Model of Obaysch, by Joseph Gawen. Figure constructed of Nile mud, on carved wooden base, with gilded plaque on side, c1855.

by Ann Sylph on

This artefact blog is originally from May 2010 and features a model of Obaysch, the famous hippo that arrived at ZSL London Zoo in May 1850.

Where is Obaysch? The model was on loan to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham for their exhibition Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art, 1500 – 1860 which ran from November 2021 until February 2022. We are so pleased he was part of the exhibition along with his photograph in the Frederick York Album and a drawing of him by Joseph Wolf. Of course we were also pleased to welcome him home to ZSL Library and Archives where he can now be seen.

Obaysch the first hippopotamus, a sculpture made from Nile mud, Joseph Gawen, circa 1855
Obaysch sculpture made from Nile mud, Joseph Gawen, circa 1855

 

The label usually next to the model reads:

"In 1849 H.M. Abbas Pasha, Viceroy of Egypt, presented to H.M. Queen Victoria a young hippopotamus named Obaysch - the first hippopotamus to be seen in Great Britain and, so it is believed, the first hippopotamus to be imported alive into Europe since the Imperial Exhibitions in the Arenas of Ancient Rome.

The history of Obaysch's capture is recorded by Samuel Shepheard, the founder of Shepheard's Hotel, Cairo, who wrote on November 14th, 1849:- "In the spring of the year, Inshallah!, your London visitors will be gratified with a sight of one of our river monsters - the Hippopotamus. Our consul here, the Honble Mr Murray, having expressed a wish to have one sent to England, where such a thing had never yet been seen, His Highness ordered off a Captain with a troop of twenty men to proceed up the interior of Africa to follow the course of the white river and not to return without one. After having been five months away they have returned and brought a very fine specimen 5 or 6 months old. He is yet a suckling and drinks 80 pints of milk at a meal and, unwieldy as he is, plays about with the keeper like a great fat pet pig with a square head. The Pasha has presented him to Mr Murray."

The young hippopotamus was transported to London and in 1850 the Hippo House in the London Zoo was built to accommodate Obaysch, which lived there until its death in 1878. This model, commissioned by Samuel Shepheard, was bequeathed to the Zoological Society of London in 1946 by his grandson, the Reverend G.S. Bird, FZS."

While the model of Obaysch is away we have a small display in ZSL Library & Archives 'Where is Obaysch?' as so many of our visitors are missing him.

Black and white historic photograph of Obaysch the first hippopotamus at ZSL London Zoo. In the York Album of photographs
Black and white historic photograph of Obaysch the first hippopotamus at ZSL London Zoo. In the York Album of photographs

Coloured drawing of two views depicting a hippopotamus lying down.
Two views of Obaysch by Joseph Wolf.

 

ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library & Archives is a wonderful and unique information resource about animals and their conservation – we aim to inspire, inform, and empower people to stop wild animals going extinct. Information is vitally important in conservation.

 

ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library & Archives is currently open on Tuedays and Wednesdays by appointment only, please email in advance library@zsl.org   You can explore and discover our collections in a variety of ways –

 

 

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