"White Elephant" Update:
In an earlier post, Two-and-a-half Idioms – the History and Etymology of “White Elephants,” I surveyed the history of the idiomatic use of elephants generally, and white elephants, specifically, to convey the idea of an expensive and useless, yet prestigious or desirable burdens. In that post, I suggested that the idiom “gift of a white elephant” (1859) may have been derived from a combination of two earlier idioms, “white elephant” (1851), and “to feel like the man who won an elephant in the raffle” (1848).
The “white elephant,” as useless burden, idiom, appears to be based on general awareness of the historical practice of certain Southeast Asian kings to keep albino elephants in royal splendor. The idiom, “to feel like a man who won an elephant in a raffle,” was based on the notion that an elephant, any kind of elephant, may seem big and valuable, but for which the expense and bother of upkeep exceeds any practical benefit. The later idiom, “to receive the gift of the white elephant,” is nearly identical in form and meaning to the “elephant in a raffle” idiom, but is intensified by the allusion to the even higher costs associated with keeping a “white elephant” in luxury.
Contemporary justifications for the “gift of the white elephant” idiom suggested that the phrase was based on the passive-aggressive gift-giving practices of the King of Siam or the King of Ava:
Pegasus [(who represents art and poetry)] is very much like the white elephant which the King of Ava presents to obnoxious courtiers, - he confers an inestimable honour upon the possessor, but he is a terribly expensive animal to keep, and would soon eat a man of moderate means out of house and home.
Arthur Hall, A Volume of Smoke, in Two Puffs, With Stray Whiffs from the Same Pipe, Virtue, & Co., London, 1859.
When the King of Siam has an enemy among his lords whom he detests, but whom it would not be polite to destroy publicly – one who must be dispatched without long delay, but whose poison must be sweetened, and for whom the edge of the axe must be gilded – he sends him a white elephant.
White Elephants, appearing in All the Year Round (conducted by Charles Dickens), Volume 8, January 31, 1863, page 488.
The historical record, however, does not support the colorful story. Although early accounts of elephants in Southeast Asia prominently mention the lavish lifestyle of “white elephants,” they were so rare, sacred, and valuable, that only kings could own them. Wars are said to have been fought over their possession, and kings took extraordinary measures to find, capture, transport, and keep the white elephants in the lap of luxury. The suggestion that a king might simply give such a valued possession to lower-ranking enemies simply does not ring true. More importantly, perhaps, there no contemporary accounts of such gifts.
In my earlier post, I suggested that the white elephant, gift-giving story may have been a creative recasting of the earlier, “elephant in the raffle” idiom. But although the earlier idiom may have played some role in the development of the later idiom, new evidence suggests yet a third influence; perhaps an even greater influence. The “gift of the white elephant” may be derived from reports of ruinous elephant gifting – but not “white elephants,” and not in Southeast Asia. The reports, themselves, may also be historically suspect, but the existence of those reports, in a number of highly respected reference books, seems to have be the origin of the mythical “gift of the white elephant.”
|The Naturalist's Cabinet (1806)|
The New Evidence:
In 1775, Charles Caraccioli, a shadowy literary figure, Italian refugee, and English schoolmaster,[i] published the first volume of The Life of Robert Lord Clive, Barron Plassey.[ii] Seventy-five years later, a disgusted reader said that the book “has the distinction of being perhaps one of the worst books ever written.”[iii]
Contemporary reviews were not much kinder. Volume I was a, “slovenly jumble,” [iv] and volumes II-IV (1776) were, “ill digested, worse connected, and suitably printed.”[v] Hey, at least they were suitably printed; that’s something.
The entire work is believed to have been cobbled together from a variety of different sources,[vi] but without much rhyme or reason, and with no references, attributions or other information to document the source of any of the information. As a result, it is difficult to judge the reliability or plausibility of the book’s content.
A brief section in Volume 1 deals with Elephants. It notes the changing role of elephants in warfare over the years; although they had once been used in battle, the invention of firearms had reduced their military usefulness. They are, “remarkably terrified at fire, and will at the sight of it, frequently turn back upon their friends, and overthrow every thing that stands in their way.”[vii] They could, however, still be used to ford rivers or to break down the gates of a city or garrison.
The primary purpose of elephants had become more ornamental or ceremonial:
However after all, those prodigious animals are kept more for shew and grandeur than for use, and their keeping is attended with a very great expence, for they devour vast quantities of provision; and you must sometimes regale them with a plentiful repast of cinnamon, of which they are excessively fond. It is no uncommon thing with a Nabob, if he has a mind to ruin a private gentleman, to make him a present of an elephant, which he is afterwards obliged to maintain at a greater expense than he can afford. By parting with it he would certainly fall under the displeasure of the grandee, besides forfeiting all the honour which his countrymen think is conferred by so respectable a present.
Charles Caraccioli, The Life of Robert Lord Clive, Barron Plassey, Volume 1, the Second Edition, London, T. Bell (1786), page 286 (the first edition was published in 1775) (emphasis added).
If the story had remained confined to the middle of one of the worst books ever written, it may never have survived to inspire the “white elephant” idiom. But the story did survive. It survived, nearly verbatim, as a staple comment about elephants in numerous British and American encyclopedias and reference books published in the late-18th and early-, to mid-19th centuries. The story appeared, for example, in:
The Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Third Edition (1797),
The Naturalist’s Cabinet, Volume 1 (1806)[viii],
American Encyclopaedia: or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Volume 3 (1807);
Rees’ Cyclopaedia; or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, Volume 13 (undated, but sometime after 1809);
The London Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary, Volume 8 (1826);
The Manners and Customs of All Nations (1827);
Chambers’ Repository of Instructive and Amusing Facts, Volume 10 (1852).
The story received the imprimatur of veracity, based on its inclusion in several, highly-respected reference works; but was it true? The answer may depend on whether earlier evidence of the original source material can be identified. If the origin of the story is merely the “slovenly jumble” that is The Life of Clive, or the imagination of Charles Caraccioli[ix], it would be difficult to put any stock in the story. However, if the story were based on an earlier document or publication that came from a reliable source, it might yet be proven to have been true. If you find the document, let me know.
True, or not, the story of the passive-aggressive elephant gift-giving habits of Indian Nabobs had a long, storied history, well before it was modified, in the 1850s, to have the King of Siam doing the same thing with “white elephants.” Given the widespread availability of the story in apparently well-respected reference books, the authors of the “gift of the white elephant” stories may well have been familiar it. The origin of the “gift of the white elephant” idiom seems to be a conflation of the Nabob-gift-giving story with the unrelated stories of the lavish lifestyles of sacred “white elephants” in Southeast Asia.
The earlier idiom, about the “man who won an elephant in the raffle,” may itself have been based, to some extent, on the earlier, gift-of-the-Nabob stories. The raffle idiom, which was the earliest, popular, idiomatic phrase about the expense of keeping elephants, may, in turn, have helped influence the development of the later idioms.
With all due thanks, perhaps, to Charles Caraccioli (whoever he was) and The Life of Clive, the “worst book ever written.”
[i] The Correspondence of William Cowpers, with annotations by Thomas Wright, Volume 1, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904, page 386, fn; “Charles Caraccioli, to whom Cowper refers, was not a Frenchman, but probably an Italian refugee. His life is enshrouded in mystery, but he was an enthusiast for topography, and while a master at the Grammar School at Arundel in 1776 he published a book called Antiquities of Arundel. Earlier – in 1758 – he had written Chiron, or the Mental Optician. His best-known book, the Life of Lord Clive, was published in 1775-7.”
[ii] The subject of the book, Robert Lord Clive (1725-1774) was an important figure in the history of British involvement in the Indian Sub-continent. Major-General Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive, KB MP FRS, is credited with establishing the military and political supremacy of the East India Company in Bengal.
[iii] Notes and Queries, Ser. 1, Volume 1, Number 7, December 15, 1849, page 108 (letter dated, Covent Garden, Dec. 4, 1849).
[iv] The Monthly Review, volume 53, July 1775, page 80-81.
[v] The Monthly Review, volume 55, December 1776, page 480.
[vii] Charles Caraccioli, The Life of Robert Lord Clive, Barron Plassey, volume 1, the Second Edition, London, T. Bell (1786), page 285 (the first edition was published in 1775).
[viii] The Naturalist’s Cabinet also features an early image and description of a “boxing” kangaroo.
[ix] If Carraccioli was an Italian refugee, as some believed (see endnote i), perhaps he was familiar with the expensive eating habits of the elephant given by the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud I to the King of Naples in 1841. An article in The London Magazine, or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer (Volume 30 (January, 1761), page 18) described the great expense incurred in just feeding the elephant: “It eat up every day 220 pounds of the dry straw of millet, 23 pounds of new bread, and 28 ounces of sugar mixed with as many ounces of butter, which was in closed in two loaves, of two pounds each, and which they put whole into its mouth: But during the first 21 days of April, instead of the dry straw, they gave it daily 800 or 1000 pounds of green barley.”