Hans and Marguerite: The Elephants of France

Hans and Marguerite were two young elephants were captured in 1785 in Sri Lanka that eventually ended up in the Netherlands with William V, Prince of Orange. During the French Revolution, they were confiscated by France and the decision was made that they would be sent to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. After two failed attempts — one in June of 1795 and the other in November 1795 — the elephants finally left Sri Lanka on 25 September 1797, the same year that the Countess Eliza de Feuillide married Jane Austen‘s brother Henry.  At that time, the male elephant was named Hans and the female was called Parkie (or sometimes Peggy), but she was renamed Marguerite upon her arrival in France.

Hans and Marguerite

The two elephants listed as Parkie and Hans, Public domain.

When Hans and Marguerite left Sri Lanka that were about the size of horses and so to convey them to Paris, crates were constructed. Of course, both elephants were unhappy about the trip and unhappy about being confined in crates. They thus “made incredible efforts to break down the partition [between them]; but having found that their endeavors were vain, they became resigned and remained tranquil during the rest of the journey.”[1] In addition, because their crates were restrictive they did not allow the elephants “any progressive motion.” This resulted in the elephants contracting a habit:

“[They balanced] themselves, but each in a different manner. The male, for example, advancing one of the front feet, and drawing back one of the hind ones, on the opposite size, gave to his body a slow oscillation backwards and forwards; the female was content with lifting her head up and down briskly.”[2]

Hans, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hans, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hans and Marguerite arrived in Paris on 23 March 1798. A special hall had been prepared for them and their enclosures were described in the following manner:

“[It was] well-aired and lighted. A stove warmed it in winter, and it was divided into two apartments, which had a communication by means of a large door, which opened and shut perpendicularly. The enclosure consisted of rails made of strong and thick beams, and a second enclosure, breast-high, surrounded it, in order to keep spectators from too near an approach.”[3]

They moved into these enclosures the morning after their arrival. Hans was immediately suspicious and examined every corner, every nook, and every steel bar. Deciding it was safe, he settled down and began to eat his breakfast. Shortly thereafter, Marguerite, was removed from her crate. She was thrilled to be at liberty and greeted her freedom with a squeal of happiness.

Hans and Marguerite had not seen each other since their departure from the Hague, and there was no expectation by them that they would see each other again. Thus, when she entered the same enclosure, she and Hans an unexpected reunion:

“[Marguerite] did not immediately observe Hans who was feeding in the inner lodge; neither was he directly aware that she was near him; but the keeper having called him, he turned round, and on the instant the two elephants rushed into each other’s embraces, and sent forth cries of joy, so animated and so loud, that they shook the whole hall. The breathed also through their trunks with such violence, that the blast resembled an impetuous gust of wind.”[4]

Marguerite by Nicholas Huet the Younger in 1810, Pubic Domain

Marguerite by Nicholas Huet the Younger in 1810. Public domain.

Of the two, Marguerite seemed the happiest while Hans was the most emotional. Marguerite flapped her ears and drew her trunk ove Hans tenderly as if hugging him. She then put her trunk in his ear and left it there for a time. Then she drew her trunk affectionately over his whole body and “put it tenderly into her own mouth. Hans did exactly the same … but his pleasure was more concentrated … expressed by his tears, which fell from his eyes in abundance.”[4]

Soon after Hans and Marguerite arrived, an experiment was conducted related to the influence of music on animals. On 29 May 1798, eleven musicians from the Conservatory of Music provided a concert for the two elephants as they dined. Among the pieces played was a piece in B minor from Gluck’s Iphigenia and an adagio from the opera Dardanus. The orchestra was arranged around a trap door so the elephants could not see them. When “everything was ready, and a profound silence reigned; the trap-door was noiselessly opened, and the concert began.”[5]

The elephants responded with astonishment and anxiety. A report on the reactions of Hans and Marguerite to the music was later published in the Musical Record and Review:

“The strange instruments seemed to give them curiosity and inquietude. But the first movement of this inquietude soon subsided, and then, without any mixture of fear, they gave themselves wholly up to the emotions excited by the music. … In their gait — sometimes precipitate, sometimes retarded in their movements, someone would have said that they followed the undulations of the melody and the measure. Sometimes they bit the bars of their cage and pulled them with their trunks, as if they had not room for their pleasure, and wished to extend its limits. Piercing cries and whistlings escaped them at intervals. “[6]

At one point a bassoon performed in C minor. During this musical moment, it was reported:

“They moved a few steps, stopped to list, came and placed themselves under the orchestra, swaying their trunks gently, and seemed to breath emanations of love. It is to be remarked that during the whole of this air they did not utter a single cry; their movements were slow, measured, and seemed to participate in the softness of the song.”[7]

Those observing found it compelling that the elephants were enjoying the music. One witness to the scene wrote that the elephants also swayed to the music. He also stated:

“[T]hese effects, however wonderful they may appear, ought not to astonish us, if we but reflect that passions of animals, like those of human beings, have naturally an absolute rhythmical character totally independent of all education and custom.”[8]

Hans and Marguerite

Hans and Marguerite. “Histoire naturelle des deux éléphants, mâle et femelle, du Muséum de Paris, venus de Hollande en France en l’an VI.” Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The remainder of their lives Hans and Marguerite were never separated. While they may have been happy about the constant companionship of one another, Marguerite became unhappy over a certain strict guard. Apparently, visitors wanted to feed the elephants, but they were admonished by one particularly guard not to do so. In fact, the guard watched visitors incessantly to make sure they did not disobey his orders. One day an opportunity presented itself whereby Marguerite might obtain a small bit of bread. Unfortunately, the strict guard was on duty:

“[Marguerite] took her station beside him, watched all his gestures, and, the first time he attempted to publish his usual notice she squirted a quantity of water from her trunk full in his face. The company laughed. The sentinel quietly wiped his face, and retiring a little ways, still continued to enforce the regulation. In a short time he was obliged to renew his notice to the company to give no bread, and of course his prohibition to the elephants to receive any. The female this time laid hold of [his] musket, whirled it round with her trunk and trod upon it, nor did she give it back till she had twisted it like a screw!”[9]

Once a naturalist came to the elephant’s enclosure to draw them. He then went into one of their compartments and what happened next proved unexpected and dangerous:

“Hardly had the artist began his labours, when the male, without being perceived, took out the peg with his trunk, which kept the door fast, and opened it. He was preparing to inflict vengeance on his victim, if the female, who luckily heard the noise, had not turned round, and placed herself suddenly across the door to prevent the male from coming out: she drove him to the other side, and with a bow of the nose, in a contrary direction to that given by the male, she closed the door again: all which afforded time and opportunity for the artist to escape.”[10]

Hans and Marguerite passed many years in Paris and when they died many people mourned them. Hans was the first to die at the age of 20, on 17 February 1802, of pneumonia. A taxidermy of him was undertaken and completed in 1803. After Hans’s death, Marguerite was moved to the rotunda in the zoo of the Jardin des Plantes and it was there that she died at the age of 34 on 15 March 1816. Similar to Hans she was dissected with great care by the well-known French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier, who discovered an abscess in her lungs, which he attributed to her death.

Georges Cuvier, Author's Collection

Georges Cuvier. Author’s collection.

A few lines about Marguerite appeared in an anonymous Paris paper that were reprinted in the Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal that stated:

Marguerite, the elephant of the Garden of Plants, at Paris has been dissected. … It is regretted by the baker, the green-grocer, and the hay-merchant, who supplied its food. We do not know whether it drank wine. An elephant in the reign of Louis XIV drank twenty bottles a day.”[11]


  • [1] Perry, John, The New London Gleaner, 1809, p. 253.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 254.
  • [3] Belle Assemblée, Volume 3, 1807, p. 80.
  • [4] Ibid, p. 81.
  • [5] Chomet, Hector, The Influence of Music on Health and Life, 1875, p. 182.
  • [6] Musical Record and Review, 1879, p. 163.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Chomet, Hector, p. 186.
  • [9] “Elephants,” Chester Courant, 3 September 1799, p. 4.
  • [10] Perry, John, p. 256.
  • [11] -, Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal, 28 March 1817, p. 3.

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