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'Curiosities' and Exhibits

Freak Shows

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.

Portrait of 'George Alexander, An Extraordinary Spotted Negro Boy from the Caribbee Islands in the West Indies' by Daniel Orme, 1809 - opens new window
‘An extraordinary spotted boy’
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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 Glossary - opens new windowCaribbee Islands' and a Glossary - opens new windowKhoe Khoe woman. These exceptional people perhaps helped to create a popular view of Africa as a place of monsters and savages.

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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 venture.


Deposition, Macaulay and others re 'Hottentot Venus' - opens new window
Saartjie Baartman
on Display (246KB)
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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.

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In 1810, an application was made for the grant of a writ of Glossary - opens new windowhabeas 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'.
Examination of Saartje Baartman - opens new window
Saartjie Baartman
Gives Evidence in Dutch (146KB)
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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.
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Captain Cook's Curiosity

Not all 'exotic' visitors had such a negative experience, however. The Glossary - opens new windowEnlightenment 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' Europe.

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 Glossary - opens new windowCaptain 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:

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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

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