In 1514, Afonso de Albuquerque, founder of the Portuguese Empire in the East and governor of the Portuguese Indies, wanted to build a fortress in Diu, a city located in the kingdom of Cambaia, ruled by King Modofar. Afonso de Albuquerque was authorized by King D. Manuel I, to send an embassy to the king of Cambaia, requesting authorization to build the fortress. King Modofar did not give in to the request, but, appreciating the offerings received, he gave Afonso de Albuquerque a rhinoceros. As it was impossible to keep him in Goa, Afonso de Albuquerque decided to send the rhino to King D. Manuel I, as a gift.
The arrival of the animal in Lisbon caused a lot of curiosity, not only in Portugal but in the rest of Europe, mainly because of its appearance – the rhino weighed more than two tons and had a thick and rough skin forming three large folds that gave it the strange appearance of a armour. It was the first rhinoceros alive on European soil since the III century.
The rhino, which was called Ganda, was installed in the park of the Palácio da Ribeira. Reminding the king of the Roman stories about the deadly hatred between elephants and rhinos, D. Manuel I, who had a small elephant as a pet, decided to check if this story was true. Thus, a fight was organized between the two animals, attended by the king, the queen and their chaperones, as well as many other important guests. The event was organized in the terreiro do paço, nowadays Praça do Commercio and stages were set up to watch this show.
When the two animals met face to face, the elephant, who seemed to be the most nervous, panicked and fled as soon as the rhino started to approach, destroying the stages and spreading the panic among the people.
In 1515, King D. Manuel I decided to organize a new extraordinary embassy to Rome, to guarantee the support of the Pope, following the growing successes of Portuguese navigators in the East, and with a view to consolidating the kingdom’s international prestige. Among the offers he decided to send the rhino, who wore a green velvet collar with roses and golden carnations. The ship left Lisbon in December 1515.
A violent storm arose off Genoa, the ship having sunk, the entire crew perishing. The rhino, although he knew how to swim, ended up drowning, because of the bonds. However, it was possible to recover his body. Upon hearing the news, D. Manuel I ordered the rhino to be stuffed and sent to the Pope, as if nothing had happened. But this animal was not as successful with the Pope as the elephant had previously done!
In Portugal the rhinoceros was immortalized, being represented in the Monastery of Alcobaça, where there is a naturalistic representation of the full-body animal, with the function of a gargoyle, in the Silence Cloister. It was also designed by the great printing master Albrecht Dürer, based on a letter from a Portuguese merchant that contained a drawing of the rhino.
And a small rhinoceros is also immortalized in the Belém tower. Where? You come with me to visit it and we will discover it.