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Obaysch: A hippopotamus in Victorian London, by John Simons 

28 June 2019

Serenhedd James on the unsought fame of a mid-Victorian hippo

A watercolour of Obaysch by Joseph Wolf (1850), based on sketches sent from Egypt by Charles Murray. From the book under review

A watercolour of Obaysch by Joseph Wolf (1850), based on sketches sent from Egypt by Charles Murray. From the book under review

JOHN SIMON’s contention is that Obaysch the Hippopotamus was the most important animal of the 19th century. That may seem a wild claim; but in light of the political context of his capture in 1849 and his place in the Victorian consciousness for the next three decades, perhaps it is not an unreasonable one. Obaysch was a pawn in the posturing of empires: the British Empire ascendant, and that of the Ottomans in terminal decline. Charles Murray, the British consul-general in Egypt (and an Oriel man), negotiated the transaction and provided the horse-obsessed Pasha Abbas with a pack of bloodhounds in exchange.

In London, the official narrative soon became that Obaysch was a happy hippo, contented with his lot; and his resting smile lent itself easily to anthropomorphism. Murray’s biographer, Herbert Maxwell, depicted him regularly visiting his triumph in retirement: “shouting to him in Arabic” through his own walrus moustache, “when the enormous creature would come towards him, grunting loudly in recognition of one of his earliest friends”. Simons, who has already presented the Victorian obsession for glamourous pets in The Tiger That Swallowed the Boy: Exotic animals in Victorian England (Libri, 2012), concludes that the truth was rather different.

This is the biography of a hippo, and Simons tells Obaysch’s story in charming detail with a lightness of touch and a deft turn of phrase. He does not shrink, however, from the ethical issues that inevitably circle around the killing of a mother hippo on the banks of the Nile, the violent capture of her newborn calf, and his exhibition for the rest of his life for the entertainment of the paying public five thousand miles away from his home. Interwoven with Obaysch’s life are themes of scientific endeavour, imperial ambition, and plain avarice. There is more to a hippopotamus than a hippopotamus.

Dr Serenhedd James is Tutor in Theology at Oriel College, and an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

Obaysch: A hippopotamus in Victorian London
John Simons
Sydney University Press £20

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