Thursday, June 30, 2011

July 21, 1877 --- Pongo

Several of London's leading men of science are invited to the Royal Aquarium in Westminster for a private viewing of the first live gorilla presented in Europe.

Pongo, the English-friendly version of M'Pungo, had been purchased by a German scientist from a tribe in Gaboon for two gallons of rum, Pongo had been the sensation of Berlin when he was first exhibited there earlier in the year. The British Medical Journal correspondent reported back on the remarkable beast, calling him "almost more than anthropomorphic." First reports on Pongo's human-like features and child-like docility led to much excitement among naturalists hoping to have found "the missing link" to prove Darwin's theories.

Once in London, poor Pongo fails to live up to his press notices. The scientists leave disappointed. Given a pencil to write with, Pongo makes a few desultory scratches on the provided paper but seems to prefer chewing on the instrument, "swallowing about an inch of the finest Cumberland lead." An experiment with a gentleman's hat is no more successful; the battered stovepipe has to be wrestled from Pongo's grasp. In The Spectator, one of Pongo's critics described him as "an interesting, if not precisely fascinating animal, and the strongest proof of his quaint suggestion of kinship ... is that one is never free from a queer sense of bad manners in asking questions about him before his grave, blank face."

Though the experts were less than thrilled with Pongo, the public turned out in such numbers the phenomenon was dubbed Pongo-mania. Ads read, "Mr. Pongo, the only Gorilla, will receive at the Royal Aquarium from 12 to 1, 4-6, and 8-9. The price of admission: two shillings." Accompanied by a Dr. Hermes from Germany, who spoke only the most laborious English, Pongo performed in the company of a chimpanzee and a dog. A highlight of the program came when he would either drink a small glass of beer or smoke a cigar, "African-style, puffing the smoke out through his nose." The Times noted sardonically: "As he has so early learnt both to smoke and drink, it is hoped that he may soon acquire the other accomplishments which distinguish civilization."

How sad it is to report that Mr. Pongo passed away suddenly upon his return to Berlin.

1 comment:

  1. Tom, I think your blog is just super, and have put a link to it upon my own blog at

    May I ask, are you on Twitter?