“A huge beast and very gifted”. The most famous elephant of the 17th-century visits St. Dominic’s Fair

“A huge beast and very gifted”. The most famous elephant of the 17th-century visits St. Dominic’s Fair

On August 18, 1639, at St. Dominic’s Fair in Gdańsk, townspeople, and travelers watched an astonishing curiosity – a living elephant called Hansken. For many of them, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such a creature. Curiosity was so strong that people were not afraid of the pandemic which was strolling through the city and taking its deadly toll…


Anonymous print showing Hansken and the tricks she performed, mid-17th century. Image source: Rijksmuseum

However, before we will travel o the fair in the largest city of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, let’s take a closer look at Hansken itself.

This Indian elephant was born in Sri Lanka (in Europe known as Ceylon) in 1630. The first Europeans appeared on the island more than a century earlier, at the beginning of the 16th century, when Portuguese ships landed on the Ceylon coasts. Europeans used the existing political struggle to strengthen their influence in the region; in the second half of the 16th century, one of the rulers of the Sinhalese Kingdom of Kotte was baptized and bequeathed his lands to the Portuguese in his will.

However, the rulers of the Buddhist Kingdom of Kandy managed to maintain their independence. Seeking support against Portuguese hegemony on the island, King Senarat tried to ally with the Dutch. One of the gestures of the friendship of the Sinhalese ruler was to present a baby elephant to Frederick Henry of Orange, the Stadtholder of the Netherlands, whose wish was to provide him with representatives of exotic species of animals from Asia. In 1633, the elephant was transported to Java, to Batavia (today’s Jakarta), which was the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Here the animal was brought aboard the Dutch East India Company ship which sailed towards Amsterdam.

The arrival of the elephant and other exotic animals aroused widespread interest not only in the Netherlands but also in neighboring countries. Initially, the elephant was kept in the prince’s stables and anyone who wanted to see it was obliged to pay a small fee for the poor. Among the curious observers was none other than the famous painter Rembrandt, who immortalized the elephant in several of his charcoal drawings.

Charcoal drawing of Hansken done by Rembrandt. Image source: British Museum

In 1636, the ruler of the Netherlands gave the elephant to his cousin, Mauritz Johan von Nassau-Siegen. The latter, however, was appointed governor of the Dutch estates of Brazil, and, before sailing for South America, sold the elephant to an unknown man for 8,000 guilders.

The name of the elephant is also shrouded in mystery. Who, when and why named the animal Hansken? We cannot answer these questions with certainty. Hansken is the female version of the name Hans, but why this particular name was chosen is unknown. Some people combine the name Hansken with the Malayalam word ana, meaning elephant.

A great European tour

We do not know the name and surname of the man who bought Hansken from Mauritz Johan: in a few documents, he appears as Master of the Elephant. He used Hansken to earn money; in return for seeing an animal performing circus tricks, the owner charged a substantial fee. And Hansken’s range of tricks was quite extensive! She could duel with her guardian and gave him her foot, mastered firing a bullet from a pistol, bowed elegantly, waved a banner, and pickpocketed money.

The owner of the elephant set off on a journey through northern Europe, where he presented an exotic animal for cash. After the Netherlands, Hansken moved to the region of northern Germany, where she performed in Hamburg. At one point, Hansken was sold to Cavalry Captain Cornelis Jacobs van Groenevelt, who had experience in training horses. Van Groenvelt continued to travel with the elephant for profit over the next decades.

Trzebiatów. Panorama from te 1618. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1639, Hansken and her guardian crossed the border of Western Pomerania and entered Trzebiatów. Even the devastating Thirty Years’ War did not prevent the townspeople from attending the performance. The visit of the elephant left a permanent memento in Trzebiatów: sgraffito depicting the elephant and its guardian was made on one of the walls of the tenement house at the town square. It can still be admired on the wall of tenement house no. 26 at the corner of Market Square and Zajazdowa Street. Contemporary residents of Trzebiatów consider the elephant a symbol of their city.

“I did not regret seeing such a large beast”

However, the elephant came to Trzebiatów on the way back, because Captain van Groenevelt’s main goal was different: Gdańsk, one of the largest cities in the Baltic Sea basin. Hansken came to the city in August 1639, during the annual St. Dominic’s Fair.

Of course, the time and place of the visit were not chosen by chance. The time of the fair was exceptional. The streets were filled with a confusing symphony of sounds and scents. The daily urban stench was intensified several times. The shouts of merchants, the hum of conversations, and the roars of farm animals were combined in the air.

The space between the buildings was filled with a pulsating human mass, in which there was room for townspeople, irritated Polish nobles with shaved hair and obligatory mustaches, Jewish factors sent by magnates, terrified peasants, and all kinds of travelers and adventures.

During the St. Dominic’s Fair. , the heart of the city was at Targ Węglowy (Coal Market). Here, in the place where North and South joined and East mixed with West, one could see marvelous things. People had a chance to see, in their opinion, strange curiosities, such as conjoined twins (the Colloredo brothers visited the Gdańsk fair) or exotic animals. Such as Hansken.

Fragment of the so-called Stockholm plan from around 1600. In the center, Targ Węglowy. Image source: Riksarkivet

The Gdańsk fair in 1639 was not even hindered by the plague that broke out in the city. The Polish magnate Albrycht Stanisław Radziwiłł, the Grand Chancellor of Lithuania, was an eyewitness to those events. This staunch supporter of the Counter-Reformation was closely associated with Royal Prussia; he also held the office of the starosta ( local landowner) of Tuchola in the region. Radziwiłł kept a journal.

The chancellor was in Gdańsk on August 18, 1639. Like many other Polish nobles, he first obtained various goods from merchants, unavailable in the interior of the country. Radziwiłł bought silk from a merchant from Gdańsk, Ulryk; just a few days after the visit of the magnate, the burgher, and his whole family died struck by the epidemic. Despite the plague, Radziwiłł turned out to be an extremely curious man and ignored the recommendations which we are more than familiar to us as well:

During my stay in Gdańsk, a live elephant was shown to everyone for money. I was drawn there because of my curiosity (although many entered, and fear of the plague made the crowd beware), and I did not regret seeing such a great beast. He was young, the skin of a scraped hog, an ashen color, not very beautiful. He did extraordinary things by putting on a hat on his head, taking off his cape of himself, fighting with “fists”, and swinging his sword with his teacher, demanding money and pulling it out of the bellows, walking around there and himself, wearing a rider on his back. The eyes are small and the ears are flat, like those of a pig. In this, he differs from Pliny’s account of the elephant as having no knees, because he has them, bends them, and kneels as he prepares to lay down. We are told that this beast grows to a hundred years; if so, it may grow to more than four cubits. Quite a huge animal and very talented and clever, extremely gentle, because he allowed the boys standing around to play with himself.

Anonymous print showing Hansken and the tricks she performed, mid-17th century. Image source: Rijksmuseum

Was Hansken happy?

When reading the accounts of Hansken, we must remember that the mentality of people in the 17th century was significantly different from modern reasoning. Death and violence were part of everyday life. The same was true of the dangers lurking around the corner: wars, hunger, and epidemics. The sensitivity towards animals was also different.

Elephant training took place through the use of painful, aversive methods. A long skewer was used for training; moreover, the animal had a poor diet which led to numerous negative side effects. Another significant factor was the fact that Hansken felt a lot of stress related to numerous journeys, noise, and crowds of onlookers. The guardian also made her intoxicated. Since being a little elephant, Hansken had no chance of socializing with other members of her species and was isolated from her natural habitat. Given our modern standards, Hansken was not treated well. However, against the backdrop of its era, Ceylon elephant had better conditions than most people on a continent devastated by the Thirty Years’ War.

Anonymous print showing Hansken and the tricks she performed, mid-17th century. Image source: Rijksmuseum

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