The Torre de Belem rises like a tall, generously ornamented wedding cake for a giant in a fairytale. It sits at the mouth of the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city, right where it empties itself out into the open sea, the vast Atlantic Ocean. It is at one of Portugal’s - and Europe’s - westernmost points, looking forward and ahead into the great unknown, the world beyond.
We were in the Torre de Belem recently, my husband and I, on a short holiday in Lisbon to celebrate a wedding anniversary. We fell in love with this absolute charmer of a city with its hilly ups and downs, spectacular views from unexpected nooks and crannies, ancient quarters soaked in history, multitude of influences and smiling, friendly people. One sunny Saturday morning we took a bus to the Torre de Belem, at the far south-west of the city. There are ample grounds all around, and it is a popular gathering spot for people of all ages. There was a 5K race coming up and there was a crush of excited participants, volunteers and cheerers-on. Little children scampered about while bicyclists wove their way through the throngs and vendors of cool drinks set up their stalls. There were several soccer games in progress, ranging from the fiercely competitive to the strictly-for-fun. Tourists - like us - gazed all around and squinted into maps and apps. It was a delightful scene. We tarried awhile watching everybody, enjoying the sunshine, the cool breeze, but we were tourists and had to do our touristy things. Into the Torre de Belem we went.
Inside there was a room filled with cannons, a reminder that this place was built, initially, as a military fortification for the defense of Lisbon. We climbed up and enjoyed lovely views of the city, its hills and the water all around. We stood in line in a large, sunlit room to climb the narrow, winding staircase that would take us to the very top. And there, on the wall next to where I was standing, I noticed a little sign.
I was intrigued. An arrow pointed to where I could see the rhinoceros. Through a short, narrow passageway I went, and this opened up into a tiny room with windows. I peered out and a little way below, I spotted him. The rhinoceros, who came to Portugal, all the way from India, just over 500 years ago!
Can you spot the rhino?
I had to find out more. And you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my “research”. This will involve a short - but hopefully not boring - lesson of history. I have said this before, and I will say it again: the story of mankind is infinitely fascinating. We have always been seekers and adventurers, curious, greedy, ambitious, conniving, loyal, restless, and these and so many other qualities have manifested themselves in so many different ways to create the tapestry of events and experiences that is the chronicle of humankind.
Let us pick up the threads of the tale of the rhinoceros in the early years of the great Age of Exploration. As the 15th century drew to a close, Portugal and its arch-rival, Spain, were engaged in a fierce race to find the best sea-routes that led to the fabled riches of India and beyond. Spain headed west and - eventually, and in ways that were unforeseen and unexpected - found wealth and formed an overseas empire in the Americas. Portugal found the shorter route going east, hazardous currents and unfriendly seas notwithstanding, and established a presence in several places in Africa as well as in India.
Monument to Discoveries - Padrao do Descobrimentos, Lisbon
A key figure who set this course of events into motion was Vasco da Gama. His name and feats are forever imprinted in my memory thanks to a naughty little rhyme that made the rounds in my school, that involved him attending a drama in his pajama (I will leave the rest to your memory, or imagination). In 1497, he set sail from somewhere very near where the Torre de Belem now stands, on a daring voyage far out into the treacherous Atlantic Ocean, around the base of Africa, and - the very first European to successfully do this - onward and eastward to India, where he arrived, almost a year after he set out, in Calicut, Kerala.
It was a mixed bag for da Gama; an initially warm reception from the Zamorin of Calicut turned tepid when his paltry collection of gifts failed to impress the ruler. He spent three months in Calicut, and left determined to return and seal matters. He knew that he had struck gold, that he had, indeed, arrived exactly where he had intended to.
Vasco da Gama returned to Calicut a few years after his first visit to negotiate favorable trading agreements for his king and country. He operated in the moral universe - such as it was - of the 16th century and was not above such actions as seizing and chopping up several traders and fishermen and sending their body parts to the Zamorin of Calicut with the message that he might want to use them in his curry. The import of his conduct was clear: he meant business, and he would stop at nothing to get what he wanted.
Political intrigue, diplomatic negotiations and brutality came together to create Portugal’s colonies in India. The next key figure in the saga of the rhinoceros was Alfonso de Albuquerque. He was a larger than life character who is regarded as the founder of the Portuguese empire in Asia. He arrived in India in 1503, and hell-bent on establishing Portuguese power and Christianity, took cruelty and fanaticism to new heights (depths?) while successfully expanding his country’s naval control and colonies over large parts of India’s west and east coasts.
In 1514, with the permission of his ruler, King Emanuel I of Portugal, he approached Sultan Muzzafar, the ruler of Cambay (in present-day Gujarat) with a request to build a fort in the city of Diu. He went bearing an impressive array of gifts, but the Sultan, wisely perhaps, declined the request. Not wanting to appear rude or hostile however, and to show that he was a generous and hospitable person, he presented Alfonso with a large and extraordinary gift.
A live rhinoceros.
The beast must have weighed between one and a half and two tons and would have, as was its wont, consumed vast quantities of grass and other herbiage. It would not have been an easy animal to care for, but on the other hand it was exotic beyond imagination, a gift unlike any other. Alfonso decided to send the rhino along to his master, King Emanuel, in Lisbon. We do not know if he did it to curry favor with the king, or to rid himself of a clumsy and unwieldy burden - it was probably both of these reasons.
A ship, Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, loaded with spices, was returning to Portugal from India, and onto this Alfonso despatched the rhino along with its keeper, Osem. It was January 1515, and the rhino, for whom an enormous quantity of rice was stowed on board the ship (it was far less bulky than its normal leafy diet), survived the journey. It was a quick 120 day journey, with stops in Mozambique, St Helena (later on famed as the place where Napoleon Bonaparte was kept prisoner after the Battle of Waterloo) and the Azores.
The rhino arrived in Lisbon on May 20th 1515, and was brought ashore very near the site where the Torre de Belem was nearing completion. In honor of the rhino, a likeness of its head was carved in one of the corbels of its tower. It became the talk of town and vast numbers of people crowded to get a glimpse of this fantastic animal. It was housed in the Ribeira Palace in Lisbon. The rhino had last been given mention in Europe more than a thousand years earlier by the Roman philosopher and writer Pliny the Elder who, in his Natural History wrote a short chapter on the rhinoceros. (Ancient Romans had a fascination for “exotic” wild animals which they obtained from traders and from the far reaches of their empire).
Here is Pliny the Elder on the rhinoceros, circa 77 AD:
At the same games the rhinoceros was also exhibited, an animal which has a single horn projecting from the nose; it has frequently been seen since then. This too is another natural-born enemy of the elephant. It prepares itself for the combat by sharpening its horn against the rocks; and in fighting directs it chiefly against the belly of its adversary which it knows to be the softest part. The two animals are of equal length, but the legs of the rhinoceros are much shorter: its skin is the colour of box-wood.
The poor rhino. Its main predators are humans, who stupidly and cruelly mutilate and kill it in the moronic belief that the horn contains aphrodisiac qualities. Perhaps in Pliny’s Rome, the rhino and the elephant were goaded into attacking each other, for the amusement and entertainment of an ignorant public.
Possessing a menagerie of unusual and unfamiliar animals was one way of exhibiting power and influence. King Emanuel was now ruler of a growing overseas empire and many birds and animals from faraway lands made their way to Lisbon. His collection included an elephant, and recalling Pliny’s words, he decided that it would make for excellent entertainment to pit the rhinoceros against the elephant. A large throng assembled to watch the fun. There are conflicting accounts of what happened. According to one, the rhino approached the elephant in a deliberate and menacing fashion; according to another, the rhino stayed put and merely stared at the elephant. In every account the elephant, a young one, upset and disturbed by the noise all around, fled to safety, and the crowd was denied the dubious pleasure of the promised spectacle.
The rhino spent the rest of the year in Lisbon. It continued to be a sensation. A Florentine doctor wrote a lengthy poem in its honor. Many people made sketches of it. One made its way to the German artist Albrecht Durer; based on that sketch he created a woodcut print of a rhino that to this day is recognized around the world as the best-known representation of this animal. It is remarkable because, in spite of its many flaws and distortions, and the fact that it was drawn without Durer ever having actually set eyes on a rhino, it is instantly recognizable as one. Above the picture, the words in German translate to:
"On the first of May 1513 * was brought from India to the great and powerful King Emanuel of Portugal at Lisbon, a live animal called a rhinoceros. His form is here represented. It has the colour of a speckled tortoise and it is covered with thick scales. It is like an elephant in size, but lower on its legs and almost invulnerable. It is also said that the rhinoceros is fast, lively and cunning."
* (The dates on both the signboard in the Torre de Belem as well as Durer's picture are incorrect; every source I read gave the date of the rhino's arrival in Portugal as May 1515).
At this time, the pope in Rome was Leo X and he was somebody both the Spanish and Portuguese wanted to please, to gain his approval and blessings for their empire building efforts. What better way for King Emanuel to flatter him than with a gift of a wonderful beast, the rhino? And so, In December 1515, the hapless animal was put on board a ship yet again, this time dressed up with a green velvet collar decorated with flowers, and sent off to Rome. Along the way, the ship stopped near Marseille so that the king of France, who was nearby, could view the now-famous rhino. Alas, not long after that, the ship capsized in a storm near Liguria in Italy. The rhino, which was shackled to the deck so that it wouldn’t escape, drowned.
The body was recovered and the hide was sent back to Lisbon, where it was stuffed. Nobody really knows what happened to the stuffed rhino. Its fame ebbed away with its life. I couldn’t find out from any of my reading about what became of Osem, the rhino’s keeper.
The poor rhino, who survived the long voyage from faraway India, died an untimely death. However, its memory and its story live on, immortalized in stone at the Torre de Belem and on wood in Durer’s engraving, a crazy but romantic tale from another world and time.