Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Remembering Jumbo

Jumbo was an African bush elephant, born in 1861 in French Sudan. He arrived at the London Zoo, via Paris, in 1865, and was soon widely known and beloved throughout Britain. In 1882, when P.T. Barnum sought him for his circus, 100,000 English schoolchildren wrote to Queen Victoria, begging her to stop the sale. It was to no avail. Their precious pachyderm crossed the Atlantic, was paraded up Broadway, and melted the hearts of Americans. He stood 11.5 feet tall and the public was urged to see him while he could still fit through the tunnels on the route of the circus train. And see him they did. He was the biggest draw for "The Greatest Show On Earth".

In 1885, a runaway locomotive struck and killed Jumbo in St. Thomas, Ontario. A life size statue there commemorates the tragedy, He stood 13 feet tall at the time of his death. Some say Jumbo sacrificed himself to save his closest companion, Tom Thumb, a miniature elephant whom he flung from the tracks just before he was struck.

Jumbo's influence on our culture survives to this day. At the time, "jumbo" was not a word in the English language - his name was a combination of two Swahili words: jambo (hello) and jumbe (chief). The word "jumbo" has come to mean anything large, thanks to a big elephant, with an even bigger heart.

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