'Curiosities' and Exhibits
Today, the idea of the 'freak show', where the
public pay to look at people who are in some way 'different'
from themselves, is an abhorrent concept. Yet in previous
centuries it was considered a perfectly acceptable pastime.
In 1691, Londoners could pay to visit the newly built Bethlehem
(later called Bedlam) Hospital near Bishopsgate, in London,
to view the mentally ill at close quarters. Some unfortunate
residents of the hospital who were certified insane could
even be hired out as a 'cabaret' for special occasions.
‘An extraordinary spotted boy’
As contact between Britain and other continents grew, Black
people were also among those used as exhibits in travelling
'freak shows'. All races and nationalities, men,
women and children were included, chosen because their physical
features were considered unusual at that time and singled
out. At the Bartholomew Fair in the late 18th century, a giant
Irishman was exhibited alongside 'a spotted Negro Boy
from the Caribbee
Islands' and a Khoe
Khoe woman. These exceptional people perhaps helped to
create a popular view of Africa as a place of monsters and
Saartjie Baartman - Africa on Display
The most famous African to be put on display was a young
Khoe Khoe woman known as Saartjie Baartman. She was born
in 1789 in a village in the Cape Colony, on the southern
tip of Africa. In 1810, when she was 20, she was brought
to London by a British ship's doctor, William Dunlop.
According to evidence presented by London merchant Zachary
Macaulay and two others, Dunlop saw Baartman as a money-making
on Display (246KB)
Baartman was displayed across Britain, exhibited
as a 'freak of nature' to paying audiences. Crude images of
her entered popular British culture, as the cartoonist George
Cruikshank exaggerated her features. In the popular imagination,
Baartman had been transformed from a normal young African
woman into a 'freak' in order to satisfy the 19th-century
European idea of 'savage sexuality' and racial inferiority.
|In 1810, an application was made
for the grant of a writ of habeas
corpus in the Court of King's Bench on the grounds that
Baartman was being restrained and exhibited against her wishes.
During Baartman's examination, she was said to have come to
England voluntarily. Asked whether she wanted to continue being
exhibited, the report stated that '…we could not draw
a satisfactory answer from her. She understands very little
of the agreement made with her by Mr Dunlop…' The case
was dismissed. The judge ruled that Baartman was 'under no restraint
but their Lordships would offer a remedy if an action was brought
for indecency of exhibition'.
Gives Evidence in Dutch (146KB)
| Subsequently, Baartman was sold, like a commodity,
to a French entrepreneur. In 1816 she died in Paris, where her
body was dissected as a scientific specimen and put on display
at a Paris museum. In April 2002, Saartjie Baartman's
remains, including her bottled organs, were returned to South
Africa. It had taken almost eight years for her body to be returned
to her homeland, following an agreement made between President
Nelson Mandela of South Africa and President François
Mitterand of France in 1994.
Captain Cook's Curiosity
Not all 'exotic' visitors had such a negative experience,
however. The Enlightenment
brought a new emphasis on human progress, reason and
scientific investigation, pushing forward the quest for knowledge.
In this context, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau put
forward the idea of the 'noble savage' - man living in his
free 'natural' state, as opposed to corrupted, 'civilised'
This romantic concept still stressed the supposed difference
between Black and White people. But it became popular in a
world in which explorers, some of whom, it can be argued,
were more curious than racist, were sailing to all parts of
the globe. English mariners brought back many specimens of
exotic fauna and flora that have survived as treasured possessions
in country houses and ornamental or botanical gardens. Explorers
found the customs and habits of 'native' people
equally 'curious' and fascinating to study.
One such 'curiosity' was a Tahitian named Omai
who was brought to England in 1774 by Captain
James Cook, returning from his second voyage around the
world. With his dark skin and striking tattoos, Omai was described
as 'an exotic spectacle'. But he was also said
to have charm and 'natural' good manners, and was an object
of admiration as well as curiosity.
Omai was popular because he seemed to validate ideas about
the 'noble savage'. He was not put on display to the public,
but moved in aristocratic circles. Three days after his arrival
in England on 14 July 1774, he was presented to the king and
queen at Kew. Sir Joshua Reynolds was commissioned to paint
his portrait. In December 1785 a pantomime entitled Omai:
Or, A Trip Round the World, in which Omai (played by
an actor) courts Londina, was staged at the Theatre Royal
in Covent Garden.
For more about Omai, visit: www.nla.gov.au/exhibitions/omai/index.html.
References and Further Reading
Edwards, P., and Walvin, J., Black Personalities in the
Era of the Slave Trade, London, 1983
Gilman, S., Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of
Sexuality, Race and Madness, London, 1985
Wood, M., Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery
in England and America 1780-1865, Manchester, 2000