The Rhino

“In 1514, Afonso de Albuquerque, the founder of the Portuguese Empire in the Orient and Governor of Portuguese India wanted to build a fortress in Diu, a city in the Kingdom of Cambay (now Gujarat) governed by the Sultan Muzafar. He was authorized by Manuel I to send an envoy to the Sultan asking permission to build the said fortress. Muzafar did not grant his wish but, grateful for the gifts he received, he gave Albuquerque a rhinoceros. As it was impossible for him to keep the animal in Goa, Albuquerque decided to send the rhinoceros as a gift Manuel I.

The animal’s arrival in Lisbon caused great commotion and curiosity, not only in Portugal but in
the whole of Europe. Its physical form, in particular, attracted curiosity — the rhinoceros weighed more than two metric tones and had a thick, wrinkled skin that formed three large folds, giving
the strange appearance of armor. It was the first live rhinoceros to be seen in Europe since the 13th century and was given a space in the gardens of the Royal Ribeira palace. Remembering Ancient Roman stories about the deadly rivalry between elephants and rhinoceroses, Manuel decided to see if this was true. he organized a confrontation about between the two animals to which he also invited the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting, as well as other important guests. When the two beasts were placed opposite each other the elephant panicked and ran away the moment the rhinoceros began to approach it.

In 1515 Manuel decided to send a new extraordinary envoy to Rome in order to secure the support of the Pope in the wake of the ever-growing success of the Portuguese ventures in the Orient and with a view to consolidating his kingdom’s international prestige. The rhinoceros, sporting a green velvet collar decorated with golden roses and carnations, was one of the gifts. The ship left Lisbon in December 1515 but sailed into a violent storm off the coast of Genoa the ship left Lisbon in December 1515 but sailed into a violent storm off the coast of Genoa and sunk, killing the whole crew. Although rhinos can swim, because it was tied up, the animal also died. However, its body was recovered, and when he heard of the disaster Manuel ordered the rhino to be stuffed and sent to the Pope, as if nothing had happened. But it did not go down so well with the pope as his previous gift, the elephant. In Portugal, the rhinoceros was immortalized and a representation of it decorates one of the bartizans in the Tower of Belém. It can also be can be found in Alcobaça Monastery, where there is a naturalistic full-body representation of the animal in the form of a gargoyle in the Cloister of silence. The rhinoceros was also drawn by the German master painter and printer Albrecht Dürer, who based himself on a later from a Portuguese merchant that contained a drawing of the rhinoceros.“

The Rhinoceros, www.torrebelem.gov.pt

Research: Graça Martins & Associados