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Issue 83 - Hippopotamus Murray

Scotland Magazine Issue 83
October 2015


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Hippopotamus Murray

Patricia Cleveland-Peck and the tale of Charles Augustus

I first encountered Charles Augustus Murray whilst researching a children’s book about the first hippopotamus at London Zoo in 1850. He was the British Consul General in Cairo, and it was he who not only helped to acquire the young creature but to look after it at his residence for several months during which they formed a strong mutual bond.

The more closely I researched the life of Sir Charles, as he became, the more I realised that there was far more to him than simply being a career diplomat who became involved with a hippopotamus. A keen sportsman with a taste for adventure, he eventually spoke fifteen languages, and he used such skills to record his exploits into best selling books.

Born in 1806, he was the second son of George Murray, fifth Earl of Dunmore and Lady Susan Hamilton. He grew up at Glen Finart, Argyllshire before being educated at Eton and Oxford. In his youth, he was regularly to be found at Hamilton Place, the home of his uncle the ninth Duke of Hamilton, where he met Sir Walter Scott and William Backford, the first of the many writers with whom he would become associated.

Being good at languages, he visited Germany where he simply knocked on the door of John Wolfgang von Goethe, then Minister of the Grand Duchy of Weimar and requested an audience. Goethe in fact took an immediate liking to the young man, presented him with an autographed poem and introduced him to many of his friends. It was, a trip to America in 1834, however, which secured his reputation. The Waverley, on which he sailed, ran into bad weather, sprang a leak and then drifted helplessly with food running low. Some passengers were taken off by another ship to return to England but Murray stayed on board throughout with a group of Irish emigrants who got on well with ‘the young Scots Lord’. A voyage which should have taken 16 days lasted over six weeks.

In America, Murray set off on an expedition up the Hudson River with the writer Fennimore Cooper and while dining at Fort Leavenworth encountered a group of Pawnee Indians. Accompanied by his valet, he returned with them to their camp fourteen days ride away. He spent two months with them and survived an attack by the Cheyenne tribe. All of this provided splendid material for his first book
Travels in North America which, published in 1839 and ran into three editions.

In Niagara, the young Murray met the love of his life, Elizabeth Wadsworth. However, her father was unimpressed and forbade them to communicate. This situation was thinly veiled in his second book
The Prairie Bird.

On returning to England, he was appointed first a Groom in Waiting to Queen Victoria and later, Master of the Household, at which point he not only reformed the palace kitchens but witnessed the state visit of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. Shortly afterwards, he entered the diplomatic service and was posted first to Naples, then, as Consul General to Cairo in 1846.

To send an exotic animal as a gift from one country to another was a customary gesture of goodwill and in 1850, Abbas Pasha of Egypt decided to present a baby hippopotamus to London. It would be the first hippopotamus ever seen in Europe since Roman times. Named Obaysch, he had been captured in the Sudan and transported up the Nile in a special boat with an escort of ten Nubian soldiers to Cairo where he was handed over to Sir Charles.

Described as being ‘as playful as a Newfoundland puppy,’ Obaysch continued his journey to London by steamer. His arrival at the zoo provoked an outburst of Hippomania, whereupon he was visited by ten thousand people including Queen Victoria and her children.
Punch magazine chronicled his every doing and Lewis Carroll wrote a poem about his prodigious appetite: He thought he saw a Banker’s Clerk Descending from a bus He looked again and saw it was A Hippopotamus “If this should stay to dine,” he said “There won’t be much for us!

At home in Scotland, Charles Murray again met up with Elizabeth Wadsworth. Her father had recently died so at last they were able to marry. During their honeymoon in Egypt, Charles had her name carved into a temple at Abu Simbel where it can still be seen. Tragically, she died a year later giving birth to their son – the baby, however, survived.

Following a posting to Saxony, Charles married Edythe Fitzpatrick, daughter of the first Baron of Castletown. In 1866, he was awarded the K. C. B and posted to Copenhagen – where he became friendly with Hans Christian Andersen. He died suddenly in 1895 during a trip to Paris and his body was taken for burial at Dunmore. He left the equivalent £30 million today.

Obaysch lived for a further 28 years, a female hippo called Adhela was brought from Egypt as a mate for him and eventually they had an infant which was named Guy Fawkes until the keepers realised that it was a female, whereupon it was renamed Miss Guy.

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