Clico, Authentic African Bushman. Detail from 1920's real photo postcard.

Savage Sideshow:

Exhibiting Africans As Freaks

by John Strausbaugh

From 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.


Of 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).


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Article by John Strausbaugh, from his book 'Black Like You: Blackface in American Popular Culture,' published by Penguin-Tarcher.