Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

207 : Black performers in Britain’s Human Zoos

There are a small number of biographic histories of some of the people who participated as ‘natives’, ‘Africans’, ‘warriors’ etc in British exhibitions and shows from the 19th century into the 1930s era of cinemas. Millie-Christine McKoy’s biography was published in North Carolina in 2000 (see website page 093) and ‘Blind Tom’ was detailed in a New York publication of 2009 (website page 167), the tours by these Americans attracting audiences largely due to their physical handicaps. The Carolina woman who presented herself as Abomah the African Giant toured as far as New Zealand (website page 003) and Chang ‘the Chinese Giant’ was seen around the globe before settling in England where he died in 1893 (page 080). The smaller Congo pygmies spent over two years in Britain 1905-1907, visiting Germany (see website page 022), and the small lads in Balmer’s ‘Kaffir Boys’ toured Britain at that time and into the 1910s (page 006). Recently ‘Human Zoos’ has been used to describe the phenomenon, as with the multi-contributor collection of essays in Liverpool University Press’s Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires of 2008.

‘Amazon Warriors’, ‘Somali Villages’ and other groups have been traced through postcards and regional newspapers (see pages 073 and 098), with ‘Zulus’ being widespread (pages 087 and 115). Bogus Africans include the Danish West Indies-born Prince Monolulu (page 018) and perhaps the master, Bata Kindai Amgoza LoBagola author of An African Savage’s Own Story of 1930. He was Joseph Howard Lee, born in Baltimore in 1888. He died in Attica prison in January 1947 – as detailed by David Killingray and Willie Henderson in Bernth Lindfors’s Africans on Stage (Indiana University Press, 1999). The degrading treatment experienced by Ota Benga from the Congo, who was displayed in Bronx zoo led to Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume’s Ota Benga: the Pygmy in the Zoo (New York, 1992) and Pamela Newkirk, Spectacle: the Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (New York, 2015). But he was never in Britain, so we should pay attention to Ben Shephard’s Kitty and the Prince (London: Profile Books, 2003) which details this southern African performer who later worked as a coal miner in the Manchester area of Britain.

The South African entertainer known as Clicko or the Wild Dancing Bushman has been documented by Neil Parsons (Clicko: the Wild Dancing Bushman, University of Chicago Press, 2009) who traced him in 1910s Britain to his years in America where he died in 1940.

The deaths of some members of Human Zoos has led to modern actions, such as that of Chief Long Wolf who was a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He died in London in 1892 and it was 105 years before his remains were repatriated from London’s Brompton cemetery to the Black Hills of Dakota.

The cinema and then television reduced the audiences for such shows, which are seen as tawdry, and demeaning. In their day they attracted hundred of thousands and are an easy-to-overlook aspect of British social history.

 

Further information and images will be welcome. Please leave a message by clicking on any illustration.