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Current Research

'Doing a Roaring Trade': Zoos and Menageries in the Atlantic World (1780-1880)

Exotic animals were an ubiquitous feature of nineteenth-century life. They were a source of entertainment and a symbol of imperial mastery. They were subjects for scientific research and mediums for education, and they were also, on occasion, icons to be commemorated in literature, music or art. They appeared in zoological gardens, which first emerged in Britain in the 1820s, in itinerant wild beast shows, which had toured Europe since the early eighteenth century, in natural history exhibitions and museums, like William Bullock’s famous Pantherion, and even in the theatre. Sometimes, when they escaped, they appeared in the back gardens of unsuspecting citizens, as when Mr Clarke of Dunstable, Bedfordshire, looked out of his window in 1840 to see a fugitive elephant demolishing part of his house.[1]

Given their pervasiveness in nineteenth-century Europe, rare animals merit greater historical attention than they have currently received. My research will consequently explore the significance of exotic creatures in nineteenth-century Britain, France and Spain, assessing their figurative, pedagogic and scientific value. What were the assets and limitations of the menagerie as an environment for study, learning and pleasure? How did people conceive of animals within a broader social context that included advances in veterinary medicine, the foundation of the RSPCA in Britain and the emergence of vegetarianism as a lifestyle choice? How did social class, age and gender mediate the experience of visiting zoological collections? And what can the study of exotic animals tell us about conceptions of empire, knowledge creation and dissemination and popular culture? Menageries offer a novel and largely unexploited medium for addressing these wider cultural questions, since their appeal transcended class boundaries and their personnel included an eclectic blend of genders and ethnicities, from female lion tamers to Egyptian hippo keepers.

My research revolves around three key themes. Firstly, it will examine how exotic animals were procured, where they originated from and what their acquisition signified. Drawing on recent literature on the history of collecting and the history of science, the project will explore the relationship between rare beasts and imperial expansion. What role did overseas diplomats, naval officers and military personnel play in the collection of menagerie specimens? In what ways could zoos and travelling animal shows function as microcosms of empire? Did they offer ordinary Europeans a tangible vision of their nations’ global potency?

As well as considering the symbolic value of exotic animals this work will assess their educational potential. At a time when rational recreation was very much in vogue, zoos and menageries often fashioned themselves as places of learning, where visitors – particularly children – could enhance their knowledge of the natural world. Charging affordable rates, touring extensively and often admitting charity school and workhouse inmates for free, travelling menageries in particular democratised natural science and literally brought relics of empire to citizens in the metropolis. My research will analyse some of the didactic techniques employed by showmen and guidebook writers to simplify natural history and make it more accessible and will discuss the moral messages often associated with the study of nature – such as natural theology. Did education and entertainment always co-exist in harmony, or did tensions arise between the two? Was the average zoo visitor more interested in throwing buns to the elephant and watching a man put his head inside a lion’s mouth or in studying the finer points of feline physiology?

Particular attention will be devoted to the travelling menageries that toured Britain, France and Spain during the nineteenth century. These itinerant animal shows have generally received less consideration from historians than their non-mobile counterparts, such as the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park or the Parisian Jardin des Plantes, yet they were probably the place in which most European people got the chance to see such wonders as elephants, tigers and camels. Analysing advertisements for travelling animal shows and reports published in contemporary newspapers, my research will reconstruct the experience of visiting a live zoological collection, considering the rhetorical techniques showmen deployed to publicise their wares and the ways in which the physical environment of the menagerie mediated the viewing experience for spectators. Of especial interest are such features as the spatial layout of the shows, the vividly painted frescoes that embellished their exteriors, the introduction of gas lighting and heating to maximise visitor comfort, the recruitment of brass bands to serenade spectators and the efforts showmen made to engage with local communities by, for example, donating proceeds to charity. I will also explore the potential dangers of transporting and exhibiting exotic beasts, as when a drunken labourer foolishly goaded one of the hyenas in George Wombwell’s menagerie, which ‘terminated in the loss of the end of one of his fingers’.[2]

In terms of a comparative focus, key questions to be addressed include the impetus behind the formation of zoos and menageries in Britain, France and Spain, the range of animals on display and the relative importance of state intervention and private initiative in the collection and exhibition of wild beasts. It is clear from my research to date that the acquisition of rare animals could be a matter of intense imperial competition, so thinking through how the exhibition of such animals fortified civic, regional and national pride will be an important aspect of this study. Also noteworthy is the surprising mobility of exotic creatures, which often traversed national boundaries as items of commercial exchange, diplomatic gifts or the booty of war; a young elephant from India, for example, was shipped from London to Gibraltar in 1827, having been purchased by King Ferdinand VII of Spain for his royal menagerie.[3]

My work will enrich the existing literature on the acquisition and display of exotic animals. Harriet Ritvo’s study of animals in Victorian England presents a fascinating picture of British attitudes towards pets, natural history and animal welfare, but devotes only a chapter to menageries and zoological gardens, concentrating mainly on the latter.[4] Sofia Åkerberg’s work on London Zoo likewise omits travelling menageries and zoological gardens outside the capital,[5] whilst R.J. Hoage’s and William A. Deiss’ edited collection of essays, New Worlds, New Animals, offers many insights into animal shows in different settings, but does not probe issues such as rational recreation in any real depth.[6] The majority of literature on the exhibition of rare creatures marginalizes the itinerant animal shows, which, though perhaps less intellectual in their aims, were nevertheless a key site of public interactions with exotic animals. There is also a lack of attention to zoological establishments in the provinces, in places such as Liverpool, Bristol and Marseilles, whilst the literature on Spanish menageries is particularly sparse. My research will explore these neglected aspects of zoological display in the nineteenth century, considering how zoos and menageries evolved over time and re-evaluating their meaning in the light of more recent works on the relationship between collecting and empire, most of which focus on botany, art or archaeology, rather than live animals.[7] The trans-national approach of my study will add a further dimension, highlighting how different political traditions and stages of imperial expansion - and, in the case of Spain, contraction - could influence the nature contents, function and symbolic value of zoos and museums.

 Geyer, Travelling Menagerie



[1] Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, Tuesday September 8, 1840

[2] The Champion and Weekly Herald, Sunday October 13, 1839; Issue 161

[3] The Times, Friday, Nov 30, 1827

[4] Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, Cambridge Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1987

[5] Sofia Åkerberg, Knowledge and Pleasure at Regent’s Park: The Gardens of the Zoological Society of London during the Nineteenth Century, Umeå, Umeå University Press, 2002

[6] R.J. Hoage and William A. Deiss (eds.), New Worlds, New Animals: From Menagerie to Zoological Park in the Nineteenth Century, Baltimore and London, John Hopkins University Press, 1996

[7] See, for example, Richard Drayton, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain and the ‘Improvement’ of the World, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2000; Maya Jasanoff, Edge of Empire: Conquest and Collecting in the East, 1750-1850, London, Fourth Estate, 2005

 An Elephant Firing a Pistol - Gilman

Jacques Laurent Agasse, ‘Le nubien giraffe’, 1827

Orang utans drinking tea

Death of the Lion Queen, Ellen Bright at Chatham, January 1850

Bear Pit, Regent