Obaysch: A Hippopotamus in Victorian London tells the remarkable story of Obaysch the hippopotamus, the first ‘star’ animal to be exhibited in the London Zoo.
In 1850, a baby hippopotamus arrived in England, thought to be the first in Europe since the Roman Empire, and almost certainly the first in Britain since prehistoric times. Captured near an island in the White Nile, Obaysch was donated by the viceroy of Egypt in exchange for greyhounds and deerhounds. His arrival in London was greeted with a wave of ‘hippomania’, doubling the number of visitors to the Zoological Gardens almost overnight.
Delving into the circumstances of Obaysch’s capture and exhibition, John Simons investigates the phenomenon of ‘star’ animals in Victorian Britain against the backdrop of an expanding British Empire. He shows how the entangled aims of scientific exploration, commercial ambition, and imperial expansion shaped the treatment of exotic animals throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Along the way, he uncovers the strange and moving stories of Obaysch and the other hippos who joined him in Europe as the trade in zoo animals grew.
’A fascinating microscopic and telescopic look at the life of Victorian England’s most famous animal. John Simons’ richly exhaustive account of nineteenth-century hippomania engages with imperialism, Orientalism, progress, and the cultural history of Europe where Obaysch, captured from an island in the Nile River, had the misfortune to spend his life as a blockbuster attraction at the London Zoo. Poignant and empathetic, this account of an animal’s appropriation and exploitation is one of those books that unfurls more about its moment in time than you could have imagined when you picked it up.’
Professor Randy Malamud, Georgia State University
John Simons is an historian specialising in the history of animals. He has written or edited twenty books, on topics ranging from Middle English chivalric romance to Andy Warhol to the history of cricket. His previous books on animals include Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation (2002), Rosetti’s Wombat (2008), The Tiger That Swallowed the Boy: Exotic Animals in Victorian England (2012) and Kangaroo (2012), which was listed for the Royal Society of Biology’s Book of the Year Award. He is a published poet and has just completed his first novel. He has worked in universities on every continent except Antarctica and most recently was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at Macquarie University in Sydney.
Preface and acknowledgements
A note on nomenclature
1. Why Obaysch?
Interchapter: the economy of zoos and hippos
2. The life and times of Obaysch the hippopotamus
3. The several meanings of hippos
4. A bloat of other European hippos
Postscript: the unhappy hippopotamus
‘This is not a trivial undertaking. If we are to understand animals’ lives in any meaningful way, we must, as Simons argues, learn to understand animals as more than mere things whose chief interest lies in what they represent or tell us about ourselves.’
James Bradley Sydney Morning Herald
ʻ[This book] is over and above an accessible, intelligent, charming, sometimes funny, sometimes sad account of Obaysch, who lived at the London Zoo from 1850 until his premature death there in 1878, aged about 28.ʼ
Stephen Romei The Australian
Size: 210 × 148 × 15 mm
Copyright: © 2019
Publication: 01 Jan 2019
Series: Animal Publics