepaugh intensified. On April 19, Barnum’s retinue headed from New York to Philadelphia where Forepaugh and Light of Asia were already waiting. Barnum’s star attractions were Toung Taloung, of course, and a regular elephant, named “Tip”, which had been dyed white and was now called “The White Fraud”. Forepaugh was far from amused with Barnum’s latest stunt. He responded to Barnum’s arrival in his hometown with a pamphlet – titled “Too White For Barnum?” – that claimed both Toung Taloung and The White Fraud were imposters and that Light of Asia was “the first and only Sacred White Elephant that has ever been landed on the shores of the New World”.

Not the pamphlet, but a playbill for Adam Forepaugh’s Circus promoting the “Light of Asia” , ca. 1884. Photo credit: Public Domain Review/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under PD 1923]
Not the pamphlet, but a playbill for Adam Forepaugh’s Circus promoting the “Light of Asia” , ca. 1884. Photo credit: Public Domain Review/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under PD 1923]

As the title of this pamphlet suggests, Forepaugh used the considerable public confusion about the color of white elephants to his advantage, calling into question Toung Taloung’s authenticity because it was not as literally white as Light of Asia. Whiteness, in the white elephant war, was a fluid category that was unavoidably caught up in discourses of deception, transformation, and authenticity.

In November of 1884 Light of Asia died, prompting the following tongue-in-cheek obituary in Barnum’s 1889 autobiography: “The owner of this imposition soon announced that it had suddenly died. It was simply un-dyed!” While both Barnum and Forepaugh soon moved on to other ventures, the episode of Toung Taloung, Light of Asia, and The White Fraud proved to be a catalyst for broader discussion of whiteness in the United States. Public speculation about the kind of skin-dyeing technology Barnum and Forepaugh might have used to colour Light of Asia and The White Fraud quickly gravitated toward discussions of how such technology might affect African Americans. A remarkable article in the New York Times titled “An Interesting Experiment”, published the same day that Barnum displayed The White Fraud in Philadelphia, is worth quoting in its entirety:

Mr. Barnum’s plan of making an elephant white by artificial means in order to contrast it with the dark and genuine white elephant is an ingenious one, but it is of less interest to elephants than it is to another class of our population. The inventor of the process of bleaching elephants claims that it can be applied without the slightest injury to colored people, and that it furnishes a complete answer to Job’s famous inquiry as to the possibility of whitening an Ethiopian. The experiment now making with the elephant is watched by the entire population of Thompson-street with the utmost interest, and if it succeeds the colored man will be as rare among us as the sacred white elephant himself. 

The bleaching process, as now conducted, will not make the complexion of the colored man identical with that of the white man. The cleansed Ethiopian will be of a dazzling whiteness, rivaling that of the snow. The purest blonde of Madison-avenue will appear dark by the side of the beauties of Thompson-street, and what was once the white race will suddenly become the colored race. 

It will be a curious sensation for white people to find themselves treated with contempt on account of their color by the bleached colored people. All the laws and regulations still existing which are aimed at the colored people will then apply to the Caucasian race. We shall have to pass a new Civil Rights bill to secure admission to hotels and sleeping cars, and we may even hear ourselves contemptuously described as “niggers,” should the bleached colored people condescend to adopt white methods of expression. 

To avoid such an embarrassing situation it is to be hoped that the bleacher of Mr. Barnum’s elephant will find some way of accurately imitating the Caucasian complexion. In that case the ex-colored man will be distinguished from the original white man only by the quality of his hair. Probably a method of straightening Ethiopian hair and repressing the exuberance of Ethiopian lips will soon follow the grand discovery of bleaching Ethiopian skin, and in that case all distinctions between the two races will at once disappear, and the negro question will vanish from our politics, never to reappear.

Although the author of “An Interesting Experiment” has adopted an obviously satirical tone, it is nevertheless intriguing to note the candour with which they acknowledge that white supremacy and the “negro question” are contingent on social conventions. By imagining a reversal of social prejudices, the author is implying that whiteness is an absolute social value: the whiter the better. While the scenario described in “An Interesting Experiment” is fanciful, it nevertheless speaks to real social anxieties about race in the 1880s. We have already seen how Vincent described the colour of white elephants in terms of the complexion of biracial people. The Times story builds on this analogy; in her analysis of “An Interesting Experiment”, critic Sarah Amato writes that it “makes...explicit that the exhibition of Toung Taloung was a forum to discuss theories of race.... In post-[R]econstruction America, in the context of the debate about the political future of the union, which was bound up in race relations, the significance of bleaching an elephant was all the more resonant.”

Perhaps the most striking episode in the white elephant war was an advertising campaign launched by Pears’ Soap in March 1884. Although the ad was first published in a British periodical (the Graphic), after Toung Taloung arrived in the United States it was reprinted in American periodicals like Puck, Harper’s Weekly, and Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine. The full-page ad features an elephant and its trainer, a bearded, dark-skinned man. The man is standing on a tall wooden crate, such that he is able to easily touch the top of the elephant’s head. A bucket is resting on top of the elephant, and with his left hand the man holds a cloth that he has been using to scrub the elephant’s skin, transforming it – in the context of the illustration’s monotone range – from black to white. In his right hand, extended toward the viewer, he holds a bar of soap. The text at the bottom of the ad reads, “THE REAL SECRET OF THE WHITE ELEPHANT – PEARS’ SOAP. Matchless for the Complexion.” The ad leaves open the question of whether Pears’ Soap has revealed the “real” white elephant underneath a layer of black dirt or has simply whitewashed a regular elephant to make it appear white, thereby replicating the debate about the white elephant that had played out in London’s newspapers, and anticipating the back-and-forth of Barnum and Forepaugh’s white elephant war in April 1884.

“The Real Secret of the White Elephant”, Pears’ Soap advertisement. Photo credit: Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine
“The Real Secret of the White Elephant”, Pears’ Soap advertisement. Photo credit: Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine

The Pears’ Soap ad strongly implies, in Amato’s words, “that human whiteness is an ephemeral condition that can be regenerated by the commodity”. For Karl Marx, in Capital: Volume One, the fetishised commodity has a secret, namely that its exchange value is a reflection of human labour rather than one of its inherent properties. The white elephant also has a secret, an open secret, acknowledged and satirised by both Pears’ Soap and the author of “An Interesting Experiment”: namely, that whiteness is a social construct, the limits of which must be carefully circumscribed and regulated in order to maintain the power of white privilege. If the benefits of whiteness can be extended to anyone (African Americans) or anything (an elephant), then it would lose its value for the white elite.

Just as “An Interesting Experiment” drew on a racialised elephant to articulate white anxieties about African Americans, so too did the “Real Secret of the White Elephant” image inform a later Pears’ Soap ad that transferred the relationship between soap and whiteness from an elephant to a human figure. First published in the Graphic on December 25, 1884, this well-known ad depicts a white child bathing a black child in a small tub. Like the “Real Secret of the White Elephant” image, this ad was also reprinted in the United States. In the first panel, the black boy is sitting in the tub while the white boy stands over him holding a bar of soap. In the second panel, the black boy is seated outside the tub, while the white boy is holding a mirror in front of the black boy’s face. Although the black boy’s head is still black, the rest of his body has been turned white, thereby creating a visual parallel between this figure and the white elephant in the earlier ad. The surprised look on the black boy’s face suggests that he is pleased with this transformation, although it is significant that he has not been completely whitewashed – while the ad suggests that whiteness is pliable, it stops short of suggesting that Pears’ Soap, or anything else for that matter, can completely eradicate racial difference.

“Matchless for the Complexion”, Pears’ Soap advertisement. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-BY-4.0]
“Matchless for the Complexion”, Pears’ Soap advertisement. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC-BY-4.0]

To the extent that this ad takes up “Job’s famous inquiry as to the possibility of whitening an Ethiopian”, it reflects the ideas voiced in “An Interesting Experiment” that connect the controversy surrounding Toung Taloung with African American racialisation. Like “An Interesting Experiment”, the whitewashing ad is surprisingly candid about the fact that whiteness is a social construction, or at least it proposes the possibility that “black” and “white” are not always rigid and unchangeable racial categories. However, the humorous tone of both “An Interesting Experiment” and the ad, and the limited effectiveness of Pears’ Soap in whitewashing both the white elephant and the black boy, suggest that despite the apparent malleability of whiteness, it is nevertheless a tightly controlled social privilege that cannot be extended to others.

If, on a figurative level, a white elephant is a possession that, to cite Marcel Mauss in his famous study The Gift, “comes with a burden attached”, then when Toung Taloung stepped off the Lydian Monarch it was accompanied by a host of stereotypes that spoke to anxieties that lay at the heart of American culture. When considered alongside Light of Asia, The White Fraud, and the white elephant war, the arrival of Toung Taloung in the United States was not simply another episode in Barnum’s long history of passing off frauds on the American public. Rather, it marked a curious historical juncture where anxieties about race were represented in a figure, the white elephant, which had long been viewed as an apt metaphor for waste and deception. White elephants were big news in 1884. Although the Americans who lined up to see Barnum’s and Forepaugh’s animals thought they were paying to see exotic attractions, truthfully they were witnessing their own ideas about whiteness played out in a public forum, replete with all the paradoxes and prejudices that accompany theories about the “real secret” of race.

This article first appeared on The Public Domain Review.

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