History | History in an Object: The Elephant

For a while now, I've been toying with the idea of doing a 'History in an Object' on the blog. Whilst I wouldn't really call an animal "an object", it seemed the best catch-all phrase for the series as I have a few actual objects lined up for future posts. I'm of the opinion that you can learn a lot about history by picking one thing and broadening it out. Thus, three small tales of elephants actually reveal quite a bit about the societies they lived in.

The medieval, cross-continentally travelling elephant
Meridianos: La Palmera Sagrada de San Baudelio de BerlangaIn 800 AD, Charlemagne (a Frankish barbarian) was crowned the first emperor in the area of the former Western Roman Empire since the empire's fall. For thus uniting most of western Europe for the first time in centuries, Charlemagne is often nicknamed "father of Europe". During his reign, he was gifted an elephant by Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad. Gift-giving was commonly done to show respect in the medieval era, so this elephant symbolised al-Rashid's (a big player himself) recognition of Charlemagne as someone of international importance.
What's most interesting about this is that many people see the medieval era as being not at all globalised, with travel between continents practically non-existent. However, the travels of the elephant, Abul Abaz, disprove this. Most likely born in India (although some believe him to have been an African elephant), Abul Abaz began his journey in Baghdad. From there, he travelled across Africa, the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps to reach his recipient in Aachen, western Germany in AD 802. In AD 810, Charlemagne and his elephant left his palace to mount a campaign against King Godofrid of Denmark. It was in Lippeham, whilst Charlemagne awaited troops, that Abul Abaz suddenly died. Historians have long disputed the exact modern-day location of Lippeham, but it is a near definite that Abul Abaz crossed the Rhine before his death. Somehow the journey of a single elephant tells us more about medieval travel and logistics than much else from this period.

The wooden Parisian elephant
Les Mis (2012) | Extras on location for filming of Les Misérables ...If you've seen the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables (pictured), you may remember young Gavroche first appears by climing out of a big elephant, which is his place of residence/shelter in the original novel. This 'Elephant of the Bastille' stood in the Place de la Bastille from 1813 to 1846. Its history, much like the history of the Eiffel Tower, actually reveals a surprising amount about eighteenth and nineteenth-century French history.
The Bastille was a prison in Paris that was stormed in 1789, a pivotal point in the French Revolution (hence Bastille Day, and the band Bastille who are so named as their lead singer's birthday falls then). The prison was fully demolished shortly after, with the area being converted into a square named the Place de la Bastille. In 1793, the Fountain of Regeneration was built in the square, depicting a woman with water flowing from her breasts (which sounds quite medically concerning). In 1804, Napoleon, leader of the government, promoted himself to 'Emperor of the French' (thus establishing the First French Empire). Napoleon planned many urban regeneration projects with a particular fondness for referencing his own military victories and his might. He initially planned that the elephant would be cast from the guns seized at the 1807 Battle of Friedland. Work began on the elephant in 1810 and by 1814 there stood a full-size wooden model of the elephant. Construction work stopped in 1815 following Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (and the subsequent restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy). Whilst the architect in charge wished to complete the project, proposals discussed by the city council to finish the elephant using bronze, iron or copper were not accepted.
Due to claims of rats living in the elephant and searching people's homes for food, there were petitions for its demolition from the late 1820s onwards. In 1846, the elephant (now looking rather worse for wear) was removed. In its place today stands the July Column, on the same plinth upon which the elephant previously stood. The July Column commemorates the July Revolution of 1830 - which saw the overthrow of the Bourbon Monarch and his replacement with Louis-Philippe. Les Misérables, set in 1832, details the unsuccessful June Rebellion against Louis-Philippe's government. Louis-Philippe was eventually overthrown in the French Revolution of 1848.


Lizzie the industrial haulage elephant
If you're a Sheffield local or visited the city in the summer of 2016, you may have noticed a sculpture trail of assorted elephants dotted around the city. Some of them are still there, such as the Arctic Monkeys elephant (pictured), who has taken up permanent residence in the Winter Gardens.
By the outbreak of the First World War, travelling circuses and menageries in Britain were strapped for cash and often had to sell or lease their animals. The owner of such a menagerie named William Sedgwick, who lived in Sheffield at this time, found himself in such a position. Whilst many of his animals ended up in a Manchester Zoo, Lizzie the Elephant was leased to Thomas Ward Ltd. for the haulage of scrap metal. This was a job usually done by horses, but the majority of the nation's horses had been lent to the war effort. With strength triple that of a horse, Lizzie was hugely valuable to Sheffield's large steel industry, which in turn was hugely valuable to the war effort. Thus, a circus elephant made for an unlikely hero of the First World War.

Thank you for reading! I'd love suggestions on objects or anything else you'd like to see in this series so please do feel free to give me a challenge down in the comments :)


Abul Abaz and Les Misérables images not my own.