Tom, a four-year-old Ceylon elephant, was gifted to the Duke of Edinburgh in Kolkata and brought to New Zealand on the ship Galatea in 1870. Aboard the ship, he was “pampered with biscuits, pea soup and tobacco… of the latter he was very fond”. After arriving in Auckland, Tom was taken to the Albert Barracks, where he was housed for the duration of his stay along with his friend, a tortoise, who “chiefly serve[d] as a pedestal for children to stand upon all day”.
Tom was a source of curiosity and awe for the people of Auckland. He was also a heavy drinker and was frequently plied with beer and spirits by members of the public and the soldiers that he lived with. During his stay, he was put to work at Maungawhau, quarrying basalt and scoria, and hauled the trig platform, which denotes the highest natural point in Auckland’s landscape, to the summit of the maunga. For this work, he was rewarded with sticky buns and beer at the local public house.
When the Duke’s tour of the colonies ended, Tom was taken to England; whereupon while being transported between Plymouth and London, Tom panicked at the movement of the train and crushed his keeper to death against the side of the carriage.
Tom died young, at about sixteen years of age, in 1882 at the Dublin Zoo. His skeleton remains at the Trinity College Zoological Museum in Dublin.
Matilda Fraser (BFA Hons, 2012, Massey University; MFA 2016, Elam) is an artist and writer based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Recent shows include Poet No. 2 at The Booth, Gus Fisher Gallery, 2019; The Race Marches Forward on the Feet of Little Children, Blue Oyster Art Project Space, 2018; I digress, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, 2017; The Eight Hours Plan, Mason’s Screen, 2017; New Perspectives, Artspace, 2016. She was the 2015 Writer-in-Residence at Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin, producing a series of nested texts entitled Against Efficiency about the nature of criticism. In 2020, she will undertake the Toi Pōneke Visual Arts Residency.
Matilda Fraser’s project is supported by Creative New Zealand.