The Queen, an African Knight and the Elephant

I like to praise and reward loudly, to blame quietly.
Catherine II

The Queen of Denmark took back the Order of the Elephant from Nicolae Ceauşescu on 23 December 1989,  8 years after she pinned it on his chest and 2 days before the Romanian madman and his wife received a two-hour televised trial after which they were shot dead by some of the best soldiers in the Romanian special forces.

In the game of international relations today, decorating the chest of someone still plays as much of a role in cementing the ties of friendship ( but mostly client-ism) as it did in the days when Napoleon Bonaparte said  “ A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon.” Finding a worthy chest in today’s world of political upheaval and economic misfortune, however,  has become  a crap shoot. 

Despite that neither the Indian nor African Elephant ever counted Denmark as part of  its natural habitat , the Kingdom’s highest national order is named after this nobel beast.

The Danish monarch is the head of the order. The regalia is worn by members of the royal family, and may also be bestowed on foreign heads of state. In very exceptional circumstances the order may also be bestowed on a commoner. The only living holder of the order who is neither a current or former head of state nor royal is Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, a leading industrialist and philanthropist.  For South Africans his name will seem familiar as it is written on most of the shipping containers packed on top of each other in the Durban and Cape Town ports.  This is  the man who bought Safmarine as if he was buying a pack of gum and not a billion Rand South African strategic asset.  More about how Mearsk own Denmark at a later stage.

The order of the Elephant has one class: Knight of the Order and Nelson Mandela is such a Knight.  As it is not my intention to bore you with history and as I undertook to give you a glimpse into the life of a South African diplomat, I will tell you the story of how It came about that the name Mandela and the colours of South Africa has forever become part of the landscape of Denmark.

Queen Margrethe bestowed the Order of the Elephant on Nelson Mandela during a State Visit in February 1996.  By doing so the former President joined the ranks of a long line of living and dead men and women who wore or is still wearing the garter of Knights of the Elephant.

 The badge of the order is an elephant made of white enamelled gold with blue housings. It is about 5 cm high. On its back, the elephant is bearing a watch tower of pink enamelled masonry encircled by a row of small table cut diamonds at the bottom with another row just below the top. In front of the tower and behind the elephant’s head (which has a diamond set in its forehead and smaller diamonds for its eyes) a colorfully attired and turbaned Moor mahout is sitting, holding a golden rod. On the right side of the elephant there is a cross of five large table cut diamonds and on the left side the elephant bears the crowned monogram of the monarch reigning when it was made. At the top of the tower is a large enameled gold ring from which the badge can be hung from the collar or tied to the sash of the Order.  It is estimated that together with an unknown number of these little  elephants in museums around the world, the total number in circulation is less than a  hundred.  

Why then you would ask, if the Order came into existence in 1649 are there so few elephants out there.  And here, dear reader, is where the story begins.  You see, apart from taking the elephant back when a leader starts murdering his own people, the Queen of Denmark also requires that the little golden elephant comes back to her when a Knight dies.  So the same elephants have graced the chests of generations of Knights. The warden of the Order intimated that the one handed to Madiba also hung around the neck of the now very dead Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. In order to make sure, however, that the names of the Knights, once they depart this earthly realm is not relegated to the never-read pages of history and royal registers, a Knight of the Elephant is allowed to affix a shield bearing his name to the walls of the Chapel of the Frederiksborg Castle in the town of Hillerod, north of Copenhagen.
 When I arrived in Denmark in 2008, Mandela had been a Knight for twelve years, but no shield hung in the Chapel.  This really bothered the South African Ambassador and together we started looking into ways to rectify the situation.  The biggest hurdle would be deciding,  in co-operation with the Mandela household, what should be reflected on the shield.

 The design that was chosen had to adhere to the very strict heraldic traditions of Denmark whist at the same time reflecting the vibrancy of South Africa.  In the end, it was the colours of the new South African flag  that made it to the prototype of what became known as the Mandela Shield.  This, in my mind makes the Shield unique as South Africa is the only country in the world with six colours in its national flag. The only colour that gave us trouble was white.  Traditionally and heraldically the colour white on these Shields are represented by using the metal silver.   It was a grey, rainy day when the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs arrived in Denmark to preside at the hanging of the Mandela Shield. The old Knight being long since incapable of making such a journey.  And so,  in front of a gathering of dignitaries, on 14 October 2008 the old Knight came home.  

Denmark chose to hang his Shield not among the Heads of State but among the Crowned Heads of the world, Prince Hitachi of Japan, King Gustav of Spain, the Prince of Wales. The colours of the herdboy shines like a beacon in the dim light of the Chapel in Frederksborg Slot and will be seen by many generations passing through those halls.  Long after the little white elephant goes back to the Queen. 

 Many diplomats will tell you that it is the opportunity to be present when history is made that is the greatest reward of the job.  I will be eternally grateful that I was allowed to  stand in the shadows when this chapter was written. Until next time.  Douw Vermaak


1 thought on “The Queen, an African Knight and the Elephant

  1. Fascinating post Mr Vermaak!! Well worth the wait 🙂 love the shield and the pic of u examining all those medals :)) thanks for posting! I really enjoy your blog.

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