"The long sea journey from Calcutta to the Netherlands was finally over. On 22 July 1741, the Dutch sea captain Douwemout Van der Meer brought his ship the Knabenhoe into Rotterdam harbour and with it a most precious cargo, a young female Indian rhinoceros." This is the beginning of Clara's grand adventure which will take her to the courts of world leaders and put her under the gaze of people of all ages and backgrounds.
Orphaned at a few months of age, Clara was raised in the household of a director of the Dutch East India Company before Van der Meer hatched the idea to make use of her as a traveling exhibit. The mindset of animal management was quite different in this time frame; it would simply not have occurred to anyone that Clara might have been more content to live in the wild. As a live exhibit, Clara had no rival; from the third to the sixteenth century, no rhinoceros had been seen in Europe. Everyone was curious, and though Van der Meer must have looked upon her as a cash cow, her needs were put before his own. His success and ingenuity rested upon moving her safely from place to place (not a minor feat, moving a 5000-pound animal), ensuring her skin was liberally coated with fish oil to keep it from drying out, keeping her calm on board a rolling ship for months at a time, and above all, providing her with the tremendous amount of food necessary to keep her in good condition.
The impact of this amazingly gentle animal on the culture of Europe was quite surprising. Though animals were often depicted in paintings, etchings, and porcelain, never before had the artists of Clara's day had the opportunity to sketch one of her kind from first-hand viewing. Her image was put on Meissan dishes, inspired clockworks and commemorative medals
- each of which added to Van der Meer's coffers. Van der Meer, a businessman who could have taught P. T. Barnum a thing or two, suggested in the posters that advertised her viewing times that the rhino might be a representative of the legendary behemoth referred to in the book of Job. Thus, viewing Clara was not only something to tell one's grandchildren about, but spiritually edifying as well.
This book is fascinating, brisk and well-written with a great deal of information about the time period of Clara's travels. Her impact on men like Frederick the Great (who wanted to buy her but recoiled at her asking price) and Voltaire makes history a great deal more interesting and amusing.