A Jesuit elephant in 17th-century Manila | Inquirer Opinion
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A Jesuit elephant in 17th-century Manila

Mali is a 40-year-old elephant from Sri Lanka who made international news when Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) launched a campaign to transfer her from her sorry quarters at the Manila Zoo to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. I remember seeing Mali during a school field trip many years ago, and now wonder if she deserves some rest especially in this unusually hot summer. She is probably the only live elephant a Filipino child will ever see in the country today, and it is hard to imagine a time when elephants roamed in the Philippines.

Based on remains excavated by archeologists in various sites in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao, we now know that we once had stegodon, elephants, and rhinos in the Philippines. In the Fort Bonifacio area they found remains of Rhinoceros philippinensis as well as Stegodon luzonensis; in a mining tunnel in Balamban, Cebu, were found remains of a dwarf buffalo Bubalus cebuensis; and the remains of a dwarf elephant were found in Cabarruyan Island in Luzon that were named in honor of the pioneering anthropologist H. Otley Beyer as Elephas beyeri.


It seems that elephants roamed the Philippines not just in prehistoric times but as late as the 17th century, as described by the Jesuit Ignacio Francisco Alcina in his multivolume “Historia de las islas e indios de Bisayas” (1668) as a “torre de carne” (tower of flesh) that some Christian saints referred to as “Goliath” because of the size. (The iconic Japanese monster Godzilla may not look like it, but its name when read in Japanese sounds like “gorilla.”)  Alcina noted that the Visayan word for elephant was “gadya,” and that the ivory (“garing” in Tagalog, hence one of the attributes of the Virgin Mary, “Tower of Ivory,” is “Torre ng Garing”) was used for bracelets, ear pendants, daggers and sword hilts, and even jewelry boxes.

According to Alcina, elephants were not to be found in the Visayas but in Jolo. These were smaller than elephants from Cambodia and India, and were prized for their: ivory tusks that were made into religious images of the Santo Niño, the Virgin Mary, and other saints; bones, similar to ivory, that were fashioned into jewelry; hide that was made into breastplates, helmets, and armor that protected the wearer from sword and lance but not from an arquebus or musket; and, last but not least, meat that was eaten, too!


Alcina wrote: “The natives of that island (Jolo) eat the flesh. One of our fathers who stayed there told me that he had eaten the meat and that it was tougher than beef and did not taste as good.”

Elephants were said to be intelligent, hardworking, and fierce when provoked. They were modest, too. When told that elephants were never seen mating, that they concealed themselves when they mated, Alcina remarked: “A lesson in modesty for men who sometimes and even frequently lack the modesty which these brute animals observe so well.”

What I found fascinating, though, was the fact that Alcina saw elephants in Manila where they were received as gifts from Cambodia and neighboring countries. Alonso Fajardo, governor-general from 1618 to 1624, gave the Jesuits a tamed elephant that served them many years hauling logs, beams and posts during the construction of the Jesuit residence in the city.

Alcina talked fondly about their pet elephant and of its sad end:

“I have heard unusual and very strange stories related about it… I shall tell only one, which seems to have a connection with the friends of Bacchus (Greek god of grape growing and wine) of whom there are many here. It seems that if they were not watchful, he went to the wine cellar or store room, either at the Colegio or that of the Procurator General, sniffed out the casks which contained wine, very easily uncovered them with his trunk and siphoned out one entire cask at one time; thus showing his joy with a thousand gambols. If, perchance, he took in too much he would be intoxicated and cause some violence. However he was able to get out into the countryside until it passed; afterwards he returned to the house very docile.

“When he felt hungry, they say, he used to go among the houses of the natives; they knew what he wanted and gave him either rice or various fruits to eat. In this manner he went to many dwellings, as though asking alms, until he was satisfied. He approached the doors of the houses of those who would not give him anything and struck the posts and tore them off and flattened the houses, thus they were careful to give him something immediately so that he would not harm them. This happened when days passed without his returning to our house where what was needed was given him.

“He lived for years until a Brother of ours, angered by some mischief or other, whether stealing food or drink, who was in a house in the field where the elephant was taken to haul logs, which were newly cut, fastened the beast with strong ropes to a large tree and left him there to die of hunger. Since this animal had cost him little, he was little concerned about it perishing.”


Quite a sad end for the pet elephant in the 17th-century Jesuit house in Manila whose name is lost to history. I hope that inhumane Jesuit brother was castigated in life and in the hereafter for his cruelty.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: elephant sanctuary, Ivory, Jesuit house, Manila Zoo, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, peta, Philippine history, Rhinos, Sri Lanka, Stegodon
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