the 15th through the 19th centuries, Europeans were engaged in a prolonged
epoch of exploration and expansion, during which they would exploit their
technological advantages to extend their power and influence around the
globe. But only a minority of Europeans actually ever saw the lands and
peoples they were conquering; the vast majority of Europeans, excepting
sailors and those who shipped out or were packed off to the colonies, lived
and died very close to the place where they were born.
So the explorers, sailors and adventurers brought the world to them. Along
with their stories, they hauled back specimens of exotic plants, animals
and cultures by the trunk-, boat- and caravan-load. Much of this nimble-fingered
acquisitiveness was in the service of genuine scientific discovery; but
much was purely in aid of show biz. Humans have an insatiable curiosity
for the rare, the exotic, the freak and the new. The reality tv and Jerry
Springers of the early 21st century can trace a direct lineage back through
the freak shows and circuses of the early 20th, to Barnum's American
Museum in the 19th, to the 17th-century cabinet of curiosities--right
back to the first West Africans kidnapped to Portugal to amuse and edify
the court of Prince Henry the Navigator in 1441. In the era of global
European expansionism, it mattered little to the audience if the rarity
on display was a Saharan camel, a two-headed goat, a Hottentot or a Navajo.
It was all curious and fascinating, sometimes frightening, sometimes sexy.
Most importantly, it was out of the ordinary, appearing in places and
at a time when the ordinary could be very ordinary indeed.
"One reads of live Eskimos being exhibited in Bristol as early as
1501," Africanologist Bernth Lindfors writes, "of Brazilian
Indians building their own village in Rouen in the 1550s, of 'Virginians'
canoeing on the Thames in 1603, and of numerous other native specimens
from the New World, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands being
conveyed to European cities and towns as biological curiosities..."
In the 1850s, a pair of diminutive Bushmen entertained the patrons of
an inn outside London, singing English songs and playing the piano. In
the same decade, a troupe of Zulus performed in front of a painted "African"
backdrop; they pretended to be completely unaware of the audience as they
went about what was supposedly their daily routine. This conceit that
audience members were inobtrusive observers, like anthropologists in the
field, would be continued in the "native village" displays that
were de rigeuer for every Victorian and Edwardian World's Fair. Exotic
performers regularly appeared on the bill at lecture halls and music halls,
county fairs and amusement parks. They worked the vaudeville circuit throughout
its span. Barnum's circuses and his American Museum were never without
rare and strange human displays, from Eng and Cheng to
Madagascar albinos to Zip the pinhead.
all the "primitive" and "savage" humans who
appeared in these settings, none provided such consistent fascination
as Africans. They were Black, therefore the least White of all peoples
on the earth. In the Great Chain of Being, with European Man at
the apex, they occupied the lowest rung of humanity, closest to
the beasts. When Darwin's theories of evolution were being debated
from 1859 on, Africans--especially Pygmies, who had been captivating
the imaginations of Europeans since the time of Homer and Herodotus--were
widely seen as representing an early stage of evolutionary development,
far from Civilized Man, much nearer to the primates they supposedly
resembled. Thus Bronx Zoo director William Temple Hornaday had no
misgivings about exhibiting the Pygmy Ota Benga in a cage next to
that of an oragutan in 1906. Forty thousand people a day flocked
to see the "wild man."
As the enduring interest in Pygmies indicates,
most fascinating of all were Africans who combined their inherent
exoticism with some aspect of freakishness. Ubangi women wearing
their lip-stretching disks were never-fail attractions at world's
fairs and expositions well into the 20th Century (and were caricatured
in innumerable comics and animated cartoons).
Article by John Strausbaugh, from his
Like You: Blackface in American Popular Culture,' published