The first rhinoceros to set foot on European soil since Roman times has quite a story.

In 1515, a rhinoceros was sent on a 120-day voyage by King Modofar of Cambay (the former Portuguese colony in India now called Khambhat) as a gift for Portuguese King Manuel I.

belem rhino rhinoceros rei manuel king

The arrival of the animal to Lisbon caused quite a stir, not only in Portugal, but elsewhere in Europe. An animal of such a strange appearance had never been seen before. The rhino weighed more than two tons, and had a thick and rough skin forming three large folds which made it look like it was wearing armor.

King Manuel put the rhino on display in the park of the Palace of Ribeira. The King remembered hearing a story about a fierce hatred between rhinos and elephants. So, he arranged a fight to test this story. With a large audience in attendance, including the Queen and the royal court, the King brought an elephant to meet face-to-face with the rhino. To everyone’s surprise, the elephant quickly lost interest in the rhino, turned, and walked away.

Soon after, King Manuel became bored with the rhinoceros. So, he shipped the animal to Pope Leo X as a gift.

Sadly, on the way to Rome, the ship carrying the rhino sunk off the coast of northern Italy.

Stone masons carving the Belem Tower between 1514 and 1520 decided to memorialize the rhino by incorporating him into a turret on the tower.

See more about Belem Tower here.

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King Manuel I Rhinoceros 1

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