A boxing kangaroo

The acclaimed British animal painter George Stubs was the first to paint the portrait of the kangaroo. The animal had been sighted in New South Wales by James Cook and his crew during their circumnavigation in the Endeavour. Upon their return to England in 1771, Joseph Banks commissioned Stubbs to picture the strange creature. The expedition
didn’t bring back any live specimens, and Stubbs, therefore, had to rely on some skins and skulls that Banks had collected on Australia’s east coast. Living kangaroos arrived in Britain only some 20 years later. The first specimen was probably the one kept at the Edinburgh Museum of Natural Curiosities.

An interesting work which provides us with detailed information about some kangaroo’s living in Britain is The Naturalist’s Cabinet: Containing Interesting Sketches of Animal History (1806-1807), a six-volume work on natural history by Thomas Smith, meant for the general public and illustrated with 57 delicate plates. The first volume contains a description of the kangaroo. Smith describes the physical characteristics and the habitat of the animal and remarks that “these animals may now be considered as in some degree naturalized in England.” He goes on to describe two specimens kept at the menagerie in Exeter Change (London), originating from Port Jackson. One of these animals turns out to have remarkable pugilistic skills. What follows is probably the first description of a boxing kangaroo.  

 “On visiting the menagerie some months since, I saw this noble quadruped wrestle with the keeper for the space of ten or fifteen minutes, during which time he evinced the utmost intrepidity and sagacity; turning in every direction to face his opponent, carefully watching an opportunity to close with him, and occasionally grasping him with his fore paws, while the right hind leg was employed in kicking him upon the thigh and hip, with equal force and rapidity.”

The description is illustrated with an intriguing depiction of the keeper boxing with the kangaroo. This may very well be the first picture of what has since become a national symbol of Australia: the boxing kangaroo.

[i] Penny Olson. Upside Down World. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2010, p. 93. The standard work on the iconography of the kangaroo is: Ronald M. Younger. Kangaroo. Images Through the Ages. Hawthorn: Hutchinson Australia, 1988. See also: Wilfrid Blunt. The Ark in the Park. The Zoo in the Nineteenth Century. London: Book Club Associates, 1976, pp. 64-70.


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