It was January 1515. Part of India was under the control of the European country Portugal. The Portuguese and Indians were negotiating building a fort, but couldn’t agree. To show they were still on good terms, they swapped gifts. One of the gifts given by the Indian ruler was a rhinoceros, accompanied by an experienced rhino-keeper. The Portuguese ambassador had no use for a rhino and nowhere to keep, so he decided to send it to the king of Portugal, Manuel I. And so the rhino and its keeper set sail.
After 120 days at sea, with a few stops on the way, the ship arrived in Portugal. It must have been a terrible voyage for the rhino, cooped up on a small ship, tossed by rough seas. It can’t have been nice for the sailors: the rhino would have made a fuss, produced smelly dung and have taken up valuable space.
On it’s arrival in Portugal, the rhino became an instant celebrity. No rhinos had been seen in Europe for hundreds of years, and the animal had become almost mythical, often confused with the unicorn. People travelled from all around Europe to see it.
Manuel I had read a book by the Roman author Pliny that said elephants and rhinos are mortal enemies. Keen to test theory, he brought an elephant from his menagerie (personal zoo) and the rhino into an arena to fight. The battle was to be a grand spectacle; many people came to watch. But the battle never happened. The rhino plodded steadily towards the elephant. But the elephant, unsettled by the crowds and noise, ran away.
Perhaps finding the rhino rather more trouble than it was worth, Manuel I decided to send it as a gift to the Pope. He had previously sent an elephant, which the Pope was very pleased with. So he had the rhino spruced up, dressed in a new collar of green velvet decorated with gold carnations and roses, and it boarded a ship bound for Rome. It is a relatively short distance from Portugal to Rome, and the rhino had already survived the long trip from India, going all around the southern coast of Africa and north through the Atlantic. The rhino was shackled, with its legs chained together, so that it could not rampage dangerously around the ship causing damage, and in December 1515 the ship set sail.
The ship stopped briefly at an island off the coast of France because the King of France wanted to see the rhino, then set off again. But it was the middle of winter, and a sudden, terrible storm blew up as the ship passed through the straits of Porto Venere off the Italian coast. The ship was wrecked and the rhino, chained to the deck, could not swim to shore. Sadly, the poor rhino drowned.
It’s said that the body was recovered and the hide stuffed with straw, which was still sent on to the Pope. If this happened, the stuffed rhino then disappeared without trace as it was not heard of again. Perhaps it is lurking in a forgotten (large) cupboard somewhere in the Vatican, the Pope’s palace.
The German artist Albrecht Dürer made a famous picture of the rhino (top of this post), but he never saw the creature. He worked from a description and sketch in a letter.
You can learn more about the rhino here.