Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle

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9780300102475: Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle
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In August 1882 the circus impresario P. T. Barnum called for examples of "all the uncivilized races in existence." In response, the showman R. A. Cunningham shipped two groups of Australian Aborigines to the United States. They were displayed as "cannibals" in circuses, dime museums, fairgrounds, and other showplaces in America and Europe and examined and photographed by anthropologists. Roslyn Poignant tells the fascinating and often searing story of the transformation of the Aboriginal travelers into accomplished performers, professional savages who survived at least for a short time by virtue of the strengths they drew from their own culture and their individual adaptability. Most died somewhere on tour. A century later, the mummified body of Tambo, the first to die, was discovered in the basement of a recently closed funeral home in Cleveland, Ohio. Poignant recounts how Tambo's posthumous repatriation stimulated a cultural renewal within the community from which he came, exposing the roots of present social and economic injustices experienced by indigenous Australians.

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Review:

'Poignant...This is a book that will not be forgotten.' -- Jonathan Benthall, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol.11 no.3 September 2005

'a scrupulously researched account' -- The V & A Magazine, Autumn 2004

Synopsis:

In August 1882 the circus impresario P.T. Barnum wrote to American consulates and agents around the world for assistance in assembling a collection 'of all the uncivilized races in existence'. Within months the showman and self-declared man-hunter R.A. Cunningham, already in Australia, had 'recruited' a group of North Queensland Aborigines and shipped them to San Francisco. In this fascinating and often searing narrative, Roslyn Poignant pieces together the experience of two groups of reluctant travellers. Exhibited in circuses, dime museums, fairgrounds and other show places in America and Europe, they were also examined, measured and photographed by anthropologists. Displayed as cannibals and brutish specimens on the metropolitan exhibition circuit - Crystal Palace in London, the Folies-Bergere in Paris, Berlin's Panoptikum, St Petersburg's Arcadia, the imperial court in Constantinople, the World's Fair in Chicago and Coney Island, New York - they transformed themselves into accomplished show people and professional savages.

Thrust into the harsh world of commercial spectacle, the survival of the Aboriginal performers depended on the strengths they drew from their own culture and their individual adaptability. Few ever returned to Australia. Most died somewhere on tour. A century later, in October 1993, the mummified body of Tambo, the first to die, was discovered in the basement of a recently closed funeral home in Cleveland, Ohio. Tambo's posthumous repatriation stimulated a cultural renewal within the community from which he came and exposed the roots of present social and economic injustices experienced by Indigenous Australians.

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Publisher: Yale University Press UK SR, 2004
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