Ranee was the first elephant in Australia. She arrived in Melbourne from Calcutta Zoo on the 5th March 1883. After docking in Port Melbourne she was held at Sandridge at the Port Melbourne police station until late at night. She was then walked through the streets in darkness. It took many hours to walk the seven kilometers but Ranee remained calm until she saw the zoo itself, at which point she attempted to bolt. Ranee lived at the zoo until her death nineteen years later. Ranee’s dark walk, after a long and lonely sea voyage, provides a way for us to talk about a range of things including the rights (lack of) of domesticated/working animals in early Melbourne and the politics of zoos.
Ranee’s walk begins as a stroll through Melbourne streets, and ends with a sense of quiet observance as we approach the zoo gates. I’m not a local, yet the next day I feel the stirring of a childhood memory. I take down the blue album and search for a page, labelled, in my father’s hand: January, 1961. There are no photos of animals, but I find what I want: an image of me, arms atop a wire fence, my back to the camera, looking out at something. There is a brick animal ‘house’ in the distance, and a small white sign, just visible. Please Do Not Feed.
I am not quite three-years-old. We are at Sydney’s Taronga Park Zoo, me, my mother, another child, his mother. Here is another photo. The two of us – the boy in his white short-sleeved shirt and ‘little man’ bow tie, me in my sleeveless summer dress – wedged between our mothers, in their cat’s eye sunglasses. They’re smiling, smoking, as we wait to ride the elephant.
The memory firms. I recall a crude box-like saddle astride the elephant’s back. There is a wooden platform for sitting on and another where we rest our feet and a leather belt to strap us in tight, and we sit, three or four aside, as the poor beast rises, in slow motion, and bears us around and around its concrete corral.
Went to sleep dreaming of elephants, toes tingling with cold and night walking, thinking of Rainee and her slow walking ears flapping across those two hours or more that she would have spent plodding from sea to zoo, and how I read somewhere that elephants have a unique way of walking as if on high-heeled shoes, their heels protected by thick fatty cartilage, how the heel bones are raised up inside the foot so that it is as if they walk on their toes, how walking on hard constructed material build-environment surfaces must hurt, really hurt, do damage.
I’ve done Elephant Walk (Ranee’s Walk) twice. Once in the day time alone and once, with all of you, at night. Daylight gave me more of a sense of the historical nature of Port Melbourne and the bottom end of the city. All those old shop fronts and buildings look very different when they aren’t all lit up, and walking under street light gives things an artificial air As well, you could walk more comfortably through the parks. When I walked alone I found myself feeling more emotional than I did when I was as part of a group. In these ways I connected with the past, and Ranee more. However walking at night allowed for the uncanniness of the moment when we turned off Royal Parade, towards Royal Park. The moon was bright but there wasn’t much other light. The sky was clear and the air cold. In that half light I got a glimpse of the otherness of the land on which we live, and walked last Wednesday. Ground that must have been even stranger for an intelligent creature from India, just off a boat after a long voyage, walking through the darkness: none of her own kind with her, no possibility of shared language, as she walked towards her servitude. I was so interested in the conversation we had as we walked towards the Zoo entrance. Why did Ranee try and bolt in the final moments of her walk? Was it the smell of other animals? Their calls? It is hard not to anthropomorphise animals, especially ones as intelligent as elephants. I would so love to know what it was she was thinking and feeling over those few hours of something akin to freedom before she was locked up a final time.
‘After Ranee’ – Dead of night, March 1883, Ranee was led from the Port Melbourne police station to Royal Melbourne Zoo. A new trophy for the colony’s most marvellous of cities. A young elephant shipped from Calcutta, destined for servitude and loneliness. Elephant rides for the city’s children. A magnificent, once wild creature, now Eastern curios, live spectacle.
“subjected and worshipped, bred and sacrificed … something that has been rendered absolutely marginal” John Berger, “Why Look At Animals?”
We retrace that walk. Eight reminiscers, eight kilometres. Attention flits between present and past. Bay Street diners, fish and chips, tapas and wine. Introductions, discussion of work and life. Port Melbourne Town Hall, built just a year prior to Ranee’s journey. Bay Street Post Office, now Domino’s Pizza. Crossing the Yarra river. For Ranee, probably by punt. Now, a four-lane bridge, cars and trams. Flagstaff Gardens, a gathering point for those of the Kulin nation, signal station for shipping arrivals, and the new town’s first burial plot. On to Peel Street, past the Victoria Market, its aisles close and empty. To Haymarket, Royal Parade, then into Royal Park.
After Cemetery Road, the path darkens, the air dampens. The zoo is dark, quiet, a little foreboding. We track the high brick fence toward the gates. At the end of that long, lonely walk on a night in 1883 Ranee panicked and bolted.
I imagine the response was measured. She would have been quickly recaptured. There was nowhere to escape.
It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided.” – George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”
Twenty years in servitude, amusement for the citizens of the colony. Melbourne’s lone elephant, half a world from home.