BOOKS: Clara’s Grand Tour & General Howe’s Dog

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2005:

Clara’s Grand Tour
by Glynis Ridley
Atlantic Monthly Press (841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003), 2004.
222 pages, hardcover. $22.00.

General Howe’s Dog
by Caroline Tiger
Penguin Group (375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014), 2005.
192 pages, hardcover. $18.95.

Historical scholars Glynis Ridley and Caroline Tiger each
happened across an intriguing mention of an animal while
investigating other events of the mid-18th century. Each
reconstructed the story of the animal, as best she could from
surviving documentation. Each produced a book about her findings,
with remarkably different results.
Ridley produced an award-winning account of the travels and
influence of a young female Indian rhinoceros, Clara, whose mother
was killed by hunters in Assam, India, circa 1738-1739. Hauled
overland to Calcutta, Clara was raised to adulthood in the home of
Dutch East India Company director J.A. Sichterman, initially as a
household pet. Outgrowing her quarters, Clara was sold in early
1741 to Dutch sea captain Douwemont Van der Meer. Van der Meer
sailed to Leiden with her.

From July 1741 until Clara died suddenly in London in 1758,
Van der Meer exhibited Clara, visiting virtually all of the leading
cities from Versailles to Vienna, Naples to Berlin.
Clara may have traveled farther in her lifetime than any other rhino ever.
Other rhinos were brought to Europe before and after her,
but no others lived nearly as long, were seen in as many places, or
were depicted as often in art and literature.
Traces of Clara are easily recognized, because before Clara
toured Europe, rhinos for more than 200 years were almost always
drawn, sculpted, or described from Albrecht Durer’s woodcut of a
rhino in armor, published in 1515. Clara became the
model for a whole new view of rhinos, continuing to attract creative
attention even after her horn fell off during a visit to Italy.
Ridley discovered enough of Van der Meer’s sensational
promotional literature about Clara to establish a significant
discrepancy between the allegedly fierce beast described to the
public and the rather friendly animal captured in art.
Van der Meer exhibited Clara at a time when the prevailing
modes of animal exhibition were still royal menageries and small
traveling shows. Bear-baiting and other forms of mortal combat were
common, but as Clara was one of a kind, far too valuable to risk,
Van der Meer resisted opportunities to pit her against supposed
natural foes, even while attracting customers by portraying her as a
serial killer of elephants.
Neither the modern circus nor zoos of educational pretensions
existed yet. Although Van der Meer’s exhibitions anticipated modern
circuses in many respects, including in his invention of a
heavy-duty circus wagon for Clara, he also anticipated the zoos of
today in purporting to teach viewers about nature and the world
beyond Europe. The earliest drawing of Clara posed her with a
mounted human skeleton, each presented as an object of scientific
curiosity.
Tiger enjoyed much less success in trying to dig up the story
of “George Washington, the Battle of Germantown, and the Dog Who
Crossed Enemy Lines.”
Revolutionary troops found a dog belonging to British commander
William Howe; George Washington sent him home. Neither his name nor
anything else about him was ever recorded.
Tiger strives mightly to fill out her story with background
information about Howe, who was friendly with Washington and
skeptical of the war, and Washington, whose famed fondness of his
own dogs did not extend to all dogs.
Washington allowed his dogs to roam indoors long before most dogs
enjoyed house privileges, but was most interested in dogs as hunting
companions, and was an avid breeder in the era when dog pedigrees
first became established.
In 1787, trying to stop predation on sheep, Washington
ordered that all stray dogs around his farm should be killed, and
forbade his slaves from keeping dogs.
More might have been done with the animal aspects of General
Howe’s Dog, but–apparently aiming at the school library
market–Tiger avoids any discussion that might be controversial. The
result is that Tiger’s analysis is as thin as the factual basis that
inspired the book.

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