The white elephant in London: an episode of trickery, racism and advertising.
Abstract: This article shows how the exhibition of a white elephant, owned by Phineas Taylor Barnum, the American showman and trickster, became a forum to discuss nineteenth-century theories of race. To nineteenth-century Britons, white elephants were potent symbols of white superiority, allegedly holy to the kings of Siam and Burma, and worshipped because of their white pigmentation, even if this whiteness was artificially produced. When Barnum exhibited an authentic elephant of splotchy colouration, he provoked a debate about the elephant's financial value and religious significance. In evaluating the beast, newspaper reports, scientific discussions and advertisements revealed a complex understanding of human whiteness, acknowledging that it was an artificial construct, and a status of the most superficial kind.
Article Type: Essay
Subject: Racism (Analysis)
Racism (Public opinion)
Entertainers (Media coverage)
Elephants (United Kingdom)
Elephants (Media coverage)
Elephants (Social aspects)
Elephants (Public opinion)
Proboscidea (United Kingdom)
Proboscidea (Media coverage)
Proboscidea (Social aspects)
Proboscidea (Public opinion)
Author: Amato, Sarah
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Persons: Named Person: Barnum, P.T.
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom
Accession Number: 209577948
Full Text: The publicity promoting the exhibition of the white elephant, Toung Taloung, began portentously in the winter of 1883 with an assertion of authenticity. A small notice, appearing in The Times (London), announced the purchase of an elephant by Phineas Taylor Barnum, the famous American circus proprietor and self-professed humbug, for the enormous sum of [pounds sterling]40,000. The elephant had already left Rangoon and was en route for New York, but would stay for a time in the London Zoological Gardens. "This," the paper proclaimed, "is the first and only genuine white elephant ever imported." (1)

The arrival of Toung Taloung was eagerly anticipated on both sides of the Atlantic. To the British, white elephants were objects of curiosity and mystery, a view perpetuated by nineteenth-century adventurers who described the religious significance of these beasts in memoirs recounting voyages to Siam and Burma. For European observers the way these animals were treated indicated widespread decadence and ignorance in these territories. At the same time, the worship of whiteness, particularly when it manifested across the body of an elephant, seemed to confirm the European sense of enlightenment and superiority. Through processes of commodification, the body of the animal would also become a symbol of British imperial ambition and an emblem of the British imperial self.

Toung Taloung was scheduled for a brief stay in the London Zoological Gardens before joining the retinue of the Barnum, Bailey and Hutchison Circus in New York. When the elephant docked in Liverpool, reporters clamoured to glimpse the beast, eager to publish descriptions of its features. The disappointment was immediate. In The Times (London), cries of fraud were barely suppressed. The terms of the controversy over the authenticity of the animal were immediately set:

In the article whiteness was construed as an attribute that could be assigned or denied; it was a demonstrable indicator of status evidenced by skin tone and hygiene, and it commanded respect. When first inspected, Barnum's elephant seemed to merit the description so marginally that it had to be qualified by quotation marks. For the moment, final judgment was reserved. A good scrubbing, the article implied, might improve matters--cleanliness, after all, was next to godliness--and to be white and of high rank, at the very least, was to be clean about the body. At stake here, and in the ensuing debate over the authentication of the elephant, were definitions of race--what it meant to be identified as white (or white enough) and what it meant to be identified as black. With all this discussion of cleanliness, it is no surprise, perhaps, that eventually Taloung Toung's image would be used as a soap advertisement.

This article explores how the exhibition of Barnum's white elephant, housed in the London Zoological Garden between January and March 1884, became a forum to discuss nineteenth-century theories of race. The London Zoological Gardens provided opportunities for Victorians to directly encounter exotic animals and imaginatively exercise imperial authority. (3) By exhibiting the elephant, Barnum staged a trick enacting the English definition of a white elephant, playing on British perceptions of 'eastern' decadence and Burmese corruption. To nineteenth-century Britons, white elephants were misunderstood, but potent symbols. Popular travelogues had generated certain expectations of these animals: they were alleged to be holy to the kings of Siam and Burma, and worshipped because of their white colouration. The elephant's white pigmentation was expected to provide visible proof of racial superiority in relation to the peoples of Siam and Burma, territories that were a focus of British imperial ambition. And it did--for some. Others were disappointed. They found its skin lackluster, splotchy and insufficiently white. Many could not distinguish this elephant from others of its species. As the authenticity of the animal was questioned, Barnum's trick provoked anxiety about the maintenance of racial purity and white privilege. The ensuing controversy became an opportunity to discuss the precarious status of whiteness, and the subject of a popular Pears' Soap advertising campaign.

The discussion that follows explains how the exhibition of Toung Taloung occasioned a debate on racial ideologies. In recent years historians have highlighted the great significance of popular and consumer culture as ideological apparatuses of empire in late nineteenth-century Britain, disseminating notions of scientific racism. The presence of empire, far from being a distant and abstract idea, was pervasive in lived practices 'at home' in the metropole. (4) So-called 'objective' knowledge on race produced by the emerging disciplines of anthropology, eugenics and biology was made accessible to and consumed by a non-academic public in museum exhibitions, music halls, zoos and circuses, in advertisements that were plastered on billboards, featured in newspapers and stamped on household items. These cultural productions implicated ordinary citizens in imperial ideologies, presenting ideas of racial difference as fundamental and inescapable truths. (5)

The scientific discourse on race in the late nineteenth-century was based on two premises: first, that there were observable physical differences between whites and non-whites; and second, that these differences were innate and linked to intellectual, moral and physical capacities. These supposed differences justified the construction of hierarchies placing the 'races' in a relationship of inferiority or superiority. (6) During the sojourn of the white elephant in London, these messages were contested and negotiated as people sought entertainment, perused pages of advertisements and purchased seemingly innocuous bars of soap.

Barnum's shows, in particular, were famous for promoting and exploiting racial differences. As Benjamin Rice and Bluford Adams have shown, entertainments sponsored by Barnum were embroiled in the racial politics of post-civil war America and they pandered to sentiments of white solidarity among audiences. (7) The episode of the white elephant in London was no exception--but the way in which it tapped into racial ideologies was more subtle because it was an animal that was on display. Mobilized in the service of colonial ideologies to verify certain imperialist attitudes, the elephant's body became anthropomorphized. The spectacle of the elephant inspired a "scientific" discussion of skin pigmentation and the nature of human racial difference.

The following analysis will discuss how the elephant became the subject of these fantasies. First, I will provide context for the controversy that occurred in London in 1884, focusing on Anglo-Burmese and Anglo-Siamese relations. I will then discuss the significance of white elephants in Buddhist cosmology and how European observers misinterpreted the importance of these creatures. Their stories, published in travelogues about voyages through Southeast Asia, suggest that Barnum's exhibition of Toung Taloung enacted the English definition of a "white elephant". Second, I will examine Barnum's exhibition of the elephant and the various debates about authenticity that it provoked. Here we will see how the episode became a forum to express anxieties about the maintenance of racial purity. Finally, I will show how consumer culture adopted the controversy over the elephant and used the image of Toung Taloung to advertise for Pears' Soap. As the elephant was sent on to America, the expression "white elephant" became more firmly entrenched in the English lexicon.

British dissatisfaction with the political situation in Burma and genuine fascination with "white elephants" formed the context of the controversy over the authentication of Toung Taloung as a genuine white elephant. The timing of Barnum's exhibition coincided with a period of heightened tension in the ongoing conflict between the British and the heartland of the Burmese kingdom, an area the British called 'Ava' or 'Upper Burma'. The Anglo-Burmese rivalry had accelerated over the course of the nineteenth-century. In close proximity to Calcutta, one of the presidencies of the British East India Company, Burma was of strategic importance to the British. Britain slowly annexed Burmese territories over the course of three wars, occurring in 1824-6, 1852-3 and 1885. From the mid 1870s the British had been discussing the possibility of further intervention in upper Burma. The possibility gained momentum in light of British perceptions of King Thibaw, the Burmese monarch, as an incompetent and unfriendly ruler who did not sufficiently support British commercial interests. As the French consolidated their hold over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and received increasing attention from Thibaw, British influence in Ava was considered all the more important. Mounting unrest in Thibaw's kingdom added to the excuse for annexation. In 1886, after the third Anglo-Burmese War, Britain abolished the Burmese monarchy and established direct rule. (8) As an object of British interest that was also symbolically linked to the Burmese monarchy, Barnum's elephant, Toung Taloung, became a living referent to this ongoing conflict and a trophy of Britain's imperial ambitions.

In Siam better relations with European powers contributed to the evasion of direct colonial rule. (9) The Siamese King Mongkut (Rama IV, 1851-68) maintained cordial ties with both the English and French, and used white elephants as symbols of these amicable relations. Having been sent to report on the Siamese court, Sir John Bowring, Queen Victoria's envoy, returned home with several valuable state and personal gifts, among them a talismanic offering of white elephant hairs. In his two volume treatise, The Kingdom and People of Siam, Bowring described the gift as follows: "Amidst the most valued presents sent by his Majesty to the Queen Victoria, was a tuft of white elephant's hairs; and of the various marks of kindness I received from the King, I was bound to appreciate most highly a few hairs from the tail, which his Majesty presented to me." (10) This was not the only souvenir of the white elephant Bowring received from King Mongkut. After the death of his white elephant the Thai monarch gifted the former envoy a portion of the animal's skin preserved in alcohol. (11) Bowring subsequently bequeathed this present to the Museum of the Zoological Society of London, and possibly contributed to that organizations fascination with these creatures.

In scientific terms, albinism in elephants is not hereditary, and a pale-hued elephant born in the wild "is merely a fortuitous conjunction of events and of genes." (12) As part of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, white elephants were ancient religious symbols in Siam and Burma, and closely tied to concepts of righteous kinship. As Rita Ringis explains, in the "Thai language, the term 'white elephant' is chang pheuak, which literally means 'albino (or strange-coloured) elephant', the usual word for the colour 'white' being different entirely." A ruler possessing a white elephant would be recognized as an exalted and righteous monarch and 'Lord of the White Elephant.' Regarded as a celestial creature, the elephant was considered a symbol of legitimacy that could be 'spontaneously' accrued in each reign. If an albino elephant was found bearing the physical characteristics considered auspicious, it was brought to the royal retinue. These elephants were not smooth and spotlessly white (as European observers desired), but usually had pink or cream eyes, nails, hair and a tail tuft. Possession of a white elephant was perceived as a sign of sacred approval of the earthly state and its ruler, and occasioned ceremonial rejoicing. Conversely the untimely death of a white elephant became a calamity. (13) These elephants were therefore not worshipped, as European observers would claim, but viewed as symbols of the divine.

Nineteenth-century Europeans were intrigued by these customs and recorded their observations of Buddhist ceremonies in exotic tales recounting voyages through Southeast Asia. In these stories, travelers offered personal accounts of travel and adventure. They cast themselves as investigators of anachronistic rituals and riddled their descriptions of strange peoples, exotic customs and tyrannical kings with orientalist representations. Through the use of what Mary Louise Pratt has called "numbing repetition", these narratives recounted similar incidents which created certain enduring perceptions of Siam and Burma. (14) Each narrative reveals a fetishistic fascination with white elephants, viewing them as objects of myth, desire and repulsion.

One trope repeated in these stories was a visit to the stable of a white elephant kept by the retinue of a king. Bearing such titles as The Mission to Siam and Hue (1826), (15) Narrative of a Residence at the Capital of the Kingdom of Siam (1852), (16) and The Land of the White Elephant: Sights and Scenes from Southeast Asia (1874), (17) these narratives employ varying degrees of sensationalism in their description of white elephants and their treatment. European observers were particularly fascinated by the colour of these creatures, and assessed each elephant's whiteness. George Finlayson, for example, recognized the animal he saw as an albino, differing minutely from its counterparts, and wrote that the "appellation white, as applied to the elephants, must be received with some degree of limitation." (18) His description of the manner of its keeping was not exaggerated: "Fresh-cut grass was placed in abundance by their side; they stood on a small boarded platform, kept clean; a white cloth was spread before them, and while we were present they were fed with sliced sugar-cane, and bunches of plantains." (19) F. A. Neale, on the other hand, observes of "the brute" that "his skin was as smooth and spotless and white as the driven snow". He describes the flooring of the room housing this elephant as covered with mat-work "of pure chased gold". For Neale this treatment smacked of animal worship and was "more terribly emblematical of the oppressive yoke of tyranny than anything that 1 know of, at least in my own humble opinion." (20) Other travelers and dignitaries, including Anna Leonowens, who was hired by King Mongkut as a governess to teach his children English in 1862, and Sir Henry Yule, who reported on the British mission to Burma in 1855, echoed Neale's sentiments to varying degrees, repeating the suggestion that the animal was an object of worship and symbol of excess. (21) In most of these accounts the elephant was described as a living talisman of Siamese and Burmese superstition and decadence.

Given the repetition of these stories, it is reasonable to suppose that these narratives were used to formulate the definition of 'white elephant' in the English language--which was quite at odds with the meanings Buddhists ascribed to the animal. (22) A 'white elephant', according to the English definition, is a rare albino elephant venerated in Asia; it is also, in the figurative sense, a scheme considered to be without use or value. The term entered the English language in 1607; the first mention of worship, according to the OED dates from 1841, and the beast was first associated with deceit in 1851, just decades before Barnum staged his spectacle. The exact definition in the dictionary reads as follows:

If taken together, the literal and figurative definitions contradict and refute each other in a racist and malicious way, implying somehow that the religious significance of the elephant is a scheme without use or value. This is precisely how European travel writers perceived the treatment of white elephants in Siam and Burma. European observers felt that the appellation white, when applied to these elephants, was an exaggeration. They also perceived the rituals celebrating the arrival of these beasts as excessive. The term 'white elephant' enshrined these assessments of Buddhist practices in the English language. Barnum's exhibition dramatized these meanings of the phrase.

Other stories exploiting the symbolic implications of white elephants proliferated alongside the travelers' tales about these creatures as symbols of excess and ignorance. Barnum was therefore not the first to exhibit an elephant that was reputedly worshipped in Asia. Narratives celebrating circus proprietors and white elephants were published widely in the years prior to Barnum's exhibition of Toung Taloung. The tales of white elephants and showmen all described the same basic scenario. For example, on January 17, 1880 the editorial section of The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News related a convoluted account of hoax in which a painted elephant is pawned off as the genuine article. The humbuggery is then discovered by an "astute personage" who is angered by the deception:

The "astute personage" then forges a letter from the King of Siam, attempting to expose the circus proprietor's trickery. The letter plays on the assumption that white elephants were religiously significant to the Siamese monarchy and people. The circus man falls for the trick, assuming the letter to be authentic, and finds himself in a quandary. He faces potential exposure and ruin, until he hits upon a stroke of brilliance. Though he does not know the letter is forged, the circus man understands that the King's letter authenticates his elephant. The King's letter transforms this ordinary beast into an authentic white elephant--that is, an elephant (supposedly) holy to the King of Siam and a worthless object for which vast sums have been offered. Even if the whitewashing of the elephant is disclosed (assuming it wasn't already known by everyone but the astute personage), only the distant King seems humbugged. The circus man is thus able to make peace with his audience:

The story is a dramatization of the English definition of a white elephant, and such narratives generated expectations of the entertainment that Barnum would provide during the exhibition of Toung Taloung. Spectators supposed that Barnum's elephant would be uniformly white, even if it was chalked, and they anticipated forged letters authenticating the animal. While inspecting the beast, they also sought evidence of 'eastern' decadence and hoped to witness scenes of animal worship.

In other forums the narrative related in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News was repeated almost verbatim. The English traveler Carl Bock told a similar tale in his travelogue Temples and Elephants, published two years later. After describing in great detail a ceremony held to honour the acquisition of a white elephant by the Siamese King Chulalonkorn, Bock writes of a "performance of a rather different nature, and with very different motives," which took place in Bangkok some days after the King's festivities. The performance was given by "Wilson's English Circus" and had "been witnessed by the king, princes, and nobility." In the midst of the performance two clowns began jesting about white elephants, claiming to be in possession of "the only genuine white elephant in the world," which appeared "as white as snow; not a dark spot could be seen anywhere." The elephant had been chalked. The Siamese, according to Bock, "were annoyed that fun should be made of their religious beliefs," and they cursed the circus proprietor, forecasting that he "would be punished by Buddha, and that the elephant would die. And their prophecy came true." For his part, Bock agreed "that the performance was, to say the least, in very bad taste." (25) The similarity between Bock's story and that published by The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News is remarkable and suggests that tales of white elephant forgeries and circus proprietors had a broad circulation.

Bock's travelogue would be referred to in the heated discussion of the authenticity of Barnum's elephant, showing the influence of these travelogues and jokes on the staging and interpretation of the exhibition of Toung Taloung in the London Zoological Gardens. (26) Some of these letters may have been penned by Barnum's agents. The first letter to the editor of The Times, penned by "F.E.W" argued that there "is nothing sacred, according to Buddhist teaching, in a white elephant or in any other elephant." Implicating Bock in the fray, the letter adds, "Mr. Bock ought to know [this], professing, as he does, to be a scientific traveler." (27) Three days later, a letter from Charles E. Fryer, editor of Bock's Temples and Elephants, attempted to counter charges made by F.E.W. against Bock. (28) Finally, a letter written by Nai Pleng makes another reference to Bock. Pleng also contested Barnum's claims of the sacred nature of white elephants. He wrote to "protest against what the showman says about the 'sacred' white elephant, which is foolishly supposed to be worshiped by Buddhists of those countries in the Far East." He concluded his letter with the sudden statement, "Perhaps, Mr. Carl Bock never saw a Temple in his life, so he thinks the elephant's royal stable is the Temple." (29)

The circulation of these narratives and the style of Barnum's showmanship make interpretation of the 1884 exhibition of the white elephant a difficult task. Barnum's success, as Jay Cook has argued, derived from his skill to artfully deceive. Barnum made a career of exhibiting curiosities (Joice Heth, Automaton, Feejee Mermaid), celebrating their anomalous features and inviting their inspection. He was particularly adept at drumming up publicity for his shows. (30) Barnum used the press as a forum to question the authenticity of his own productions. During the course of an exhibition, Barnum would let it slip to newspaper editors and reporters that he was showing a fake. In their zeal to sell papers, outdo competitors and even expose hoaxes, editors and reporters complied with and fell prey to Barnum's schemes. The effect on audiences was palpable. People felt compelled to examine his exhibits. The possibility that the spectacle might be real fueled their curiosity; conversely the scent of imposture was irresistible. His reputation as a prankster proved no deterrent. Spectators flocked to his shows, where they were willingly duped by the master showman and active participants in fraud. As a "purveyor of public amusements," Barnum was a shrewd interpreter and manipulator of popular sentiment. (31) By offering contradictory interpretations of his own exhibits, Barnum invited debates over their meaning. His shows provided nineteenth-century audiences with representations whose significance they could actively negotiate. (32)

This characteristic stratagem produced contradictory results during the display of the white elephant. The rub is that Barnum's elephant was authentic; it was a genuine white elephant in so far as its skin pigmentation was natural and had not been tampered with. Moreover, the elephant was reputed to have been acquired at great expense and was ultimately deemed worthless. This meant that despite his predilection for hoaxes, Barnum faced disgruntled London spectators with the real deal--a white elephant according to the English definition of the term. But this provides little consolation to the interpreter. The episode was comprised of contradictory layers of interpretation; of hallways lined with smoke and mirrors. Was Barnum playing a trick by enacting the English definition of a white elephant? Was he aware of the narratives celebrating the successful humbuggery perpetrated by showmen exhibiting bleached elephants? Did he contrive to stage a similar production? If so, why did he procure a genuine and blotchy specimen? Were those who came to see the elephant also aware of these narratives? What effect did these stories have on their perceptions of the animal? Were they expecting (and hoping) to find a milk-white forgery? How should the motivation of the London Zoological Society be understood? Just how should one interpret meanings ascribed to the white elephant?

My recovery of this story is pieced together from newspaper reports, playbills, advertisements, letters, poems, novels, travelogues, memoirs, dictionaries and secondary sources. From this collection of documents, I proceed with caution since few of the newspaper reports and letters upon which I rely are trustworthy. The majority of those who commented on the elephant did so in letters to the editor of The Times, which became the main forum for the debate on the elephant's authenticity. These correspondents were an assortment of individuals, including university scholars, eminent scientists, medical men, Anglo-Indians, colonial administrators, Buddhists living in London and curious onlookers; it is also entirely possible that some of them were Barnum's representatives writing under pseudonyms. The most vocal participants in the debate therefore possessed (or claimed to possess) scientific or colonial expertise, but working-class individuals were just as likely to partake in the drama. Records kept by the London Zoological Society show an increased number of visitors to the Zoo when the elephant was in residence. The number of 'privileged' visitors approximated the number of lower-class visitors. (33) Admissions spiked on days when well-publicized trickery was scheduled to occur. Between the months of January and March 1884, while the white elephant was in residence, over 90,000 visitors came to the London Zoological Gardens. (34) Given that the exhibition of Tuoung Taloung was reported in almost every London-based newspaper covering news and/or leisure, this widespread interest in the elephant is not surprising. (35)

By 1884, Barnum had been in the entertainment business for fifty years and he was a master of trickery. At every turn one should suspect his manipulation. Equally one should be wary of the spectators and their innocent protestations against fraud. British spectators had been attending Barnum's exhibitions for fifty years and it would be a mistake to assume them naive. (36) Visitors likely came to inspect and feed the white elephant because they wanted to be entertained and scandalized, as well as fascinated and repulsed by 'Eastern' customs.

These expectations explain the contradictory reception of the elephant. When Barnum's elephant arrived in London it generated immediate disappointment. Spectators found that it was insufficiently white (fig. 1). Apart from the odd pink patch, Toung Taloung was virtually indistinguishable from other elephants. During the course of the elephant's exhibition, Barnum and his agents employed trick after trick to prove that this was a genuine specimen. But they seemed ill-prepared for the extent to which evaluations of the elephant's authenticity would depend on assessments of its colour. In the controversy that ensued, the animal came under close scrutiny and was the subject of intense debate. During the fray, Britons evinced a willingness to believe in the mysticism of the creature, hoping that it would verify notions of white supremacy and confirm perceptions of their imperial selves.


From the beginning, the exhibition of Toung Taloung was controversial in ways that were unanticipated, even by Barnum. Though never the most trustworthy commentator, Barnum later stated that his interest in white elephants derived from their reputation as sacred animals. (37) Along with his contemporaries, Barnum claimed to he intrigued by the possibility that whiteness was venerated in the East. He certainly saw potential profit in exploiting this belief. But whiteness could be a matter of degree. How white did the elephant need to be to satisfy Barnum and his viewing public? Upon first inspecting the elephant, Barnum is reputed to have stated, "Well, it's whiter than I expected to find it!" (38) Echoing the sentiments of the various European travelers who witnessed the ceremonial arrival and keeping of white elephants, Barnum claimed in his autobiography that he anticipated Toung Taloung to be of pure white pigmentation:

As the quotation demonstrates, Barnum aligned himself ipso facto with the spectators who came to see the beast and pronounced it insufficiently white.

The majority of spectators who recorded observations of the elephant stated that initially they had supposed it to be white, but were disappointed by their inspection of the beast. As one observer put it in a letter to The Times, "When I was taken to see the white elephant I naturally expected to see an albino--that is to say, an animal entirely white or faint pink." (40) The dark colouration of Barnum's elephant was unexpected and caused much speculation. One correspondent wrote to the Zoological Society and enquired, "Is the specimen a bonafide White Elephant? I certainly agree with what descriptions we have. But is it a cross breed--a mongrel? Horace alludes, 1 think to White elephants, but as he uses the word 'albi'--I concluded they were white, and not like this ... Are there any whiter than this one--or are they all like this?" (41) The elephant had caused confusion.

During its stay in London, Toung Taloung was intensely scrutinized. According to The Times, the elephant was even viewed by various dignitaries, including MPs, Ministers of Crown, ex-Ministers, members of House of Peers, Indian Officers and the Prince of Wales (42) A chorus of self-proclaimed experts announced their assessment of the animal's colouration and found it wanting. Many judged the animal from direct experience, claiming to have prior knowledge of the genuine article. One traveler, John Guy Laverick, pronounced Barnum's elephant fake based on his observations of white elephants in China. In a letter to the Zoological Society Laverick wrote, "I have seen them myself. They are not white in patches like Mr. Barnum's specimen, but are all one colour and certainly answer to the description of White Elephant much better." (43) Taking cues from the opinions offered by Laverick and other correspondents, The Times veered between enthusiastic endorsement of the elephant and derision of Barnum's humbuggery. Other newspapers quoted The Times in their reporting of the elephant's sojourn in London.

The main issue in the coverage of the elephant's exhibition was the nature of whiteness. The debate over the authenticity of the white elephant was linked to popular conceptions of racial difference, ideas of racial purity and notions of racial hygiene. Three main points were considered in discussions of the beast: the pigmentation of the elephant's skin, the elephant's monetary value and Buddhist religious practices. Belief in the elephant's monetary value and religious significance came to depend on opinion of the elephant's colouration. Though this debate was circuitous and layered, it was ultimately one-sided in that it was held in Britain (and later in the United States). Throughout the course of its exhibition, Toung Taloung was personified and made representative of the entire population of Asia. As William Henry Flowers, the President of the London Zoological Society, argued at the height of the controversy over the elephant, "the chief interest that remains in [the elephant is] ... that those of us who have never been in the East, see for the first time an animal presenting a condition of colouration said to be common in its native land." (44) The elephant's colouration was a subject of intense interest because it was believed to have implications for the categorization of human populations into taxonomies of 'race'. As a natural phenomenon, the elephant was a potent symbol. Through the elephant, nature itself seemed to be validating cultural constructions of race.

From the moment the elephant arrived in England, it was examined as evidence of the position of whiteness in the "East". To make this comparison, the animal's skin colour and "gentle" comportment were immediately juxtaposed with that of his "native" attendant Radee. In the press, Radee was referred to as a "half-caste boy" and "a half-breed of one of the hill tribes", by implication of lesser status than the animal. (45) The attendant's appearance was described in The Times in a derisive tone:

The illustrations covering the arrival of Toung Taloung in The Illustrated London News also compared the attendant and the beast, calling attention to Radee's outward conduct, including his dress, long hair, bare feet and culinary habits (fig. 2 and 3). (47) The attendant was judged according to Victorian standards of hygiene and dress, to which his bare feet were an affront. The elephant was the subject of the same enquiring gaze, focusing on appearance (even dress!) and feeding habits. Toung Taloung was said to "behave with perfect equanimity on the first day of his appearance in public, and seems to be ready to make himself comfortable." (48) In contrast to the attendant, the elephant was initially perceived as a paragon of hygiene and purity--demonstrating the superior stature of whiteness. The body of the elephant visually represented colonial ideologies and racial doctrines to the British public.

Initially, The Times promoted the possibility that the elephant was a genuinely white specimen, and continued to do so even as it questioned the animal's authenticity. Claims of the elephant's fastidious character and bodily hygiene were particularly important for this process--and laid the foundation for the appropriation of the controversy by advertisers to sell soap. Toung Taloung was increasingly assigned attributes that distinguished him from other elephants and "befitted his claims to distinction." His mild temper, in particular, was emphasized to obviate his rank as "a high-caste elephant". (49) Elephants were generally likened to "slaves" consigned to manual labour in the colonies. In Britain, elephants could be actors, performing in theatrical acts or circuses, or zoo pets, like Jumbo, giving rides to generations of children. Toung Taloung was described as elevated above other elephants, rarely condescending to eat common hay and oats. (50) When he was eventually permitted to snack on the food sold to the public for feeding the Zoo's animals, he consumed it "without any greedy response. Such, indeed is the animal's care over its delicate constitution". (51) Instead of bathing the elephant, it was proposed to oil him as a ritual of anointment. (52) Toung Taloung was increasingly treated in a manner that suited royalty. In imputing meticulous habits to the elephant, the press drew on assumptions that connected racial superiority to bodily hygiene and validated claims of the beast's whiteness. (53) Despite the disappointment evident in early reports of the elephant's colouration, he was continually granted attributes that might befit a high ranking personality. In this way, The Times colluded with Barnum, at the same time as it encouraged speculation about the authenticity of the animal.



Not all newspapers were willing to entertain the possibility that Toung Taloung was in any way a special, however. The Illustrated London News reported, for example, that Taoung Taloung "is regarded as a great curiosity in London, being the first example of this freak of nature that has been shown here; but we are told by Mr. Sanderson, the best authority, that many like it are to be seen in India." (54) Some reports even demonstrated a remarkable understanding of Barnum's style of showmanship. The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, for example, claimed that the elephant "is in every respect an ordinary beast, except that he belongs to Mr. Barnum who understands the art of advertising." (55) The Spectator went to great lengths to decry the extravagant attention lavished on the beast by The Times:

In addition to emphasizing the unremarkable pigmentation of the elephant, this report suggests that there was widespread disappointment with the fact that its colour was not artificial. Referring to the stories of trickery and chalked elephants, The Spectator suggested that a bleached specimen would have satisfied those who came to view the elephant in the Zoological Gardens. Even when the elephant was not fake, assessments of its colour were based on expectations generated by the travelogues and other narratives of trickery.

Given that the elephant's pigmentation was natural, speculation about its causes became the purview of the British scientistific establishment. W. H. Flower, President of the London Zoological Society and Balmanno Squire, surgeon to the British Hospital for Diseases of the Skin, became the main participants in the debate about the elephant's pigmentation. Flower and Squire attempted to diagnose the skin condition of the elephant, speculating that the elephant's whiteness was either congenital or a disease. Flower was the first to suggest that the animal was "not a pale variety of the ordinary elephant, as some have supposed the so-called 'White Elephant' to be, but one characterized by a local deficiency of the epidermic pigment." The elephant was not diseased, argued Flower, but it did manifest a birth "defect" approaching "albinism". (57) Squire, in contrast, was of the opinion that the elephant suffered from a malady called "leucoderma" during the course of which light patches spread over the skin. Claiming to have previously witnessed a few cases of this affliction, Squire suggested that the disease was more obvious amongst "the black races of man, who go about more or less completely unclothed." His assessment of the elephant compared it to a "well-marked example of the piebald negro." (58) Another letter similarly referenced the case of an "African Albino" in a medical discussion of the elephant's condition. (59) The Illustrated London News also made reference to the discussion playing out across the pages of The Times, concluding, "In rare instances, both among negro human beings and brute animals, there is a partial absence of the dark colour matter in the epidermis, and this sometimes presents the appearance of light-coloured patches. It may even affect the whole body." (60) In these discussions the elephant was likened to a person. Assessments of its condition were linked to medical discourses on race.

In an editorial, The Times immediately seized upon this anthropomorphic association, suggesting that Taoung "should be called not a white, but a piebald elephant" that likely suffers from a condition of the skin "not uncommon among negroes." (61) The significance of this discussion pertained to people, not to animals. At stake were issues of racial identification and fears of racial degeneracy. The elephant seemed to challenge taxonomies of racial types. On the one hand, a disease which transformed black to white, The Times argued, "may be ennobling." But what if the disease could be cured and the transformation reversed? Taking on the racist humour so characteristic of Barnum's showmanship, the editorial asserted, "Mr. Barnum will never feel safe so long as Taloung sojourns in England, that. Mr. Squire might not at any moment practice his skincuring blandishments upon the fortunate victim of an ennobling malady, and turn it as healthy a blue-black or brown plebian as its neighbours." The newspaper then did an about-face, asserting that Toung Taloung "is [definitively] not a white elephant. It is neither white all over nor in patches, and the best advertised patent soap would not whiten it sufficiently to be accepted as white in the tempered sense of a London laundry." Recognition of true whiteness, the newspaper asserted, was the prerogative of white Europeans, who would not be fooled by a skin condition: "An elephant may be white to Burmese or Siamese eyes which is nothing of the sort in Regent's Park." But passing was also a concern. The problem presented by the elephant's colouration was immediately linked to paranoid fears of miscegenation and racial hybridity. The same article insisted that the "real disenchantment is that of white elephants such as it there seems to be no especial scarcity. Inability to reach a standard of pure whiteness might be forgiven. Tuang's inexcusable guilt is that Asia apparently contains plenty as good in the way of dirty whiteness as itself." (62) The elephant seemed to challenge prevailing views of racial distinction and white superiority. As such, it was not deemed white enough to be of monetary value or religious significance. The animal seemed to be a sham.

Claims of the elephant's financial worth and religious importance became increasingly dependent upon assessments of its colour. The British public, it seems, could not accept that this ostensibly plain elephant was an object of re ligious merit and monetary value. They had expected the animal to be white and were disappointed by its colour. As the RSCPA's Animal World reported, "the same remark has rolled off the tongue of the visitors on their approaching [the elephant]--'What a shame to call him white! It's a swindle!'" (63) For their part, Barnum's representatives in London were prepared to entertain speculation about the elephant's value and religious significance, but they had trouble fending off criticisms of its pigmentation.

During the course of its exhibition in London, Barnum's representatives circulated rumours of the elephant's value by providing fraudulent testimonials. These documents ridiculed Buddhist religious practices and also smacked of trickery. (64) Indeed, an earlier report suggested that French missionaries had been involved in the procurement of the elephant in an effort "to break down the superstitious veneration of their proselytes for a representative of the last animal whose form was assumed by Guatama before he became Buddha." (65) To add to the confusion The Times reported that "Mr. Barnum's representatives have offered a premium of [pounds sterling]5000 for an insurance of [pounds sterling]40, 000 for one year on the life of his 'sacred white elephant'--no insurance company has been found to entertain his proposal." (66) These statements were presumably intended to publicize the animal's value and thus confirm its authenticity. This was a trick. In order for the animal to be authentic--that is a real "white elephant" according to the English definition of the term--it had to be worthless, no matter the expense incurred at purchase.

Two self-proclaimed experts wrote to The Times to make this very point. By claiming that the elephant was of no financial value (or religious significance), they paradoxically confirmed the authenticity of the creature. Their opinions were based on disappointment with the elephant's colour. The first letter signed by Robert Gordon stated that the elephant was "a very ordinary one, such as can be purchased in Burma from [pounds sterling]100--[pounds sterling]140, and with no more white about him than several animals I have seen there." (67) C. P. Sanderson, Superintendent of Government Elephant Catching Operations in Bengal, supported Gordon's view, asserting that "[n]either in the general colour of his body, in the flesh-coloured blotchings on his face, ears, and chest, nor in the smallest particular whatsoever, does he differ one whit from the hundreds of elephants of the commissariat ... carrying the baggage of troops or dragging timber down the banks of rivers." Sanderson also valued Barnum's elephant at [pounds sterling]150--[pounds sterling]200, and concluded by denying the existence of white elephants entirely: "We must not, however, be too hard on Mr. Barnum for not obtaining a white elephant, for the sufficient reason that such an animal does not exist." The elephants of the Burmese King, Sanderson argued, are quite ordinary except that they possess "certain 'lucky' marks." (68) These assertions validated the authenticity of Barnum's animal as a purchase for which vast sums had been paid, but which was actually worthless.

The amount of money Barnum paid for Toung Taloung remains uncertain. (69) The first announcement of the elephant's purchase in The Times, as we have seen, stated that the cost of the animal was [pounds sterling]40, 000. A New York Times article later reported that Barnum swore under oath that the elephant was worth $200,000. (70) In his autobiography of 1889 Barnum claimed he was willing to spend half a million "to procure a curiosity which centuries of unsuccessful en- deavor had seemed to prove utterly unattainable." (71) The showman had apparently been trying for some time to acquire a white elephant from Southeast Asia, using the contacts of John A. Halderman, the United States minister to Siam, and later of his own agent J. B. Gaylord in Bangkok. Gayiord's first attempt to export a specimen failed when the elephant he acquired suddenly died. It had allegedly been posioned by fanatical Buddhists angry that so sacred an animal had been sold for the profane purposes of circus exhibition. (There is reason to doubt the truth of this claim since it is suspiciously similar to Bock's tale of vengeful Buddhists. The circulation of discourses, tropes and narratives about white elephants was once again evident here.) Gaylord finally succeeded in obtaining Toung Taloung in 1883--possibly from King Thibaw of Burma. According to A.H. Saxon, Thibaw, facing mounting encroachment by the British, was strapped for cash and agreed to the sale. (72) As we have seen, other stories of the elephant's provenance, circulated by Barnum's agents, alleged that it was acquired with the aid of French missionaries, or directly from devout Buddhists. These conflicting reports raise the possibility that Barnum actually purchased the elephant easily and inexpensively. Rumours that the animal was acquired with difficulty and at great expense may have been another ruse.

The other deception which became important for the elephant's authentication was a spectacle of Buddhist "priests" venerating the beast. This was arranged by Barnum and his agents and took place in the elephant's enclosure on January 26 and 27, 1884. These spectacles were calculated to shock British Christians who viewed animal worship as the antithesis of proper religious conduct. (73) Before the arrival of the "priests", the nature of Buddhist religious practice was debated in letters to the editor of The Times and became part of the controversy associated with the elephant. Though a contested issue, this correspondence reveals a persistent unwillingness to understand the true significance of these animals, as well as the extent to which fantasies of Buddhists venerating whiteness appealed to those seeking verification of white supremacy. The possibility of animal worship excited the imagination and seemed to prove imperialist perceptions of Burmese savagery and excess. The first letter signed only "Ayaybain" was the most sensational. Paraphrasing an anecdote published in a popular travelogue published in 1874, Ayaybain claimed that a white elephant had been honoured by "handsome well-developed young women of the respectable [Burmese] middle class, who, exposed to the waist, proudly acted as wet nurses." (74) (One can only imagine how Barnum's audience received this tale. In the Victorian imagination the submission of middle-class girls to a beast would be perceived as barbaric.) Linking this story to England's territorial ambitions in Burma, Ayaybain then confirmed British assessments of King Thibaw's weakness, stating "And it is the more extraordinary that King Theebaw [sic] should allow the exportation of one possessing the critical marks." If the animal proved authentic, Ayaybain predicted, Thibaw's reign would be in danger. (75)

Other travelers and scholars protested the so-called religious spectacle. One authority on the matter, Thomas William Rhys Davids, an honorary professor of Pali and Buddhist literature at University College London, objected to the "disgraceful scene" of "Burmese priests" in the Zoo. Displaying remarkable acumen about representational politics, Rhys Davids wrote, "what should we think of men dressing themselves up in the dress of Catholic priest and going through a sham mass before a sham alter to attract the Burmese to a wild beast show in Burmah? And if it should be the descriptions [in the newspapers] that are at fault, and the men should be real Bhikkhus (which I should be very surprised to learn), the matter would not be much bettered." (76) In a follow up letter one week later, Rhys Davids stated that he had "received the best possible evidence of the deep personal pain given to Buddhists resident here [in London] by the mock ceremony against which I felt it to protest." (77) Rhys Davids, however, was a lone voice of protest in the storm.

The arrival of the "priests" in the London Zoological Gardens was reported by the press in a manner evincing the characteristic waffling between a desire to collude with Barnum and attempts to expose his humbuggery. Not surprisingly, the "priests" were objects of media fascination from the moment they arrived in Liverpool. Their purpose was to provide visible proof of white elephant worship in Asia. Yet, their authenticity, according to The Times, was doubtful and "the title priest may be used in their case, probably, with some such modifications as attached to the white elephant." (78) Nevertheless, newspapers presented them as objects of extreme curiosity, reporting their lavish headgear, tunics, stockings and slippers (fig. 4). Their religious performance was described in a manner confirming prejudicial notions of 'Eastern' practices. (79) Newspapers were eager to decry their religiosity at the same time as they relished reporting its details. Even if their ceremonies seemed fraudulent, worshiping whiteness was described as the proper occupation of eastern "priests".


At the same time, these demonstrations caused problems for the London Zoological Society. One letter from Frederick Brine to Philip Lutley Sclater, Secretary of the Zoological Society, stated, "I don't think the 'Sacred White Elephant' 'was ever in Siam. What a pity for the Z. S. to be connected thro' Barnum's agent with such falsehood and deceit." (80) Nevertheless some fellows were certainly intrigued by the spectacle. At least one wrote to the Society to enquire, "Are the two natives priests?" (81) Other correspondents felt that the religious performances were not consistent with the scientific objectives of the Zoological Society. Their letters expressed concern for the reputation of the organization, as well as xenophobic reactions to Barnum as an American upstart. A letter from Joseph Charlton condemned the arrival of the priests stating that such an event "might form an attraction in an American Peep Show but for the Zoological Society to degrade itself to such a level" is most shocking. (82) Another letter suggested similarly that "the time has come for a prompt severance between the Society and Mr. Barnum. The connection has never been a very desirable one and the Society is held responsible for every mendacious statement concerning Mr. Barnum's Elephant made by his agent and we are gradually sinking from the position of one of the most reputable Societies in England to the lowest ... gardens in New York." (83)

The trickery of Barnum's exhibition threatened the credibility of the London Zoological Society. In a letter to the editor of The Times, a man identified only as an "Anglo-Indian" thoroughly reprimanded the organization for agreeing to house and display Toung Taloung, suggesting that there "is nothing even remarkable about this elephant. He has only a few more of the cream-coloured spots to be found on most elephants ... It is humiliating to see the public taken in by such a gross piece of humbug, and the Zoological Society ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves." (84) Another letter written directly to the Society by Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, a prominent zoologist, tempered accusations he had made in the Pall Mall Gazette implicating the Society in Barnum's tricks. Lankester wrote, "I say 'the press' seems [his emphasis] to have entered into a conspiracy with Mr. Barnum and the Zoological Society' to persuade people that Black is White. That of course is not a serious hypothesis. No one imagines that the Society wishes to make people believe that black is white." (85) The letter assures Sclater that the imperialist integrity of the Zoological Society remained intact, though--apparently--it was momentarily compromised by the exhibition of an elephant deemed insufficiently white. Would an artificially whitened specimen have satisfied these critics?

Throughout this controversy, the reason the Zoological Society of London agreed to exhibit Barnum's elephant remains uncertain. One explanation may have been the desire of the Society's Fellows to observe the beast firsthand. This is suggested by the archives of the Zoological Society which record the arrival of the creature as a male "'Sacred' Elephant Elephus indieus (From Burmah)." Someone later modified the entry several times, crossing out the word "Sacred" and replacing it with "Indian Elephant Pale Variety". This too was changed to "Indian Elephant Mottled Variety." (86) These reclassifications suggest, perhaps, that the elephant's colouration disappointed the Zoological Society and diminished the creature's scientific worth.

Though genuinely fascinated by the elephant, the Zoological Society denied sanction of the so-called religious display. In this vein, W. H. Flower, president of the Zoological Society wrote,

Despite these meek protests, the sensational ceremonials did take place. In a show of excess politeness that was not surprisingly ineffective, Philip Lutley Sclater, Secretary of the Zoological Society, wrote to Barnum's agent stating, "I am sorry to have to trouble you again about the Burmese Bonzes, but I hope you quite understand that we can only permit their presence in the Gardens as ordinary attendants upon the Elephant, and that no ceremonies of any sort or kind whatsoever are to be performed by them." (88) It is not clear why the Zoological Society was unable to stop this occurrence. Financial arrangements with Barnum were probably a decisive factor, though these profits are not on record. (89)

Indeed, the Zoological Society had similarly profited from a previous controversy associated with Barnum during the sale of Jumbo, another elephant, to the showman in 1882. In the months before Jumbo sailed to America, Londoners thronged to the Zoological Gardens for a chance to ride and feed their favourite beast. Admissions to the Zoological Gardens soared and the Zoological Society reaped the proceeds. (90) In view of that incident, housing Toung Taloung was likely perceived as another lucrative opportunity for the Zoological Society. (91) Perhaps the revenue from increased admissions to the Gardens during the two months of the white elephant's residency also justified the negative publicity of the incident. (92) Nevertheless, during its stay in the London Zoological Gardens, the elephant became a liability. Increasingly it was felt that "Mr. Barnum's keeper ought not to have been allowed to exhibit the 'White Elephant' at the Zoo." (93)

Yet on the day Barnum's elephant was sent on to New York The Pall Mall Gazette informed its readers that the "elephant has greatly improved during his stay in the Zoological Gardens, not only in flesh but in colour, being now a very light ash." (94) Somehow, the newspaper implied, the pigmentation of the beast had changed and Taloung Toung's had become 'whiter'. The timing of this change coincided almost precisely with the decision of Pears' Soap to use the elephant as a commercial mascot. Adopting various Barnumesque tricks, Pears' seized upon the references to soap made during the course of the elephant's sojourn in London. The animal became a consumer good linked with soap and concerns of racial hygiene. This association was important in the history of early pictorial advertising as images of Empire were increasingly used to sell goods. These ads produced and reinforced colonial ideologies and sentiments. (95) Toung Taloung, as an object of European fantasy and a symbol of whiteness, seemed perfectly suited to this purpose. Advertisements featuring the elephant laid the groundwork for more famous and racist ads figuring people.

On March 8 1884 a full page advertisement for Pears' Soap was published depicting a white elephant with similar markings to Toung Taloung being washed and scrubbed by a native attendant resembling Radee (fig. 5). (96) The attendant holds a bar of soap, which he has presumably used to whiten the elephant's forehead, trunk and ears. Soap, the ad claims, has artificially whitened the elephant by washing away dirt or somehow applying whiteness. The ad capitalizes on the anxieties about racial purity articulated during Barnum's exhibition of Toung Taloung and reinstates, in visual form, the notion that the white colour of the elephant is a humorous trick. Whiteness, and the status associated with this colouration, has been conferred on the elephant by the soap.

Viewers of the ad, presumably white Britons, are informed of the secret used to create the elephant's colouration. The caption for the advertisement states, "THE REAL SECRET OF THE WHITE ELEPHANT--PEARS' SOAP. Matchless for the complexion." In this way the advertisement visually reinstates the narratives of white elephant forgeries that had circulated before Barnum's exhibition of Toung Taloung. In these stories the circus proprietor exhibits an artificially whitened specimen claiming that it is an object of worship in the 'East'. His white audience is aware of the hoax and complicit in the deception. Similarly, the Pears' ad discloses the secret that creates the object of veneration; it is the soap that conjures the elephant's white colour. Through the ad, white viewers were implicitly in on the trick--as presumably the Burmese who had allegedly worshipped white elephants were not.


Versions of the advertisement were published widely. One appears, for example, in a collection of clippings in the Museum of London Archives. In this ad Pears' capitalizes further on the trickery associated with Barnum's elephant by including the following addendum:

By issuing this challenge Pears' apparently intended to engage in similar strategies to the showman. The caption for this ad also read, "THE REAL SECRET OF THE WHITE ELEPHANT--PEARS' SOAP. Matchless for the Complexion." In this advertisement Pears' associates itself with whitewashing in the most literal sense. (97)

At the same time, in a clever reversal, these advertisements redirect the trickery associated with Barnum's exhibition toward white consumers (the implicit targets of the ads). This is made evident by the attendant's outstretched hand which offers consumers a bar of soap to whiten and cleanse themselves. Through this gesture it is implied that human whiteness is an ephemeral condition that can be regenerated by the commodity. The ad promises white consumers the ability to pass as the whitest of whites, and maintain the social, moral and racial benefits that the whiteness of being accords.

This advertisement, figuring the whitewashing of Barnum's elephant, was a direct precursor to another famous Pears' ad that rehearsed the same themes. Seven months later, in December 1884, Pears' released an advertisement depicting the whitening of a black child (fig. 6). (98) A white child, fully clothed and wearing an apron, offers a naked black child, sitting in the tub, a bar of Pears' Soap. The next frame shows the "results" of the cleansing. The black child has emerged from the dirty water and is sitting on a stool. His entire body has been whitened--except for his head. The caption for the advertisement reads "For improving & preserving the complexion." The ad claims without subtlety that the black child's complexion has been "improved" by the soap, even if it has not been fully transformed.

This advertisement has been analyzed extensively in two excellent studies by Anne McClintock and Anandi Ramamurthy, who interpreted its imagery in light of the Berlin Conference, held between November 1884 and February 1885, when representatives of the European powers gathered to partition Africa. McClintock argues that the advertisement "offers an allegory of imperial progress as spectacle," in which the soap magically regenerates the black body, washing away the stigma of racial and class degeneracy. The violence of colonial conquest and the civilizing mission, McClintock argues, is portrayed in the ad as the outcome of benign domestic processes--that is, washing. (99) Ramamurthy interprets the ad differently, suggesting that it should be understood in the context of trade competition. British soap manufacturers, she argues, wanting to secure West African supplies of the ingredients used to make soap (principally palm oil), had a vested interest in the negotiations taking place in Berlin. The image of the child happily washing himself, she maintains, should be understood as a "celebratory statement from a company whose interests were tied to this trade" and also as a denial of the brutal partition of Africa carried out by European powers. The black child, she suggests, is shown to acquiesce in his own conquest: he has whitened himself. His body is therefore metonymically all African bodies submitting to British control. Britain, meanwhile, represented by the white child, shoulders the "white man's burden" in order to tutor Africa in the ways of hygienic civilization. (100) Yet neither McClintock nor Ramamurthy acknowledge the extent to which the ad employs Barnumesque trickery to sell ideologies of racial hygiene to white Britons. As Joanna de Groot suggests about Ramamurthy's reading of the ads, 'It is equally worth noting how these images of 'Africans' played a role in shaping British perceptions of their imperial selves." (101) From whitewashing an elephant to whitewashing a human child was but a small step.


The advertisement depicting the children expressed the same racist humour of Barnum's exhibition of Toung Taloung and the ads featuring the elephant. This is made evident by the portrayal of the black child and the ways the advertisement allay fears of passing. Though his body is transformed, the child's head remains black and he can never pass as white. (Nor can the elephant, for that matter, since most of his body remains black, even after the washing.) Yet as he looks in the mirror, he seems delighted at the change wrought by the washing. In this way the ad showed consumers, imbued with imperialist ideologies, what they presumably wanted to see--a black child desiring to be white, but remaining essentially black. White consumers are positioned outside the advertisement, given the ability to distinguish the authentic white child from the fake. They are made complicit in the trick by holding the power to assign or withdraw the status of whiteness.


But here too the trick rebounds on white consumers. The advertisement suggests that whiteness is not an innate or permanent condition, but a colour that must be artificially created and renewed by ministrations of soap. The caption, "Recommended for the complexion by Madame Adelina Patti & Mrs Langtry," refers not to the image of the black child being whitened or to the elephant, but to other ads featuring testimonials of famous Victorian actresses and their ivory complexions (fig. 7 and 8). (102) Taken together the imagery and wording instruct white consumers to use Pears' Soap to cleanse themselves of dirt, which is figuratively linked to blackness, poverty and lack of civilization. The ad capitalizes on fears of the precarious status of whiteness and offers Pears' Soap as the solution to maintaining white superiority.

In this way, Barnum's exhibition of Toung Taloung became associated with definitions of whiteness and used to sell ideals of whiteness to Britons. The exhibition of the elephant had questioned the status of whiteness. Ironically, in order to be considered secure, the creature's whiteness had to be artificial. Responding to this sentiment the Pears' advertisements exhorted consumers to create and maintain whiteness with soap--a colouration and status they already possessed. In the process, human whiteness was established as an artificial production, and a status of the most superficial kind.


There is an American coda to this story and the ideas of racism it materialized, for it is in New York that the allusions to deception and bleaching became a terrifying reality. While Toung Taloung garnered media coverage in London, Adam Forepaugh, Barnum's chief rival and fellow circus proprietor, secretly procured an elephant of his own. (103) Forepaugh had his elephant painted in Liverpool and shipped to Philadelphia. (104) Claiming to possess the real "Light of Asia", a truly white elephant, Forepaugh managed to upstage the arrival of Barnum's elephant in New York by eight days. (105) The playbill advertising Forepaugh's elephant declared it "Too White for Barnum" and pronounced "Barnums 'Sacred White?' Elephant and all its Surroundings a Rank Fraud." (106) Barnum, the famous trickster, was left in possession of the genuine article, a white elephant of mottled complexion that was of less interest than the forgery. Crowds flocked to see Forepaugh's elephant, even after it was exposed as a sham. Not to be outdone, Barnum bleached one of his own elephants and advertised it as "A White Elephant just like Forepaugh's White-washed One." (107) The rivalry between the two showmen ended when Forepaugh's elephant died at the end of the season, poisoned by repeated administrations of toxic paint.

While the showmen engaged in these stunts, the discussion of racial differentiation provoked by the exhibition of the elephants reached an insidious pitch. The New York Times, never subtle in its commentary, speculated on the human implications of the bleaching processes used on the elephants. (This article might as well have been authored by Barnum.) It is worth quoting at length:

The article makes it explicit that the exhibition of Toung Taloung was a forum to discuss theories of race. In post-reconstruction America, in the context of the debate about the political future of the union, which was bound up in race relations, the significance of bleaching an elephant was all the more resonant. This article drew upon the conceits of the narratives of circus proprietors and sham white elephants, that had circulated prior to Barnum's exhibition of Toung Taloung in London, and turned anxieties about the maintenance of racial purity and white privilege into a repulsive joke--this time perpetrated against African Americans. The Pear's Soap Company could not have penned it better.

Curiously the British press made almost no further mention of Toung Taloung, but allusions to white elephants appeared frequently and suggest the lasting social resonance of the episode. (109) In 1892 Punch published a satirical cartoon showing John Bull contemplating whether he should take over direct responsibility for Uganda from the British East Africa Company or permit the territory to fall into German hands. Uganda is depicted as an elephant which is uniformly and conspicuously white. His keeper, the "present proprietor," presumably a representative of the financially strapped Company, states, "See here, Governor! He's a likely looking animal,--I can't manage him. If you won't take him, I must let him go!!" (110) In this use of the term, white elephants remained symbols of Empire. The cartoon also evokes the English definition of a white elephant, suggesting that annexing Uganda as a protectorate (which occurred in 1894) represents a financial burden not worth its price.

The connection between white elephants and white superiority remained equally popular. One children's book published in London (1892), for example, featured a story about an ordinary elephant, Chunee, who mistakenly envies the luxuries granted to his white elephant brother. The white child with whom Chunee converses explains the situation: "I believe it was because your brother was white [italics original]," said Tommy, "that they made him the Prince's elephant." Chunee is reluctant to agree, "So another elephant told me once, but it couldn't be, I tell you, it's [whiteness in elephants] a great deformity. Oh, dear me, here comes my driver and the spiky thing in his hand." (111) The story uses the pigmentation of elephants to instruct children on the late-Victorian social order. The lesson is clear: whiteness grants privilege; blackness destines inferiority.

The association of Barnum with white elephants was also enduring. In 1894 a famous romance novel, Dodo, a detail of the day, contained the following two references:

At this point in the story Dodo, as the white elephant, plays the part of a superficial society woman. Clearly, as the quotations demonstrate, Barnum's name remained linked to the figurative meaning of a white elephant in the English language.

This article has shown how an elephant exhibited in the London Zoological Gardens in 1884 became an object of controversy and fantasy. The elephant was the showpiece of Phineaus Taylor Barnum, the American trickster, who set out to exploit the mythology of these creatures in a period of mounting Anglo-Burmese tension. Visitors came to the London Zoological Gardens to inspect the creature that was the subject of so much publicity. White elephants had been described in memoirs recounting voyages to Siam and Burma. These accounts articulated orientalist fantasies about these beasts. The worship of whiteness, particularly when it was manifested across the body of an animal, seemed to confirm notions of British superiority in relation to the peoples of Siam and Burma, territories that were a focus of British imperial ambition. Disappointment with the lackluster appearance of the elephant provoked a debate over the authenticity of the animal. In the process, British imperial status and white supremacy were called into question.

The staging of the exhibition was a trick drawing on travelogues of adventurers to enact the definition of a white elephant. Barnum was particularly adept at staging shows which dramatized ideologies of race. The exhibition of Toung Taloung provided a unique challenge. He set out to enact the definition of 'white elephant' in the English language. This was a derogatory term referring to something that was expensive, but worthless. It was also supposedly a beast venerated in Asia. As the authenticity of the elephant was questioned, visitors to the London Zoological Gardens, scientists, newspaper editorialists and many others played roles in verifying the status of the animal. Questions of racial definition, financial worth and religious significance were raised and disputed. The creature's splotchy colouration was considered dissatisfying to the British public seeking confirmation of their racial supremacy.

As an object of widespread interest, the animal became a consumer good linked to soap and concerns of racial hygiene. Using the image of the elephant, advertisements for Pears' Soap exploited anxieties about racial purity articulated during Barnum's exhibition of Toung Taloung. The ads established the tropes for an advertisement figuring the whitewashing of a black child. Paradoxically, just like Barnum's exhibition of Toung Taloung, these images called into question British imperial status. They suggested that whiteness was an impermanent condition in need of regeneration, and offered the commodity as the means of staying white. The advertisement figuring the children ran periodically in the British press until the early twentieth century, suggesting the extent to which anxieties about racial degeneracy remained linked to a Barnumesque form of humour and trickery. (114)

Though Toung Taloung is long forgotten, white elephants became enduring symbols of excess in the English language. The expression is frequently used in the twenty-first century, and the connotations of racism and white supremacy, so evident during Barnum's exhibition of the elephant and the circulation of the Pears' advertisements, still linger.

Department of History

Toronto, Ontario M5S 3G3



The author would like to thank Asher Alkoby, Ariel Beaujot, Kathy Cawsey, Adrienne Hood, Lori Loeb, Steve Maddox, Amy Milne-Smith, Derek Penslar and Ruth Percy for their helpful feedback on drafts of this article.

(1.) Times (London), December 22, 1883.

(2.) Times, January 17, 1884.

(3.) On the connection between the Zoological Gardens of London and Empire see, Robert W. Jones, "The Sight of Creatures Strange to Our Clime: London Zoo and Consumption of the Exotic," Journal of Victorian Culture 2, no. 1 (1997): 1--26; Narisara Murray, "Lives of the Zoo: Charismatic Animals in the Social Worlds of the Zoological Gardens of London" (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2004); Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, (Cambridge, MA, 1987), 205-32; Harriet Ritvo, "The Order of Nature: Constructing the Collections of Victorian Zoos," in New Worlds, New Animals: From Menagerie to Zoological Park in the Nineteenth Century, ed. William A. Deiss, (Baltimore, 1996), 43-50; Harriet Ritvo, "Zoological Nomenclature and the Empire of Victorian Science," in Victorian Science in Context, ed. Bernard V. Lightman (Chicago, 1997), 334-353; Jonathan Schneer, London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis (New Haven and London, 1999).

(4.) For an overview of this argument see, Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose, "Introduction: Being at Home with the Empire," in At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World, ed. Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose (Cambridge, UK, 2006); Andrew Thompson, The Empire Strikes Back? The Impact of Imperialism in Britain from the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Harlow, England, 2005).

(5.) The literature on the ways ordinary citizens were implicated in imperial ideologies is vast. See John M. MacKenzie, ed., Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester, UK, 1986). For a discussion of the ways museum collections conveyed imperialist ideologies in Britain, see Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London, 1995), Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (New Haven, 1994). For a discussion of the ways advertising conveyed imperialist ideologies see Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York, 1995); Anandi Ramamurthy, Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising (Manchester, UK, 2003); Thomas Richards, Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914, (Stanford, 1990).

(6.) Lola Young, "Hybridity's Discontents: Rereading Science and 'Race'," in Hybridity and Its Discontents: Politics, Science, Culture, ed. Annie E. Coombes and Avtar Brah (London and New York, 2000), 158.

(7.) See, Blulord Adams, E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture (Minneapolis, 1997), Benjamin Reiss, The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America (Cambridge, MA, 2001). Reiss's work focuses on the exhibition of Joice Heth, which began in 1835. Adams discusses the ways Barnum's shows celebrated white bourgeois manhood and used race as a marker of difference.

(8.) Thant Myint-U, The Making of Modern Burma (Cambridge, UK, 2001), 1-7, 178-85, 87-98, Oliver B. Pollak, Empires in Collision: Anglo-Burmese Relations in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Westport, CT, 1979), 1-8.

(9.) Siam steadfastly resisted all colonial power, though its borders were demarcated by British and French surveyors. For a fascinating discussion of nationalism in Thailand and competing cosmological concepts of mapping see Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (Honolulu, 1994). See also, Maurizio Peleggi, Thailand: The Worldly Kingdom (London, 2007), 13-15, 59-61.

(10.) Sir John Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam: With a Narrative of the Mission to That Country in 1855, vol. 1 (London, 1857), 475.

(11.) Ibid., 476. According to Rita Ringis, preserving the skin of deceased white elephants was a common custom and many specimens remain on display in the Ivory Room of the National Museum in Bangkok. Rita Ringis, Elephants of Thailand in Myth, Art and Reality (New York, 1996), 108-109.

(12.) Ibid., 94.

(13.) Ibid., 110. For a more complete ethnohistory of white elephants in Thailand, see also 96-104.

(14.) Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London, 1992), 2.

(15.) George Finlayson, The Mission to Siam and Hue, 1821-22 (Singapore, 1988).

(16.) Frederick Arthur Neale, Narrative of a Residence at the Capital of the Kingdom of Siam, with a Description of the Manners, Customs and Laws of the Modern Siamese (London, 1852).

(17.)Frank Vincent, The Land of the White Elephant: Sights and Scenes in South-East Asia, 1871-72 (Singapore, 1988).

(18.) Finlayson, The Mission to Siam and Hue, 1821-22, 151 . Sir John Bowring, another sympathetic observer, described the colour of the white elephant he encountered as "really a light mahogany, the eye that of an albino." Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam: With a Narrative of the Mission to That Country in 1855, vol. 2 (London, 1857), 312.

(19.) Finlayson, The Mission to Siam and Hue, 1821-22, 153.

(20.) Neale, Narrative of a Residence at the Capital of the Kingdom of Siam, 98-99. See also, 100-101, 125.

(21.) See, for example, W.A. Graham, Siam: A Handbook of Practical, Commercial, and Political Information (Chicago, 1913), 526-27, Anna Harriette Leonowens, The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being six years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok, (Boston, 1873), 139-145, Sir Henry Yule, Narrative of the Mission Sent by the Governor-General of India to the Court of Ava in 1855 (Oxford, 1968), 133-35, W.R. Winston, Four Years in Upper Burma, (London, 1892), 26-27. For an earlier account of a missionary's residence is Ava and Rangoon between 1783 and 1806, see John Jardine and Nicholas Wiseman eds, The Burmese Empire A Hundred Years Ago As Described by Father Sangermano, (London, 1893), 76-80.

(22.) The same point is raised in Ringis, Elephants of Thailand in Myth, Art and Reality, 96.

(23.) For the exact definition see, Oxford English Dictionary ([cited November 12 2005]); available from

(24.) Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, January 10, 1880.

(25.) Carl Bock, Temples and Elephants: Travels in Siam in 1881-1882 (Oxford, 1986), 32-33.

(26.) For extensive references to Bock see, "Mr. Barnum's White Elephant," Pall Mall Gazette, January 14 1884 and "Carl Bock and Barnum's White Elephant," Penny Illustrated Paper, January 19 1884.

(27.) F.E.W., "Mr. Barnum's White Elephant," Times, January 22, 1884.

(28.) Charles E. Fryer, Times, January 25, 1884.

(29.) Nai Pleng, "The White Elephant," Times, January 29, 1884.

(30.) For an examination of the style of Barnum's showmanship see, James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, 2001).

(31.) Adams, E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture, (Minneapolis), 1.

(32.) For other analyses of Barnum's showmanship see, Andrea Stulman Dennett, Weird & Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America (New York and London, 1997), Alice Durant and John Durant, Pictorial History of the American Circus (New York, 1957), Raymund Fitzsimons, Barnum in London (London, 1969), Les Harding, Elephant Story: Jumbo and P.T. Barnum under the Big Top (Jefferson, 2000), Neil Harris, Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Boston, 1973), Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt, III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, P. T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman (New York, 1995), A. H. Saxon, P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man (New York, 1989), Irving Wallace, The Fabulous Showman: The Life and Times of P.T. Barnum (New York, 1959), M. R. Werner, Barnum (New York, 1923).

(33.) These class divisions are known because the Zoological Society recorded visitor numbers in categories. Members of the London Zoological Society (or guests of members) paid an annual subscription rate. Their admission was recorded under listings of 'Privileged Visitors'. Paying visitors were divided into two classes, those who paid the shilling entrance fee and those who entered the Gardens for half a shilling. The half shilling rate was implemented specifically for a working-class constituency. For visitor statistics during each day of the elephant's residency see The Occurrences in the Gardens, January 17 to March 12, 1884, ZSL Archives.

(34.) These visitor numbers were reported in Times, February 28, 1884 and The Occurrences in the Gardens, ZSL Archives.

(35.) See, for example, The Graphic, Illustrated Police News, Pall Mall Gazette, Penny Illustrated Paper, Penny Pictorial News, Pictorial World and The Spectator between January and March 1884.

(36.) For the effects of Barnum's early showmanship on Englishmen see Fitzsimons, Barnum in London.

(37.) P.T. Barnum, Struggles and Triumphs, or, Sixty Years' Recollections of P.T. Barnum Including His Golden Rules for Money-Making. Illustrated, and Brought up to 1889, (Buffalo, 1889), 338.

(38.) Barnum, quoted in Harding, Elephant Story: Jumbo and P.T. Barnum under the Big Top, 110.

(39.) P.T. Barnum, Struggles and Triumphs, 338.

(40.) Balmanno Squire, "To the Editor of the Times," Times, January 23, 1884.

(41.) Benjamin Hill Evans, letter to Zoological Society London, January 30, 1884, ZSL Archives.

(42.) See "The White Elephant" Times, January 21, 1884; "The White Elephant," Times, January 23, 1884 and Times, February 28, 1884.

(43.) I. Laverick, letter to Philip Lutley Selater, January 22, 1884, ZSL archives.

(44.) William Henry Flower, "Letter to the Editor", Times, January 26, 1884.

(45.) See Times, January 18, 1885 and Illustrated London News, January 26, 1884. For a description of the ways the hill tribes were imagined and represented by the British in India see, Dane Keith Kennedy, The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj (Berkeley, 1996). On hybridity see Annie E. Coombes and Avtar Brah, "Introduction: The Conundrum of 'Mixing,' in Hybridity and Its Discontents: Politics, Science Culture (London and New York, 2000).

(46.) "The White Elephant," Times, January 21, 1884.

(47.) "Arrival of the White Elephant' From Burmah," and "The Burmese White Elephant, 'Toung Taloung'", Illustrated London News, January 26, 1884.

(48.) Times, January 21, 1884.

(49.) "The White Elephant," Times, January 21, 1884.

(50.) Times, January 22, 1884.

(51.) "The White Elephant," Times, January 23, 1884.

(52.) Ibid.

(53.) As Anne McClintock argues, in the Victorian era, clean, white bodies were markers of identity, distinguishing the upper classes from the dirty and implicitly racialized poor. See, McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, 211.

(54.) "Priests of the Burmese 'White Elephant' at the Zoological Gardens," Illustrated London News, February 2, 1884.

(55.) "The 'White' Elephant at the Zoological Gardens," Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, January 26, 1884.

(56.) Spectator, January 19, 1884.

(57.) W. H. Flower, "Letter to the Editor," Times, January 21, 1884.

(58.) Balmanno Squire, "To the Editor of the Times," Times, January 23, 1884.

(59.) W. Dommett, Stone, 'Letter to the Editor," Times, January 23 1884,

(60.) "Arrival of the 'White Elephant' from Burmah," Illustrated London News, January 26, 1884.

(61.) "The White Elephant" Times, January 21, 1884.

(62.) "The White Elephant," Times, January 25, 1884.

(63.) Animal World, February 1, 1884, quoted in Jolly, Jumbo, 144.

(64.) "The Purchase of the White Elephant," Times, January 24, 1884.

(65.) "The White Elephant," Times, January 21, 1884.

(66.) "Mr. Barnum's Burmese Priests," Times, January 26, 1884.

(67.) Robert Gordon, Times, January 24, 1884.

(68.) C.P Sanderson, Times, January 22, 1884.

(69.) Durant and Durant claim that Barnum bought the elephant for $75,000 in Pictorial History of the American Circus, 95. The most likely assessment is provided by A. H. Saxon, who states that Barnum's official accountant entered the figure of [pounds sterling]6000 in the office diary. See Saxon, P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man, 304. The same amount is quoted in Kunhardt, Kunhardt, and Kunhardt, P.T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman, 295.

(70.) "City and Suburban News," New York Times, March 28, 1884.

(71.) Barnum, Struggles and Triumphs, 339.

(72.) Saxon, P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man, 303-305.

(73.) In America Barnum encouraged this opinion by sponsoring a poetry competition. The winning entry articulated western sentiment towards the idea of animal worship: "To tyrants on returning East: We worship neither man nor beast." See Joaquin Miller "The Sacred White Elephant--Toung Taloung", quoted in Werner, Barnum, 351.

(74.) Ayayabain, "To the Editor of the Times," Times, January 21, 1884. The anecdote comes from Vincent, The Land of the White Elephant, 66.

(75.) Ayayabain, "To the Editor of the Times," Times, January 21, 1884.

(76.) T.W. Rhys Davids, "The Buddhists at the Zoological Gardens," Times, January 29, 1884.

(77.) T.W. Rhys Davids, "To the Editor of the Times", Times, February 7, 1884.

(78.) "Mr. Barnum's Burmese 'Priests'", Times, Janurary 28, 1884.

(79.) Ibid. See also "Priests of the Burmese "White Elephant at the Zoological Gardens," Illustrated London News, February 2, 1884.

(80.) Frederick Brine, letter to Philip Lutley Sclater, January 31, 1884, ZSL archives.

(81.) Benjamin Hill Evans, letter to The Zoological Society of London, January 30, 1884, ZSL archives.

(82.) Joseph Charlton Parr, letter to The Zoological Society of London, January 26, 1884, ZSL archives.

(83.) Sir John, letter to The Zoological Society of London, January 31, 1884, ZSL archives.

(84.) Anglo-Indian, "Letter to the Editor," Times, January 24, 1884.

(85.) Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, letter to Philip Lutley Sclater, January 28, 1884, ZSL archives. See also E. Ray Lankester, "To the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette," Pall Mall Gazette, January 28, 1884.

(86.) See listings for "Arrivals" on January 17, 1884 and "Departures" on March 12, 1884, in The Occurrences in the Gardens, ZSL archives.

(87.) W. H. Flower, "Letter to the Editor," Times, January 26, 1884.

(88.) Philip Lutley Sclater to J.R. Davis (Barnum's agent) January 28, 1884, ZSL archives.

(89.) The terms of agreement between Barnum's agent and the Secretary of the Zoological Society were not recorded. See Zoological Society Minutes of Council Vol. XVII, January 16 1884, 201--202 and March 5, 1884, 223--224, ZSL archives.

(90.) On Jumbo see, Harding, Elephant Story: Jumbo and P.T. Baruum under the Big Top, Jolly, Jumbo, Murray, "Lives of the Zoo: Charismatic Animals in the Social Worlds of the Zoological Gardens of London", 194--205, Ritvo, The Animal Estate, 232.

(91.) "The White Elephant," The Field, The Country Gentleman's Newspaper, January 26, 1884. For a lengthier discussion see, Murray, "Lives of the Zoo: Charismatic Animals in the Social Worlds of the Zoological Gardens of London", 224--25.

(92.) Throughout late January 1884 The Times reported an increased number of visitors to the London Zoological Gardens. See Times January 22, 1884; January 23, 1884; January 24, 1884. This is corroborated by records kept in Occurrences at the Gardens, ZSL archives.

(93.) Sir Spencer, letter to The Zoological Society of London, February 2, 1884, ZSL archives.

(94.) "Mr. Barnum's "White Elephant," Pall Mall Gazette, March 11, 1884.

(95.) On the history of Victorian advertising agencies see, Diana and Geoffrey Hindley, Advertising in Victorian England: 1837--1901 (London, 1972). For a comprehensive analysis of Victorian advertising iconography see Lori Anne Loeb, Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women (New York, 1994). For an analysis of advertising representing empire see, Richards, Commodity Culture of Victorian England.

(96.) A full page advertisement appeared in Illustrated London News, March 8, 1884. Another appeared in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, March 22, 1884.

(97.) See Scrapbook of Advertisements B2, Museum of London.

98. Pears' Soap advertisement, Graphic, December 18, 1884.

(99.) McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, 210--14.

(100.) Ramamurthy, Imperial Persuaders, 26--30.

(101.) Joanna de Groot, "Metropolitan Desires and Colonial Connections: Reflections on Consumption and Empire," in At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World, ed. Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose (Cambridge, 2006), 189. For an analysis of how similar imagery created a complicated formulation of white identity see, Jan Nederveen Pieterse, White on Black: Images of African and Blacks in Western Popular Culture (New Haven, 1992), 196.

(102.) See advertisement for Pears' Soap featuring Mrs. Langtry, Illustrated London News, March 29, 1884 and advertisement for Pears' Soap featuring Adelina Patti, Illustrated London News, March 29, 1884.

(103.) For the first announcement of Adam Forepaugh's white elephant in The New York Times see "Siam and the Elephants," New York Times, March 16, 1884.

(104.) For exposure of the hoax by one of the elephant's keepers see "A Whitewashed Elephant.; Forepaugh's "Light of Asia" a Fraud on the American People," The New York Times, April 11, 1884.

(105.) "A Very Sick Elephant: A Beast with Brown Eyes and Grey Skin. The Stranger Who Arrived on the City of Chester Yesterday and What is Said of His Claims," New York Times, March 21, 1884. For a report of the arrival of Barnum's elephant stateside see "The Sacred Beast Here; From Burmah to the Great Moral Show. Mr. Barnum's Anxious Trip to the Lydian Monarch and a Satisfactory Examination of the White Elephant," New York Times, March 29, 1884.

(106.) For a copy of Forepaugh's playbill see Kunhardt, Kunhardt, and Kunhardt, P. T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman, 294.

(107.) For a copy of Barnum's playbill see Ibid., 295.

(108.) "An Interesting Experiment," New York Times, April 21, 1884.

(109.) One exception is a brief report from Burma by Mr. Alfred E. Rimmer, an officer of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, who reports in the Illustrated London News that a '"white elephant' has been caught, and there have been palace rejoicings for a month. I went to see it and it was as great a fraud as Barnum's 'white elephant.' There were a few muddy patches on its skin, and some white hairs, probably from age; but the King is wild with joy." Illustrated London News, December 5, 1885.

(110.) "The White Elephant," Punch, or the London Charivari, October 27, 1892.

(111.) "A Great Mistake," Fur Coats and Feathered Frocks [short stories of animals, with coloured illustrations], (London, 1892).

(112.) Edward F. Benson, Dodo, a Detail of the Day (London, 1894), 19.

(113.) Ibid., 31.

(114.) Ramamurthy suggests that the image was so popular that it appeared on the back cover of a Pears' Christmas Annual in the first decade of the twentieth century. Imperial Persuaders, 28.

By Sarah Amato

University of Toronto
At first glance, the beast ... looked very much like any other
  elephant, except that it had been lying in dust. He is 15 years old.
  A more careful examination, however, showed it to be of lighter
  complexion, though it seems to be a stretch of language to call it
  "white". It has a mottled appearance, but it may be that when the
  animal has had a good scrubbing he will approach much nearer than he
  does at present to what a "white elephant" ought to be. The head and
  neck are of a much whiter hue than the other parts of the body, and
  it is this circumstance that gives the animal its right [italics
  mine] to be described as a "white elephant". (2)

a. A rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in
  some Asian countries. b. fig. A burdensome or costly possession (from
  the story that the kings of Siam were accustomed to make a present of
  one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves
  obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its
  maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without
  use or value. (23)

There was no mistake about its [the elephant's] whiteness, especially
  on Mondays, when the colour was renewed by the aid of a big brush and
  a pail of whitewash, but after a time the elephant grew less white,
  because it was found that the mixture got into the pores and
  interfered with the elephant's health. An astute personage ...
  observed this with amazement, and one day when looking closely at the
  elephant discovered that the colour comes off ... The astute
  personage was angry because he had been deceived, and he began to
  think big thinks, and find out a plan to cause anguish to the circus
  man who had deceived his trusting nature.

He [the circus man] went into the ring and addressed the people. He
  had received, he said, this tempting offer from a monarch whose only
  regret was that he could not come over and see the circus, of which
  he had heard so much, and ... the offer of [pounds sterling] 20,000
  was tempting. But, as tempting as it was, he could not find it in his
  heart to deprive "the nobility and gentry of the Borough-road" of
  their favourite animal. For their sakes he had refused the kingly
  offer, and decided to retain the white elephant ... (24)

Until my agents first visited Bangkok, the capital of Siam, and there
  saw the king's "Sacred White Elephant," I had supposed that they were
  literally white, instead of technically so. Those who had not seen
  these animals, nor read descriptions of them, had the same idea as
  myself, when, therefore, my Sacred Elephant arrived in London, a
  large portion of the public having expected to see a milk white
  elephant, were disappointed. (39)

his mahout, who with his long black hair falling on his shoulders,
  his dark swarthy complexion, a silk handkerchief of tawny gold, worn
  as a turban, white linen jacket lace edging, and a pinky silk garment
  loosely enwrapping his thighs and leaving the legs from the knees
  downwards bare seemed to divide with Taung the curious regard of the
  visitors. He would not wear shoes, and stood bare-foot on the damp
  brick, an imprudence which should surely be checked. (46)

Mr. Barnum ... has sent over a beast purchased in Burmah, which he
  declares to be of the 'white' variety held there to be semi-sacred.
  The daily journals are helping him, and publishing minute accounts of
  the creature, and of the 'gentle' way in which it walks up gangways,
  but we suspect he will be disappointed. The public fancies that white
  elephant is white, and will hold that a slate-coloured brute with
  pink patches, not eight feet high, and not otherwise remarkable, is
  not the animal it is looking for ... but Toung is neither big nor
  beautiful, nor anything else, except possibly 'sacred' among a people
  who are less known in England than any race in Asia. Mr Barnum should
  give some sharp Yankee chemist a few thousand dollars to invent a new
  bleaching process, and then show his elephant in the colours which
  the populace expect. (56)

When the Council of the Zoological Society gave permission for the
  animal to be deposited in their gardens, it was with the belief that\
  it would be one in which the Fellows of the society and visitors to
  the gardens might take a legitimate interest, but they are in no way
  responsible for the statements made about it by newspaper writers, or
  the adventitious excitement which they have created. It is perhaps
  hardly necessary for me to say that the so-called 'religious rites'
  announced in a letter to The Times of to-day, as about to be
  performed in public in the presence of the elephant, will certainly
  not be permitted. (87)

Lord Mayor's Show.
  This liberal offer was refused.
  The Citizen states that the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs' Committee have
  received the following letter:--
  "Sir,--We hear that several elephants will form part of the
  procession on the 10th proximo, and although you perhaps may consider
  the inquiry novel, we venture to think it worthy of consideration. It
  is to know whether your Committee is disposed to entertain an offer
  of [pounds sterling]500 to paint all the elephants white, with
  'Pears' Soap' in red letters on their sides. Your reply in the course
  of the day will much oblige.
  Faithfully yours.
  A. and F. Pears.
  38, Great Russell Street, Oct. 17. 1884."

Mr. BARNUM'S plan of making an elephant white by artificial means in
  order to contrast it with the dark and genuine white elephant is an
  ingenious one, hut it is of less interest to elephants than it is to
  another class of our population. The inventor of the process of
  bleaching elephants claims that it can be applied without the
  slightest injury to colored people, and that it furnishes a complete
  answer to JOB's famous inquiry as to the possibility of whitening an
  Ethiopian. The experiment now making with the elephant is watched by
  the entire population of Thompson-street with the utmost interest,
  and if it succeeds the colored man will be as rare among us as the
  sacred white elephant himself.

  The bleaching process, as now conducted, will not make the complexion
  of the colored man identical with that of the white man. The cleansed
  Ethiopian will be of a dazzling whiteness, rivaling that of the snow.
  The purest blonde of Madison-avenue will appear dark by the side of
  the beauties of Thompson-street, and what was once the white race
  will suddenly become the colored race.

  It will be a curious sensation for white people to find themselves
  treated with contempt on account of their color by the bleached
  colored people. All the laws and regulations still existing which are
  aimed at the colored people will then apply to the Caucasian race. We
  shall have to pass a new Civil Rights bill to secure admission to
  hotels and sleeping cars, and we may even hear ourselves
  contemptuously described as "niggers," should the bleached colored
  people condescend to adopt white methods of expression.

  To avoid such an embarrassing situation it is to be hoped that the
  bleacher of Mr. BARNUM'S elephant will find some way of accurately
  imitating the Caucasian complexion. In that case the ex-colored man
  will be distinguished from the original white man only by the quality
  of his hair. Probably a method of straightening Ethiopian hair and
  repressing the exuberance of Ethiopian lips will soon follow thegrand
  discovery of bleaching Ethiopian skin, and in that case all
  distinction between the two races will at once disappear, and the
  negro question will vanish from our politics, never to reappear. (108)

Jack, come and see us this evening; we're having a sort of Barnum's
  Show, and I'm to be the white elephant. Come and be a white elephant
  too. Oh, no, you can't Chesterford's the other. The elephant is an
  amiable beast, and I am going to be remarkable amiable. (112)

  Dodo was playing the amiable white elephant to some purpose. She was
  standing under a large chandelier in the centre of the room, with
  Chesterford beside her, receiving congratulations with the utmost
  grace and talking nonsense at the highest possible speed. (113)
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