1850 saw the arrival of an unusual animal in Victorian London. This creature, a river hippopotamus, captured in the vicinity of the Isle of Obaysch on the upper White Nile, was alleged to have been the first of its kind to be displayed anywhere in Europe since the time of the Roman Empire and its animal games. A surge of popular enthusiasm engulfed it in a phenomenon that came to be known as "Hippomania." This essay examines representations of Obaysch in search of human understandings of animals and the rest of the natural world. It will show that the construction of the exotic was in no way stable, highlighting the innate complexity inherent in acts of looking at animals, from the scientific gaze conceiving of the animal as specimen for study, to the anthropomorphized creature, an animal cast as almost-human. Attention will be paid to the conflict in hippopotamus representations between commentaries produced in London's newspapers, middle-class journals, and satirical publications as well as between artistic representations of the creature. Moreover, internal conflicts will be exposed as I suggest that this specimen of animal exotica was a far from stable sign even within the minds of individual commentators. The article will argue for the existence of certain tropes of comprehension, dominant within discourse surrounding the hippo and will go further, pointing to the existence of confused and highly contextualized discourses, some lodged firmly, and uniquely, within individual mentalities.
- Centre for Environmental Humanities
- Animal History
- Victorian studies