Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Home by a Neck; a Giraffe's Epic Journey from Cairo to Paris

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Home by a Neck; a Giraffe's Epic Journey from Cairo to Paris

Article excerpt

Home by a neck

It was the year 1825, ten years after the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy in France, and all Cairo was buzzing with excitement. Muker Bey, a Sudanese nobleman, had sent two giraffes as a gift to the viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha.

No one was more excited than the French Consul-General in Cairo, an engaging if somewhat eccentric Piedmontese called Bernardino Drovetti. Drovetti was a great connoisseur of Egyptian antiquities and his collections were later to form the nucleus of the Egyptian departments of the museums of Berlin, Turin and the Louvre.

Relations between France and Egypt at that time were stormy. Arouse by the writings of Victor Hugo and the paintings of Delacroix, the youth of France was fired with enthusiasm for Greek independence. In 1822, however, Egyptian troops had assisted their Turkish allies in the massacre of Greek revolutionaries on the island of Chios.

Considering it to be the primary duty of any true diplomat to do all in his power to reduce tension between countries, Drovetti saw in the arrival of two giraffes in Cairo an opportunity which he was quick to seize. Remembering that it was an ancient tradition among Egyptian sovereigns to present one of these fabulous beasts to other monarchs whom they wished to honour, Drovetti requested that one of the two newcomers from Sudan be offered to the king of France, Charles X. An exceptional gift it would indeed be, since no giraffe had ever before been seen in France.

Muhammad Ali Pasha readily gave his consent, but, alerted by the mysterious bush telegraph that operates within the diplomatic corps, the British consul, almost simultaneously, put forward a similar request on behalf of his own royal master. His reasons for doing so were similar--the deplorable state of relations between Britain and Egypt.

Appreciating the advantages to be gained from this double proposition, the viceroy decreed in a Solomon-like judgement that one giraffe should go to each country, the choice between the two beasts to be made by the two consuls drawing lots.

A few days later, Drovetti wrote triumphantly to his superior, the lugubrious Baron de Damas: "I am happy to inform Your Excellency that fate has been kind to us. Our giraffe is strong and vigorous, whereas the one destined for the King of England is sickly and will not last long." And indeed, the "English" giraffe was to die a few months later. Not, perhaps, a complete revenge for Waterloo--but all the same...!!

Then came the problem of transporting the animal to France. Drovetti prepared the journey with painstaking care. In Alexandria he found a Sardinian brig, I Due Fratelli (The Two Brothers), whose captain undertook to treat the creature like his own daughter. Since the space between decks was not high enough, a hole had to be cut in the upper deck. The giraffe was installed below with her head (for she was a female) protruding into the open. The edges of the hole in the deck were lined with straw to protect her from bumps caused by the roll of the ship. A tarpaulin was rigged overhead to shield her from the rain.

The next problem that arose was how to feed an animal that consumed twenty-five litres of milk a day. Drovetti decided to embark three milch cows and, for good measure, put aboard two antelopes, a cowhand to do the milking and three Sudanese to make the giraffe feel at home. As a final talisman to ensure that providence would be on his side, he hung about the animal's neck a parchment inscribed with verses from the Qur'an to protect her from the powers of evil. Preparations were completed with a letter addressed to his colleague M. Bottu, an agent of the French Foreign Office in Marseille, advising him of the arrangements to be made for the giraffe on her arrival in France.

Off sailed the brig, and on 13 October 1826 it dropped anchor at Marseille after an uneventful journey, the only casualty one cow suffering from seasickness. …

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