Tag Archives: eighteenth century

Elephants and Rhinoceroses

Albrecht Durer’s Rhinoceros

How sad that the plural of rhinoceros isn’t rhinoceri. But actually that’s rather beside the point as in this post I wanted to discuss an amusing number of the Spectator that I read today. I’m reading my way through the 555 numbers of the original early-eighteenth-century Spectator essays for my Masters research.

Today I reached no. 50, in which Mr Spectator presents some reflections on England and it’s people supposedly written by a native American chief during his visit to England. A footnote in my edition, edited by Donald F Bond, helpfully provides the following details:

“In April 1710 four Iroquois sachems, or ‘Kings’, had visited London, accompanied by Col. Peter Schulyer and other colonial leaders, in order to solicit aid from the home government for military operations against the French in Canada. They had an audience of Queen Anne on 19 April, and were taken to see the principle sights of London.”

In Spectator 50 Mr S, as I like to call him, suggests that he was so intrigued by these visitors that he made enquiries of their London landlord after their departure. As a result he got hold of some papers that, once translated, proved to contain “an abundance of very odd Observations”. Mr S then proceeds to quote at length from these papers and so we hear King Sa Ga Yean Qua Rash Tow’s opinion of all things English.

These start rather predictably with his awe at St Paul’s Cathedral and his thoroughly incongruous suggestion that it must have been hewn out of the landscape in one piece.

Moving on from St Paul’s things get a bit more fun. On the topic of English fashion Sa Ga Yean comments as follows:

“The Men of the Country are very cunning … but withal so very idle, that we often saw young lusty raw-boned Fellows carried up and down the Streets in little covered Rooms by a Couple of Porters … Their dress is likewise very barbarous, for they almost strangle themselves about the Neck, and bind their Bodies with many Ligatures … Instead of those beautiful Feathers with which we adorn our Heads, they often buy up a monstrous Bush of Hair, which covers their Heads and falls down in a large Fleece below the middle of their Backs; with which they walk up and down the Streets, and are as proud of it as if it were their own Growth.”

Faced with the feminine fashion for applying false beauty spots, Sa Ga Yean suggests that English women

“would be more beautiful than the Sun, were it not for the little black Spots that are apt to break out in their faces” and finds that when these blemishes “disappear in one Part of the Face, they are very apt to break out in another”.

My favourite part of the observations though is the one that gives away the fact that these papers are forgeries of the Spectator author. Sa Ga Yean describes the fact that the two guides who have been assisting the kings are “great Enemies to one another”. One guide warns them against “a monstrous Kind of Animals, in the Shape of Men, called Whigs”, while the other warns them of a similar monster “called a Tory”. This picture of England’s political divide is completed with the observation that “These two Creatures, it seems, are born with a secret Antipathy to one another, and engage when they meet as naturally as the Elephant and the Rhinoceros.”

Now I’m no zoologist, but I’m fairly sure that elephants and rhinos aren’t native to North America and Canada.

Anyway I thought I’d put some notes about this Spectator paper up here as it probably isn’t going to be relevant to my MA thesis.

I’d like to close with Mr S’s very poignant, and still very relevant, conclusion:

“I cannot however conclude this Paper without taking Notice, That amidst these wild Remarks there now and then appears something very reasonable. I cannot likewise forbear observing, That we are all guilty in some Measure of the same narrow Way of Thinking which we meet with in this Abstract of the Indian Journal; when we fancy the Customs, Dresses and Manners of other Countries are ridiculous and extravagant, if they do not resemble those of our own.”

All quotations from: Donald F Bond, ed., The Spectator, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp 211-215.

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