For keeping two white bears

While reading Ian Donaldson’s splendid new biography of Ben Jonson, Ben Jonson: A Life (OUP, 2011), I was fascinated to note his reference to two potential white polar bears on Bankside supposedly brought back from the Arctic by Jonas Poole in 1609. Donaldson cites an article by Tessa Grant (1) in which Grant poses the view that these bears could perhaps have been used on the London stage. While reading the Calendar of State Papers last autumn, I came across a reference to Henslowe being awarded a license to keep two white bears, prompting further investigations (which also led to Simon Leake’s guest blog post on the little known sport of Horse-Baiting on Bankside). The CSPD contains the following entry:

Warrant to pay to Phil.Henslow and Ed.Allen, Musters of the Game at Paris Garden, 42I.10s and 12d per diem, in future for keeping two white bears and a young lion (2)

Ultimately intrigued by the idea of polar bears appearing on the Jacobean stage, I decided to investigate a little of the life of Jonas Poole. Poole (bap.1566-d.1612) was an English sea captain who volunteered to travel to the arctic circle and beyond in order to further English understanding of exploration and commercial whaling. On 10th April 1603, he set sail for Archangel in the Grace under the leadership of Stephen Bennet, the Grace having been refitted for the journey at the expense of Sir Thomas Cherry, governor of the Muscovy Company. The ship returned in September of the same year, and Poole subsequently travelled to the arctic five more times before 1609. In fact, so successful were Poole’s trips, that he sailed with the first American colonists to Jamestown in 1607. Between 1603 and 1612, Poole sailed to walrus and whaling grounds in the waters of the arctic every single year bar 1607. His accounts of his travels were given to Richard Hakluyt in 1610, and were subsequently published in 1625 by Samuel Purchas (3).

The following is an early 17th Century polar explorer’s description of an encounter with a polar bear:

There came a great bear towards our house, which made us all goe in, and wee levelled at her with our Muskets, and as shee came right before our door, we shot her into the breast, clean through the heart, the bullet passing through her body, and went out againe at her tail, and was as flatted as a Counter, the Beare feeling the blow, leapt backwards, and ran twentie or thirty foot from the house, and there lay down, wherewith wee leapt all out of the house, and ran to her, and found her still alive, and when she saw us, shee rear’d up her head, as if she would gladly have done us some mischief, but we trusted her not, for that we had thread their strength sufficiently before, and therefore we shot her twice into the body again, and therewith shee dyed. Then we rip’d up her belly, and taking out her guttes, drew her home to the House where we flayed her, and took at least one hundred pounds of fat out of her belly, which wee molt’d and burned in our Lampe. This Grease did us great good service, for by that meanes we still kept a Lampe burning all night long, which before wee could not doe, for want of Grease, and eery man had meanes to burned a Lampe in his Cabbin, for such necessaries as he had to doe. The Beares skin was nine foot long, and seven foot broad (4)

Hair-raising stuff. Poole himself speaks of numerous encounters with polar bears while on Cherry Island (Svalbard) in 1609. His account contains references to the killing of bears, foxes, seals, and other wildlife. In one entry, he describes seeing a mother bear with her cubs and yet is unable to kill the cubs because they are only ‘of a month old: they skipped about their dams neck, and played with one another very wantonly’ (5). On 30th May he and his party

slue 26. Seales, and espied three white Beares: wee went aboard for Shot and Powder, and coming to the Ice again, we should see a shee-Beare and two young ones: Master Thomas Welden shot and killed her: after shee was slyane, wee got the young ones, and brought them home into England, where they are still alive in Paris Garden (6).

It’s shocking to imagine explorers like Poole surviving in the hostile environment of the arctic without GPS, modern protective clothing, and access to a plane and medical supplies, but it’s simply astonishing that he should risk bringing two live polar bears, albeit cubs, back to England. Of course, exotic animals were par for the course at court and at the Tower, but nevertheless, Poole’s decision does seem to modern sensibilities either slightly fool-hardy or quite mad.

In 1611, Poole suffered a broken skull and collar bone on Cherry Island while handling his cargo of walrus ivory and whale fat. He was brought home by a rival whaler and recovered sufficiently from his injuries to return to the arctic the following year. However, Poole’s career as a whaler was cut short in September 1612 when he was murdered in Wapping in August, having returned home from what became his final voyage. Poole was survived by his wife and two sons, and his grandson, Jonas, went on to have a successful naval career from 1652 to 1665 (7).

In an interesting addendum, Tessa Grant comments that the water poet John Taylor provides a list of the names of the bears at the Paris Garden (8). Taylor refers specifically to two white bears named Mad Bess and Will Tookey (9). Could they be the Jonas bears? A quick delve into the FAQ at Polar Bear International reveals that in the wild, polar bears live on average 15-18 years. However in captivity they may live well into their late thirties. If the Paris Garden bears are the Cherry Island bears brought back by Jonas, then in 1638 they would have been 29 years old. Grant suggest the Jonas bears retired from the stage in 1612 (9), but it is of course entirely possible they may have lived on as part of the spectacle at the bear gardens for many years to come. And most intriguingly, Simon Foreman records seeing The Winter’s Talein May 1611, just weeks after Henslowe and Allen were granted their warrant to keep ‘two white bears’. It’s a fanciful notion, but perhaps it was the Jonas bears that inspired Shakespeare to write his famous stage direction, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’

It is worth noting that there is a second scholarly article on the white bears; Barbara Ravelhofer, “Beasts of Recreation”: Henslowe’s White Bears, English Literary Renaissance, 32 (2002), 287-323
Unfortunately I have been unable to access the article due to the vagaries of the university server. I hope to read it soon, and perhaps update this post.

For more on bears on Bankside see Drunken Cocks and Bear-Baiting

1) Teresa Grant, Notes & Queries, 246 (2001), 311-13
2) CSPD, entry dated March 20th 1611
3) DNB, R C D Baldwin
4) cited in Samuel Purchas, His pilgrimes In fiue bookes (Vol 3), London (1625), 502
5) Ibid 560
6) Ibid 562
7) Baldwin
8) Grant, 312
9) John Taylor, Bull, beare, and horse, cut, curtaile, and longtaile. VVith tales, and tales of buls, clenches, and flashes. As also here and there a touch of our beare-garden-sport; with the second part of the merry conceits of wit and mirth. Together with the names of all the bulls and beares, London (1638),  E.v
10) Grant, 312

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  • February 13, 2012 - 2:29 am | Permalink

    My BIL had checked our geneology, and told me years ago, that Jonas Poole was my forefather. I could not remember his name, until I found him on Wikipedia.

    One can only hope.

  • January 13, 2012 - 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the kind comments. And Alice, thanks for the link which adds a further snippet.

  • January 12, 2012 - 2:02 pm | Permalink

    What a lovely post, Dainty!

  • January 11, 2012 - 5:24 pm | Permalink
  • January 9, 2012 - 10:40 am | Permalink

    Fascinating and thoughtful. Thank you.

  • January 8, 2012 - 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic post DB, really enjoyed it. Your account of life on the ice in the 17th century was excellent. And it’s a great insight into how you historians go about researching your subject.

  • January 4, 2012 - 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Hair raising indeed. Nice post.

  • January 4, 2012 - 7:45 pm | Permalink

    This is a fascinating episode of polar voyaging and London theatre. Poole as you note bridged experiences of Svalbard/Spitsbergen as well as the New World in the founding Jamestown voyage. The question of actual polar bears on stage I think has always been one of whether or not any polar bear, even a cub, captured in 1609 could have been safely managed in 1612, for example, without snacking on a few actors. No polar bear to my knowledge has ever been tamed and they are enthusiastic maneaters. (I actually know someone who was attacked by a polar bear in the Canadian arctic. We Canadians can occasionally claim these things.) It’s possible as extremely young bears (a few months old) they could have been managed on a chain, but otherwise perhaps actors wore some of the polar bear skins that Poole and others harvested. Forgive me if those points were already made in the cited articles.
    Thanks for a great post.

  • January 4, 2012 - 7:42 pm | Permalink

    What an astounding read! I would never have expected anything of the sort in those far off days. Thank you.

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