Belle Africaine: The First Giraffe In France
Nicknamed “Belle Africaine” or “le bel animal du roi” (The Beautiful Animal of the King), she was the first giraffe to arrive in France. The strange animal with spots, long legs, bulging eyes, eighteen-inch tongue, and horn-like structures on its head, made her appearance at the port of Marseilles on 23 October 1826. She was a gift from the Viceroy of Egypt to Charles X. Everyone who saw her thought she was marvelous. In fact, she excited the public’s curiosity for several days. One English reporter said a giraffe was something he had never witnessed, and he claimed there was nothing “more beautiful than the large, bright, and mild eyes of this elegantly-formed creature.”
Belle Africaine, today called Zafar, was small and young when she was captured by Sudan hunters. In fact, she was so small, she was taken to Khartoum on the back of a camel, and cows traveled with her so she could be fed with their milk. From Khartoum she sailed down the Nile to Alexandria. There she boarded a ship with her sea journey lasting thirty-two days. She traveled standing up in the hold with her long neck and head protruded through a hole in the deck that was shaded by a tent.
Belle Africaine was not the only giraffe that arrived in France at the time. A male giraffe also set foot in Marseilles. However, he was headed to London as a gift for George IV who then had him sent to Windsor where he was placed in the Windsor Great Park.
From the moment Belle Africaine stepped off the ship, the public was enthralled, and numerous descriptions were given of her:
“It must be confessed that the attitudes of the giraffe are not always graceful; for instance, when she gallops her hind feet project beyond the fore feet, in consequence of the great slope of her back; and when she puts her head to the ground she is obliged to widen the distance between her fore feet in a very awkward manner. She looks best when upright and walking gently along, when she carries herself with much stateliness and grace. Her eyes are black and large, surrounded by eyelashes, and full of the mildest and most intelligent expression; her mouth is small and entirely covered by the upper lip; her tongue is remarkably long, thin, and black in colour; her ears are large and white, and her short horns, covered with brown hair, are placed between them. Her whole head is very small, and has a bony tubercle between the nostrils and the eyes, covered with hair. Her neck is furnished with a short black mane, and her neck, body, and sides of her head are covered with large brown spots on a white ground. Her tail is small, and has black hair at the end some inches long. Her feet are large and cleft, and resemble those of the ox, and when she walks the two feet on the same side move together.”
Newspapers teemed with articles daily about the giraffe, but most people did not realize Belle Africaine was a political gift given in the hope that Charles X would stop supporting the Greeks in their war for independence against the Ottoman Empire. Despite all the press, the public’s hunger for information about the giraffe never seemed to be satisfied. French newspapers announced the giraffe would create intense interest among natural history lovers once she arrived in Paris, but in fact she did more than that.
Belle Africaine’s arrival in France resulted in honors bestowed upon her in practically every city she passed through. For example, the Prefect of Marseilles had a body-cloth ready for her that was embroidered with the arms of France. After wintering in Marseilles to accustom her to the change in climate, more honors followed. On her 550-mile, 41-day trek to Paris, she traveled by cavalcade. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette stated, “her Highness’s predilection for cavalry was evinced by her following horses in every place she came through.” The cavalcade was led by France’s foremost scientist, Ėtienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire who headed the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
Unfortunately, there was at least one incident that scared Belle Africaine as she journeyed northward. She was accompanied by so many horsemen into Madame Récamier‘s home town of Lyons that she became alarmed. Her nervousness in turn caused the horses accompanying her to become skittish. The result was a scene of confusion, and it took some time before the cavalcade could be calmed down and they were back on the road to Paris.
The cavalcade’s next stop was Fontainebleau. Located about 34.5 miles south-southeast of the center of Paris, Fontainebleau is the site where on 27 October 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte and the Spanish King Charles IV signed the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau, which authorized the passage of French troops through Spanish territories so that they might invade Portugal. This time, however, a military escort sent from Paris met them. The escort was to accompany them into the capitol city and thus Belle Africaine’s arrival into that city occurred on 30 June 1827.
Belle Africaine’s parade through Parisian streets evinced much fanfare. Additionally, “thirty gendarmes were appointed as guards of honor to protect her Highness (the giraffe) from the vulgar intrusion of the populace.” It was also in Paris that Belle Africaine met King Charles X. After stating that the Dauphin had an audience with the king, the Court Gazette described the meeting between Belle Africaine and Charles X:
“‘Lundi, en la matinée, Madame le Giraffe va etre presented au Roi.’ Her Highness was to be presented to his Majesty! how little the king must have looked by a lady 14 feet high! What the ceremonial was I cannot say, but I really believe her Highness was guilty of leze majeste — the treason of looking down upon a king, the monarch of the great nation; but her Highness is unbendable by nature, and she has a quality very rare and estimable in the female sex, as all married men will allow; she is mute.”
A formal reception for Belle Africaine also occurred at the Jardin des Plantes. Her entrance into the garden was touted as a “triumphal procession” with hundreds of carriages and thousands of people greeting her. A pamphlet was also printed that contained a congratulatory speech from the animals in the garden. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette offered the following humorous tidbits related to the animals who greeted Belle Africaine:
“Marten Ours, the great bear, was the speaker, who offered to embrace her Highness, but she declined the hug; the Byson offered his horns; but she begged by signs he would present them to her intended; the Lion offered his paw, but she turned away, as he had forgotten to cut his claws. All the beasts, thinking their court useless, then conceived the lofty lady must be engaged to his Highness the Giraffe, on his voyage to England.”
After meeting the animals and France’s king the exotic giraffe settled into the Jardin des Plantes, a spot where years earlier two Sri Lanka elephants by the name of Hans and Marguerite had lived. As with the elephants, public curiosity was high in relation to Belle Africaine and La Pandore wrote on 12 July that “the giraffe occupies all the public’s attention; one talks of nothing else in the circles of the capital.” Everyone who had not seen her wanted to see her, and supposedly from ten to twenty thousand persons poured into the Jardin daily hoping to get a glimpse at the long-necked giraffe. Moreover, because of all the excitement around Belle Africaine it did not take long for a craze to develop known as à la giraffe:
“[F]resh portraits [of her], by eminent artists, and bulletins of everything she did remarkable, were published weekly. All the bonnets and shoes and gloves and gowns — every species of apparel was made à la giraffe; quadrilles were danced ‘à la giraffe.'”
In addition, Belle Africaine intrigued the Parisian populace to such an extent it was reported:
“[Her picture was] exhibited in every print-shop window … printed on every stage-coach. … Its long neck and sloping body … seen all over the papered walls, on the ladies’ sashes, on the gentlemen’s pocket-handkerchiefs, nay, the prettiest retailer of gingerbread had given his cakes the same all-fashionable form.”
Belle Africaine’s popularity continued for several years. But as with all crazes, it finally came to an end and everywhere things were changing. By 1830, the French tailor Barthélemy Thimonnier created the first practical sewing machine that stitched 200 stitches a minute. That same year France invaded Algiers, which fell on 4 July, but before the new status of Algiers could be settled, Charles X abdicated after the July Monarchy issued in a liberal constitutional monarchy under Louis Philippe I.
Amidst of all the changes, Belle Africaine seemed somewhat ordinary and commonplace. Yet, she remained at the Jardin des Plantes and did so for 18 more years until she died. After her death, officials ordered her stuffed. She was then displayed in the Jardin’s foyer for many years before she was moved to the Museum of Natural History of La Rochelle, where she remains today.
-  “Paris, July 3,” in London Evening Standard, 9 July 1827, p. 2.
-  The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1832, p. 308-309.
-  “The Giraffe,” in Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 25 August 1827, p. 2.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Majer, Michele, “La Mode à la girafe: Fashion, Culture, and Politics in Bourbon Restoration France’,” Studies in Decorative Arts 17:1 (Fall-Winter 2009-10), p. 131.
-  The American in Paris, Volume 1, 1847, p. 133.
-  Owen, Robert Dale, Twenty-seven Years of Autobiography, 1874, p. 274.
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