Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Alfred at Bristol Zoo: What Sort of Gorilla Was He?

When writing the previous post, I must confess to a degree of confusion as to the identity of Alfred, the famous gorilla at Bristol Zoo from 1930 until his death in 1948.

Alfred (from Schomberg's British Zoos)
This is what the fully referenced Wikipedia entry has to say (with my bold):

Alfred was initially found by an Expedition from the American Museum of Natural History, New York and Columbia University in 1928 in what was then Belgian Congo. The expedition members were told that a pair of gorillas had been shot for ‘raiding’ a farmer’s field for food, afterwards a baby was discovered and suckled by a local woman. The baby gorilla was later sold to a Greek merchant and taken to the town of Mbalmayo in modern day Cameroon, where the expedition encountered him playing in the streets. He was described by the Expedition as ‘the liveliest specimen of his kind we had ever seen’.

In 1830 [1930] Alfred was sold to an Italian who, after bringing him to Europe, sold him on to an animal dealer. Bristol Zoo, already successful in rearing chimpanzees, acquired Alfred for £350. Alfred spent a few months housed in Rotterdam in 1930 before continuing to Bristol Zoo. Alfred was reputedly named for Alfred Mosley, a benefactor of the zoo. Although during his life he was thought to be a Mountain Gorilla, it is more likely that he was a Western Lowland Gorilla.

His stuffed skin appears to be that of a Western Lowland Gorilla but I can see how people got confused. This is what Geoffrey Schomberg (1927-1997) wrote in British Zoos (1957):

Bristol Zoo will always be associated with the name of Alfred, the most famous gorilla that ever lived in captivity. When he was only a few months old, his parents were shot raiding while raiding a plantation in the Kivu Mountains of equatorial Africa. He was suckled by a native woman, and passed through the hands of a Greek merchant, an Italian who brought him to Europe, and a Dutch animal dealer, from whom he was purchased by the Zoo on 30 September 1930. He was then two years old and weighed two stone.

If Schomberg’s account was correct, then Alfred would have been a Mountain Gorilla from the Kivu Mountains, well outside the range of the Western Lowland Gorilla. However, contemporary newspaper reports describe a different location for ‘Kivu’. This is the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of 11 September 1930 (before the date given by Schomberg of Alfred’s purchase):

“Have you seen Alfred.” That is what the people of Bristol are saying to one another…They [gorillas] are very rare and very shy, and are confined to a small area in the Cameroons and the Kivu district on the West Coast of Africa.

Was there a misunderstanding somewhere along the line of his origin, and ‘Kivu’ perhaps assumed to be the mountains of Kivu province in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Kinshasa)? Was ‘Kivu’ a garbled version of a different location as Alfred was passed along the line?

The Wikipedia entry has Alfred Mosley as the zoo’s benefactor after whom the gorilla was named, whereas Hannah Paddon in Sam Alberti’s The Afterlives of Animals spells it Sir Alfred Moseley. I have been unable to find much information on the human Alfred, other than that he may have made his money in South Africa (the gorilla cost the equivalent of about £20,000 in today’s money) and he may have led missions to the USA to examine their industrial and employment methods in the early 1900s.

Has anybody any more information on Alfred’s identity, the gorilla that is?

Wikipedia entry for Alfred
Paddon H. 2011. Biological objects and "mascotism". The life and times of Alfred the gorilla. In Alberti SJMM, The Afterlives of Animals. University of Virginia Press
Schomberg G. 1957. British Zoos. London: Wingate