Belle Africaine: The First Giraffe In France

Belle Africaine
“Study of the Giraffe Given to Charles X by the Viceroy of Egypt
1827,” by Nicolas Hüet, Courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum

The first giraffe in France arrived at the port of Marseilles (Marseille in French) on 23 October 1826. The strange animal with spots, long legs, bulging eyes, eighteen-inch tongue, and horn-like structures on its head, 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 the 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.” Because of her undeniable beauty, the giraffe quickly acquired the nickname of “Belle Africaine” or “le bel animal du roi” (The Beautiful Animal of the King). Today, however, she is called Zafara.

Belle Africaine was small and young when 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. Her sea journey lasted thirty-two days, and to transport her on the ship, Belle Africaine traveled standing up in the hold. Her long neck and head protruded through a hole in the deck, shaded by a tent. (A male giraffe arrived at the same time in Marseilles. However, the male giraffe headed to London as a gift for George IV and went to “Windsor … [where it was] kept … in the Great Park.”)

The Camelopard, or a New Hobby, Courtesy of British Museum
The Camelopard, or a New Hobby, Courtesy of British Museum

From the moment Belle Africaine stepped off the ship, the public was enthralled. 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. Newspapers teemed with articles daily about the giraffe. However, it never satisfied the public’s hunger. One newspaper announced, “the Giraffe … will create much interest among the lovers of natural history, on … [her] arrival in Paris.” In fact, she did more than create interest in Paris.

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 her body-cloth embroidered with the arms of France. After wintering in Marseilles (“in order to inure [her] to the climate”), more honors followed. On her 550-mile, 41-day trek to Paris, she traveled by cavalcade. One newspaper 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 Les Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

Unfortunately, there was at least one incident that scared Belle Africaine as she journeyed to Paris. In Lyons, so many horsemen accompanied her on her way into town, she became alarmed. In turn the horses became alarmed. The result was a scene of confusion, and it took some time before the cavalcade could be back on its way. The cavalcade’s next stop was Fontainebleau. In Fontainebleau, a military escort from Paris met the cavalcade, and her arrival in Paris occurred on 30 June 1827. 

Belle Africaine
La Girafe, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

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 Le Jardin des Plantes. Her entrance into the garden was a “triumphal procession” with hundreds of carriages and people greeting her. A pamphlet was also printed that contained a congratulatory speech from the animals in the garden. One newspaper offered the following humorous tidbits related to the animal greeting’s given 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.”

Giraffe-colored Dress and à la Giraffe Hair (left), Beaded Giraffe Purse (top right), and Teapot with Giraffe (bottom right)
Giraffe-colored Dress and à la Giraffe Hair (left), Beaded Giraffe Purse (top right), and Teapot with Giraffe (bottom right)

The exotic giraffe settled into the Le Jardin des Plantes after meeting France’s king and all of nature’s royalty. Public curiosity was high and La Pandore wrote on 12 July, “The giraffe occupies all the public’s attention; one talks of nothing else in the circles of the capital.” Everyone wanted to see her, and supposedly from ten to twenty thousand persons poured into the garden daily for a glimpse at the giraffe.

Everything also became à la giraffe. For example, “fresh portraits, 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.'” The giraffe so intrigued the Parisian populace 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.”

Le bel animal du roi, known today as Zarafa, Courtesy of Museum of Natural History of La Rochelle, France.
Belle Africaine, Known Today as Zarafa, Courtesy of Museum of Natural History of La Rochelle, France.

Belle Africaine’s popularity continued for several years. But as with all crazes, it came to an end. 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. 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, whose father was the guillotined Philippe Égalité.

Everywhere things were changing. In the midst of all the changes, Belle Africaine seemed somewhat ordinary and commonplace. Yet, she still remained at Le Jardin des Plantes and did so for 18 years until she died. After her death, officials ordered her stuffed. The stuffed Belle Africaine was then displayed in the foyer of the Jardin for many years.  However, she was finally moved to the Museum of Natural History of La Rochelle, where she remains today.

References:

  • Archive Historiques et Statistiques de Départment du Rhône, 1827
  • 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)
  • “Marseilles, Nov. 13,” in Windsor and Eton Express, 2 December 1826
  • Owen, Robert Dale, Twenty-seven Years of Autobiography, 1874
  • “Paris, July 3,” in London Evening Standard, 9, July, 1827
  • The American in Paris, Volume 1, 1847
  • “The Giraffe,” in Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 25 August 1827
  • The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1832
  • The Saturday Magazine, Volume 9, 1837

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