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Obaysch: A Hippopotamus in Victorian London, by John Simons

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Published by SyDNEY UNIVERSITY press

Reviewed by IAN Williams

The nineteenth century was one in which a considerable trade in wild animals occurred around the world - sometimes to zoos, other times to menageries or to private collectors. Such trading helped zoological societies, their boards and zoo directors satisfy their particular interests or desires to have a star attraction for their establishment.

My interest in this book was stimulated by my familiarity with the zoo world, having led the communications and public relations for Perth Zoo for the final seven years of the the twentieth century. Celebrating its centenary in 1998, there were many stories I wrote that year on Perth Zoo’s early days, requiring research into the acquisition and exhibiting practices of Victorian-era zoos.

Obaysch: A Hippopotamus in Victorian London is the story of Obaysch the hippopotamus. He was the first ‘star’ animal to be exhibited at London Zoo.

A baby hippopotamus was captured near the island of Obaysch on the River Nile in Sudan. It arrived on English shores in 1850, allegedly the first in England since the Roman Empire, and almost certainly the first in Europe since prehistoric times. Named after his birthplace, Obaysch was donated by the viceroy of Egypt in exchange for some greyhounds and deerhounds.

Obaysch’s arrival created a wave of ‘Hippomania’: doubling visitor numbers to the zoo.

Detailing the circumstances of Obaysch's capture and ultimately his display at Regent’s Park, John Simons develops the notion of a ‘star’ animal, as well as the cultural and educational value that Obaysch, and the other hippos who joined him over the following few years, provided. This book also delves into the historical context of Obaysch and his audience, considering the relationship between Victorian attitudes to hippopotami and the British Empire’s expansion into sub-Saharan Africa.

This is a fine example of how an academic-style book can work for a wider readership. It is an intelligent, charming, sometimes sad account of Obaysch’s capture, shipment and life. The book is meticulously researched and well illustrated and features abundant references as well as some wonderful footnotes.

About the author

Emeritus Professor John Simons is an historian specialising in the history of animals. He has written or edited twenty books, on topics ranging from Middle English chivalric romance to Andy Warhol to the history of cricket.

He retired from Macquarie University in 2016 where he was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic).