Early in the year 1515, Alphonso Alburquerque, the governor of what was then Portuguese India, arranged for a special gift – a live rhinoceros – to be given to King Manuel I of Portugal. Animal gifts to royalty were fairly common in those times, with many people of nobility keeping exotic personal menageries. Called Ganda, the female rhinoceros had been captured in what is now the state of Assam. She was put aboard the Nossa Senorada Ajuda along with her keeper, Ocem, and the ship set sail from the port of Goa in January. It ventured westward across the Indian Ocean, rounded Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and arrived in Lisbon 120 days later.
It would be safe to say that Ganda was something of a sensation in her new home, her kind not having been seen in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire. She resided in the royal menagerie at Ribeira Palace, but the King ordered that she not be kept near the elephants, as the two species were believed to be mortal enemies. However, within a matter of only a few weeks, he decided to verify this supposed fact and arranged for a battle between the beasts.
The fight was held in a courtyard and attended by the royal family and their guests. The youngest elephant in the King’s menagerie was led into the arena from its stable, and the tapestries hiding the rhinoceros were drawn open. An observer by the name of Valentin Ferdinand wrote that the rhinoceros appeared furious and immediately charged her foe, so violently that she broke free of her chain. The young elephant, whose back was initially turned to Ganda, reacted to her charge by “uttering a tremendous cry”, turning tail and bolting to safety through a thick set of iron bars.
How this affected the King is not recorded by history. However, instead of keeping his new pet rhino, he decided to re-gift Ganda to Pope Leo X. She was put aboard a ship bound for the Holy City, but this time adorned with a gilded chain, a green velvet collar, and a garland of roses and carnations. The sea voyage began in December, the ship docked briefly in Marseilles in January, and then headed for Rome.
Unfortunately, a storm encountered in the Gulf of Genoa sunk the ship and drowned all who were aboard, including Ganda. But all was not lost. Her body washed ashore, was recovered, stuffed and ultimately delivered to the Pope.
The story of Ganda is one of power, colonialism and domination. The image above represents the rhino as both curiosity and sacrifice, celebration and commemoration: a transitional animal, moving between states, between water and land, knowledge and imagination, belonging and loss.
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