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Monday, February 23, 2015

Madrid's First Rhinoceros



I can’t resist sharing this historical tidbit with you, as it combines my two favorite things: Spain and rhinos.

Tradition has it that Calle Abada in Madrid was named after a sixteenth-century incident in that area. During the reign of Philip II, some Portuguese showmen came to Madrid with an abada, apparently the first way rhinoceroses were referred to on the Iberian Peninsula. The rhinoceros was unknown in Europe, so the showmen stood to earn a great deal by exhibiting him to the public. They set up camp in the fields of the priory of San Martín, in an area now delimited by Calle Preciados, the Gran Vía and the Plaza del Carmen. The locals flocked to the place and paid two maravedís to enter the tent and see the fabulous animal, which they shouted and whistled at while the Portuguese beat drums and bagpipes.

A baker’s son became familiar with the rhino and fed him pieces of bread. One day the boy had the terrible idea of giving the rhino a burning piece of bread, a hot coal, or both together, and the rhino swallowed it. Crazed, the rhino lunged at the boy and killed him before the Portuguese could help it.

As soon as the Prior of San Martín, Fray Pedro de Guevara, found out what happened, he banished the showmen from his lands. In the confusion of the banishment or the shock about the boy’s unfortunate death, the rhinoceros escaped from the Portuguese, and Madrid sent out the alarm. Quevedo (one of the great writers of the time) wrote that as night fell, some warned of a threatening figure near the of San Martín (on the Plaza del Callao) and that officers armed with spears went out to hunt the beast, but it was a false alarm which proved to be a wagon loaded with hay. Others told how a running dog was identified as the rhino and caused many residents to flee in terror. According to legend, the rhino caused as many as 20 deaths during his escape. In the end, the rhino was caught near Vicálvaro by the showmen themselves, with the help of the Holy Brotherhood, an armed corps that may be considered an early modern police.


A wooden cross was erected at San Martín in memory of the boy’s death in the jaws of the rhino. Years later, when the priory of San Martín sold those buildings and houses were built on the site, Calle de la Abada, or Rhinoceros Street, got its name.

The street marker shows a picture of what looks like a black rhino. It would be fascinating to find out where the showmen picked up this wonderful animal, which probably didn't harm any humans intentionally.

Most of this post has been translated from El burgalés by José Montero.

Tune in next week for a review of a rhino novel!