The Rijksmuseum Amsterdam presents Clara the Rhinoceros, an exhibition about an animal who travelled far from her native land of India and became the most famous rhinoceros in the world, a true pre-intstagram Jurassic Park hype in the 18th century. The objects on display show the celebrity status of Clara and how “Claramania” spread over Europe.
Clara is just one month old when she is captured by hunters in her native Assam, in present-day India, in 1738. Her mother was killed in the process. A powerful prince presents Clara to director Sichterman of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) trading post in Bengal. The aim of exchanging gifts is to maintain sound mutual relations and promote trade. Bengal is vital to the Dutch: this is where they buy cotton fabrics, saltpetre, opium and enslaved people.
Clara is cherished in the household of director Sichterman and looked after by an Indian caretaker. She is considered so special that Clara is sometimes allowed to mingle with the dinner guests. After about two years, she has grown so much that she is passed on to a new owner, VOC captain Douwe Mout, who takes her with him when he sets sail at the end of 1740. He is the first person to successfully bring a rhino to the Netherlands safe and sound.
Clara tours Europe for seventeen years, from her arrival in 1741 until her death in 1758. Her owner, former VOC captain Douwe Mout from Amsterdam, has a wooden carriage made in which Clara is transported from town to town, over mountains and rivers, in winter and summer. Mout exhibits her wherever there is an audience, at fairs and markets at inns and palaces, and against a fee of course.
Clara is a hype during her lifetime. Precisely her unknown, extraordinary and exotic aspects are emphasised. She features in clocks and sculpture and even influenced Parisian fashion “mode au rhinocéros“. Clara is no longer an individual but has become an archetype. She remains the Rhino model for many years after her death in 1758.
People touched, teased, admired and studied Clara. She prompted this sensational level of interest because no one in Europe had ever been able to see a real live rhinoceros. She was a hyped up, must-see cultural and scientific phenomenon.
Clara became famous because she lived virtually her entire life in captivity in countries where she did not belong, far away from her own habitat. She served as entertainment, as decoration as well as a source of knowledge. But what might Clara have thought of her experiences?
Clara never fails to be a sensation. Douwe Mout is nothing if not enterprising. Anyone can see here – for a fee! He has prints made for advertising purposes, which can also be bought as a souvenir. He calls her a wonder beast, tells how heavy and large she is and also how much she eats and drinks per day: 60 pounds of hay, 20 pounds off bread, and 14 buckets of water. Clara becomes a celebrity. A veritable must-see!
Clara may not have been the first rhinoceros to come to Europe, but she did become the most famous one. After her long voyage from India, she travelled around Europe in her custom-made cart, accompanied by her entourage. She travelled for 17 years, far and wide: to Vienna and Paris, to Naples and Copenhagen, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, everywhere. Eventually, Clara died in London in 1758.
Clara was almost never free to walk or run. She depended on humans for her survival, and was rarely able to display natural behaviours – except for example the occasions when she needed to cross a river by swimming, and clearly enjoyed the water. In 1750 the Neurenberg biographer Christoph Gottlieb Richter published a conversation between a rhinoceros and a grasshopper, in which the rhinoceros bemoans the way people treat her and stare at her. This book presents a role-reversal, with the rhinoceros appraising and studying people rather than the other way around.
"Were it possible in the future to liberate myself from the slavery that presently imprisons me and return to my homeland, in revenge I would exhibit men to my brothers. I am sure that the genus of rhinoceroses will look upon the wonder beast that man seems to be with more favour than human beings view a rhinoceros."
- said the rhinoceros, according to Christoph Gottlieb Richter.
Clara the Rhinoceros runs to 15 January 2023 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The texts above have been adapted from the Rijksmuseum press release and the exhibition sheets.