White or albino elephants were venerated in many Asian countries, especially Siam (now Thailand). The rulers of Siam had a habit of giving white elephants to their more obnoxious courtiers as punishments. disguised as gifts. The recipient of such a gift had no choice but to care for the elephant, which typically could live for well over 50 years. English travellers first witnessed this custom during the 18th century. By the mid-19th century, a white elephant had become an English idiom for an unwanted, burdensome possession that was more trouble than it was worth.