It’s been over a year since the highly contested $1 million bronze Jumbo statue arrived at the Tufts Medford/Somerville campus. When walking around the school grounds, it’s hard to miss the university’s beloved mascot, Jumbo, an African elephant. Jumbo has been an emblem of this school since 1889, 37 years after Tufts’ founding. His legacy has left a plethora of fun facts for the student body to share: the only mascot to be listed in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, his ashes rest in a Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter jar in the athletic director’s office (a favorite story told by tour guides to prospective students). Even in my third year at Tufts, I’m surprised at the amount of “Fear the Jumbo” and “Jumbo Nation” athletic tees I see on a Division III campus. Jumbo paraphernalia is everywhere.
With all that we celebrate Jumbo for, I have to ask these questions, especially occupying this campus as a Black woman: Why is it that with such a well documented existence, Jumbo the Elephant’s life in captivity is hardly, if ever, looked at critically? What does it mean to so devoutly claim an animal as our own when he was stolen and used for profit? How can the story of this elephant be understood in context of the exploitation of life on the African continent at the time of his capture? And how does this connect to the Medford/Somerville campus’ history as a former plantation that relied on slave labor?
Jumbo was born around the year 1859 in Abyssinia, what is today known as Ethiopia. Ironically, Ethiopia is one of the two African countries to have never been colonized, but this doesn’t mean that these regions were left untouched by imperial powers. At two years old, Jumbo was bought, sold, and moved from France to London, thus beginning “Jumbo’s Journey from Africa.” I borrow this title from the large-scale poster that hangs in Barnum Hall’s front entrance, mapping his transplanting across Europe and eventually touring North America. For the duration of his time at the London Zoo, the elephant’s diet increased rapidly and by the time he reached the age of seven, Jumbo was even consuming one to two gallons of whiskey daily.
The zoo was hesitant to part with the animal, but when P.T. Barnum came with an offer of 2,000 English pounds, a sale was made. According to Adrienne Saint-Pierre, a curator at the P.T. Barnum Museum, when factoring in exchange rates and currency inflation over time, this payment from 1880 is equal to $233,775 USD in 2016. To put this quantity in perspective, the average price of a slave in 1850 was $400, or about $12,000 in 2016. In his first year with Jumbo, Barnum made approximately $1.5 million from his exploitation of the circus animal. Jumbo did not do much, besides circle big tops; it was merely his name and size that drew in crowds. In fact, the elephant became so popular that Jumbo merchandise—not unlike what hangs in the bookstore today—could be found throughout the US and Britain. Jumbo had officially become an icon of the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
It is important to note that in 1861—the year of Jumbo’s capture—the word “jumbo” did not exist in the English language. So while Merriam-Webster defines its origin as “a huge elephant exhibited by P.T. Barnum,” it’s highly likely that “jumbo” stems from the Swahili word jumbe, meaning chief. This means that the Jumbo name, brand, and the profits they brought were appropriated from Swahili. PT Barnum’s success was not only a result of theft of Jumbo, but also a theft of language—stealing the word from Swahili.
In 1885, after only four years traveling with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, Jumbo was struck and killed by a locomotive train in Ontario, Canada. Though tales suggest a more heartwarming story—that Jumbo stepped in to save another baby elephant in Barnum’s circus named Tom Thumb—the truth of the matter is that the elephant wandered off through a hole in the fencing and onto railyard tracks. At the time of his death Jumbo was 24 years old, whereas, in their natural habitats, African elephants have an average lifespan of between 60 and 70 years.
For the elephant, there was life after death. It was quickly decided that Jumbo would be preserved; soon after his accident came the process of taxidermy. Contents found in Jumbo’s stomach include a police whistle, multiple keys, and a significant amount of English pennies from his days in the London Zoo, where guests would often throw coins into his enclosing.
After a few years of touring as “Jumbo the Stuffed Elephant,” he was gifted to Tufts University in 1889. Jumbo was destined for the Barnum Museum of Natural History at the school, in which P.T. Barnum served as one of the top trustees at its founding. It didn’t take long for Jumbo to take on his role as mascot and for his image to become immortalized within the Tufts sphere.
Though the story of Jumbo is unique, he is far from being alone in his displacement and display. Jumbo’s story reminds me of the life of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman whose body was commodified as a circus spectacle. Born in the Gamtoos Valley of South Africa, Baartman was brought to London in 1810 through a contract she entered with an English ship surgeon for the purpose of entertainment. This arrangement is regarded as extremely coercive, especially considering Baartman’s illiteracy. Sarah Baartman’s body was looked upon with a violent sexual gaze. She had what is called steatopygia (what I consider to be a faux-condition invented and pathologized by the White-gaze). Steatopygia is defined as the state of having a significant amount of tissue on and around the buttocks, sometimes the labia. For nearly six years she traveled, appeared in shows. It was not uncommon for Sarah to be caged. Europeans were fascinated with her body, hypersexualizing and dehumanizing her every inch. At times, Baartman was showcased alongside animals. In death, Sarah Baartman was dissected: her brain and genitals preserved but not before her cast was made from her body with plaster. Baartman died at the age of 26 and was not laid to rest until 2002, nearly 200 years after her death in 1815. For over a century her body, parsed, remained on display Musée de l’Homme until 1974.
The similarities between the life of Jumbo, an elephant, and Sarah Baartman, a human, are eerily similar. This must be contextualized. This must be politicized. I want to be very careful here not to conflate human life with the lives of animals, as to do so would perpetuate the ubiquitous devaluation of Black human life. Rather, the parallels between Jumbo’s life and Sarah Baartman’s illuminate how Baartman, a human, was treated no better than an animal that was clearly abused. These parallels illustrate the dehumanization inherent to anti-Blackness.
In 1859 a young elephant was ripped from its homeland. In both life and death, Jumbo’s body was used for show and incredible profits, only to be reaped by White hands. Today, his existence is glamorized and the harsh reality of his history is disregarded.
Jumbo is not a metaphor for the African continent as something to excavate for capital. Rather, Jumbo’s capture and sale is evidence of how the colonial gaze positioned the African continent and the life on it as available for White use. Jumbo’s story is not “fun.”
The Tufts University Medford/Somerville campus sits on the former plantation known as Ten Hills Farm. The Royall family and operators of the plantation arrived in Medford with 27 slaves of their own. Founder of Tufts University, Charles Tufts, was allowed his career as a philanthropist through the wealth that slave labor brought his family across generations. It is telling that Sarah Baartman was treated no better than Jumbo was (though this should come as no surprise, considering the ceaseless brutality of chattel slavery). Thus, with Jumbo as its mascot and sitting on the land of a former plantation, Tufts is doubly implicated. Our university is built on slave labor and our mascot reifies a White supremacist narrative: life stolen from the African continent and held captive to fulfill White desire.
So then, what is Jumbo Nation? A nation I’m not proud of, a nation whose history is wrought with violence, one that is not innocent of the stains of colonialism.