bon bon dish
Around Christmas every year in the British colony of Nyasaland, my mother would bring out four strange little dishes filled with raisins, nuts and chocolates. She called them ‘bon bon dishes’. Oval-shaped, they look to be made from tortoiseshell aged to the tawny colour of wild African honey. Scratched into the side of each in dark lettering are the letters ‘LJT from TR’.
These dishes were actually made from the toenails of an elephant cow shot by former US President, Theodore Roosevelt, whilst on his massive year-long safari in East Africa in November 1910. He gave them as mementos to my Australian uncle, Leslie Jefferis Tarlton, to thank him for guiding and outfitting the safari. Uncle Les, born in Adelaide, and an Australian friend had fought in the Boer War and then formed a rough safari company in the frontier town of Nairobi in 1902.
When I eventually inherited these objects, I was curious to find out how they came into being. I discovered that Roosevelt had been asked by a friend to shoot a single elephant cow for a display in the American Museum of Natural History. At the time Roosevelt had bullied the Smithsonian Museum into appointing him to lead a much larger East African hunting expedition because it gave enabled him to kill vastly more big game than the English Government usually allowed. Roosevelt loved killing animals and displaying trophies as emblems of his manhood. Despite being a professed conservationist, he showed no empathy whatever for any animals he shot.
On this occasion, in November 1910, he’d indiscriminately killed four elephants, including a calf and its mother who charged to protect it. In reality, only one would actually be used in the museum because they were discarded as being too small. The mother elephant, shown above, was cut up for souvenirs for the former President, including the four toenails. You can see on her sides bite marks from the hyenas who were feasting on her carcass over night. Much to Roosevelt’s immense amusement, one poor hyena got its head stuck while trying to crawl out of the carcass. Roosevelt took photos of it struggling and then shot it.
At the age of 12 or so, I had thought this big white hunter stuff to be excitingly romantic. Uncle Les’s toenail dishes evoked for me the image of the ice-cool elephant hunter Alan Quartermaine, of King Solomon’s Mines.
By the time I was 16, my family tended to treat these dishes as a grisly joke, seeing them as absurd emblems of British African colonialism, a bit like solar sun helmets and puce-faced army colonels pickling themselves on pink gin.
After I learned of their origin, the dishes came to symbolise my dislike of trophy hunting and of the commercial ‘white hunter’ safaris that made it possible. I realised, too, that Roosevelt and Uncle Les had pioneered this phenomenon. Roosevelt’s safari was as widely publicised in his time as Trump’s activities are today. Teddy, his son and two museum colleagues killed around 1,500 animals, most of which were never used by the Smithsonian museum.
Rich people flocked from all over the world to imitate Roosevelt. By 1912 my uncle’s company, Newland and Tarlton, was operating 300 separate safaris a year, each with an average of 60 porters. It was by far the largest safari company in the world. In the wake of the Great Depression, moreover, Les started Safariland, an even more successful safari company which survives today. It offered luxury champagne safaris to royals like Edward VIII, American tycoons like the Vanderbilts, Hollywood film stars like Clark Gable and famous writers like Ernest Hemingway. Soon these safaris also became fully mechanised, with motorised trucks, high-powered rifles with telescopic lens, and aeroplanes to find the animals.
Today these same technologies are used by highly organised poacher syndicates to feed the insatiable Asian demand for elephant ivory and rhino horn. Only an estimated 415,000 African elephants are left, and an average of 20,000 are killed each year. The IUCN red list describes them as a vulnerable threatened species.
When TR began his safari by steaming from the coast to Nairobi on this American-built steam train, he told these friends on the cow-catcher bench that he was journeying back into a primeval past of the Pleistocene epoch when animals ruled the world. He regretted that the laws of progress must drive them into extinction, but urged colonials like my uncle to follow America’s example of turning East Africa into a civilised ‘white man’s country’, which had domesticated its ‘savage’ native peoples. Roosevelt’s famous African safari thus proved to be a harbinger and agent of the destructive forces of the Anthropocene, which we can see here foreshadowed in the toenails of a small elephant cow.