Michael Allin


“Tuesday, October 31, 1826, marks the day a giraffe first set foot in France. Fishermen were hired and their boat engaged, and, one by one, Zarafa and the two antelope and the three milk cows and General Boyer's two horses were transferred from I Due Fratelli to the lazaretto outside Marseille. The invoice for the operation includes rental of the boat for two days, along with costs of a needle, thread, measuring tape, and “forty-eight lengths of of checked cloth, to make three blankets, one for the Giraffe and two for the Antelopes.”

Zarafa, by Michel Allin, is the fascinating story of a giraffe, given as a royal gift by Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt to King Charles X of France. As noted above, Zarafa was the first giraffe ever seen in France; after sailing from Alexandria to Marseille, she walked to Paris, escorted by several Arab keepers and assorted other people and animals. She arrived at the Jardin des Plantes in 1827, and at once charmed the entire French capital.

“The early bonding with humans – in, of all places, the slaving hellholes of Sennar and Khartoum – tamed the calves (a second giraffe was destined for London) into virtual pets and explains Zarafa's famous affection for the gawking crowds she encountered all her life. Even in Sennar and Khartoum, she was a rarity. In France, unsophisticated provincials and blasé Parisians alike gathered to be frightened or awed or au courant or merely curious to see this novel creature from an alien world. But whatever their expectations, by all accounts everyone who ever saw her was enchanted by her, undeniably because she showed such surprising trust in them.”

Allin details earlier in his book something of Zarafa's journey from her African homeland to Europe, and offers the reader a bit of information about giraffes in general:

“From the day of her capture through the two and a half years of her journey via camel, Nile felucca, seagoing brigantine, and her own four legs to Paris, Zarafa's survival was aided by her size: she remained petite. She was a Masai, the most subtly marked and smallest of the three subspecies of giraffe; Rothschild's are mid-size; Reticulated, with their more sharply defined markings, are by far the largest. Giraffes at birth stand from four to six feet tall, and grow slowly, more or less tripling their height as adults. Reticulated can attain eighteen or twenty feet and weigh 3,000 pounds. Zarafa's full height at maturity, though, was just over twelve feet – small even for a Masai – beguilingly miniature and manageable.”

Allin goes on to explain that, “At the time of Zarafa's arrival, Europe had not seen a living giraffe in nearly 350 years. The National Museum of Natural History in Paris had earlier received the hide of a giraffe, packed in salt and so deteriorated that the scientists could not figure out how to assemble the specimen. In an age of curiosity, when everything was new and briefly amazing – when, thanks to naive science and post-Napoleonic peace, sophisticated Europe engrossed itself with wonder after wonder in what seems now like a collective second childhood – Zarafa was a major excitement.”  Be sure to read all about it!

Copyright © 2003, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.