History's best-traveled rhinoceros had origins worthy of a Disney movie. Only a few months after the Indian rhino who would later be named Clara was born, her mother was killed by hunters. The little orphan was taken in by a wealthy Dutch merchant named Jan Albert Sichterman, who happened to be the director of the Dutch East India Company. Clara spent the first two years of her life living in Sichterman's luxurious house. In 1740, however, she had started to get too big to be an indoor pet—Indian rhinoceroses are typically over a meter tall by their second birthdays. Unable to care for her anymore, Sichterman gave Clara to a friendly but ambitious sea captain named Douwemout van der Meer, who wanted to make the young animal a star.
With Clara in tow, van der Meer embarked for his native Netherlands. Travel between India and Europe in those days was no joke: van der Meer's ship sailed all the way around Africa, and only reached Rotterdam in the summer of 1741. She survived the arduous trek, however, and upon her arrival, Clara became an instant celebrity.
Rhinoceroses were always a novelty in Europe, but in Roman times they were not infrequently captured in order to be displayed (and usually killed) in arena shows. This meant that enough Romans had seen rhinos in real life that they were portrayed in art more or less realistically, and were described by a number of ancient writers.
After the fall of the Roman empire, however, the only experience Europeans had with rhinoceroses was reading about them in old books. To more skeptical readers, the rhinoceros would have sounded as made-up as the unicorn. As Glynis Ridley explains in her book about Clara,
“Scholars expressed doubts about the existence of the elusive creature, which was said by classical writers to be the arch-enemy of the elephant, and thought to possess a horn of incredible medicinal power. The only way to resolve uncertainties about the existence and nature of the rhinoceros was to capture one alive and bring it to Europe. But the difficulties of capturing a rhinoceros in the wild paled into insignificance compared to the problems posed by transporting such a large animal by sea or horse-drawn wagon."
Before Clara, the most famous rhino to be brought to Europe alive was the one immortalized in a famous engraving by German artist Albrecht Dürer. The unnamed animal was brought to Europe by Portuguese traders in 1515; a year later, after being passed around Europe's capitals as a diplomatic gift, it drowned in a shipwreck in the Mediterranean.
Gentle Clara had a much longer career. After spending a few years building up a reputation (and adjusting to the climate) in Rotterdam, Clara was brought to cities all over Europe—first Dutch and German cities, then Switzerland, France, Italy, Poland, England, and Scandinavia. She made an especially strong impact in Paris and the nearby seat of the French king Louis XV, Versailles, during her trip to France in 1749. As Charissa Bremer-David puts it in an essay on Clara's reputation,
“Rhino-mania, and specifically Clara-mania, overtook both cities [Versailles and Paris]. She reigned in interiors, in the streets, in fashionable attire and accessories. Whimsical elements of interior decor included her likeness among other exotic animals… Dresses and ribbons à la rhinocéros adorned women of fashion, while snuffboxes, decorated with Dürer’s rhino in miniature, slipped into the pockets of gentlemen."
Clara also fascinated men of learning.
“As early as February 13, 1749, a letter from the librarian at the Sorbonne, Abbé Jean Baptiste Ladvocat, reported that the creature’s tongue was as soft as velvet and that its voice sounded like a wheezing cow.”
Eight years earlier, Clara had already secured her place in the history of science. When she first arrived in Rotterdam, Clara attracted the attention of Dutch artist Jan Wandelaar, who was in the middle of creating a massive book on anatomy in collaboration with esteemed surgeon Bernhard Siegfried Albinus. Wandelaar made sure to capture Clara's likeness in a series of drawings, which he later adapted for use in his and Albinus's anatomy book by sticking a skeleton in front of the animal. The drawings weren't published until 1747, but the initial sketches were made in 1741, when Clara was only three years old—so they are a precious record of what she looked like when she was still a juvenile.
Clara didn't stay small for long. When she reached her full size, she weighed three tons. Her diet consisted of hay, bread, orange peels, and sometimes beer, and Bremer-David notes that "according to the prevailing veterinary wisdom of the period, it seems that he blew tobacco smoke for her to inhale as a prophylactic." As she grew, her weight and horn size were carefully recorded, providing European scientists for generations to come with valuable evidence about her species. Bremer-David continues,
“Until her arrival in Holland and her subsequent, prolonged tours across the Continent, the rhinoceros was almost a mythical creature, the plated and horned beast of Dürer’s imagination. Clara, however, forever changed that perception. She was a gentle giant whose larger-than-life presence fascinated and delighted all, from the learned doctors of natural philosophy to the common citizenry.”
After nearly two decades in the public eye, Clara died in London on April 14, 1758. She was 21 years old. In the wild, Indian rhinoceroses frequently live around 40 years, so Clara died young—but compared to other exotic animals brought to Europe in the early modern period, she lived a surprisingly long time. And because she enchanted so many artists and scientists, Clara's memory remains preserved today.