Professional Savages


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Captive Lives and Western Spectacle

Roslyn Poignant

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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.

Roslyn Poignant is the author, with Axel Poignant, of Encounter at Nagalarramba and curator of Captive Lives: Looking for Tambo and His Companions, an exhibition for the National Library of Australia. She is an honorary research fellow in the Department of Anthropology at University College, London, and member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

“Poignant probes the deeper subtext of [P.T. Barnum’s ethnological] spectacles. . . . [She] has managed to dig up a surprisingly large number of contemporary documents about these performers.”—Laurence A. Marshall, Natural History

“Poignant…combines indefatigability with deep knowledge of Aboriginal culture and Victorian anthropology, an exemplary ability to read visual images, and a commitment to using history to improve the present. She also writes with a poetic sense of the metaphors of cannibalism, consumption, the boomerang, the spectacular, and the circus tent. … [Poignant] has been personally haunted by a sense of duty to these hitherto forgotten lives and also to those of their descendants. This is a book that will not be forgotten.” - Jonathan Benthall, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"Thoroughly researched and elegantly written. . . . A careful, compelling, and exhaustive account that has managed to connect the stories of particular individuals to the larger narratives of the production and effects of colonial discourses and practices."—Nadja Durbach, Victorian Studies

Shortlisted in the New South Wales Premier's History Awards 2005 for the State Records NSW John & Patricia Ward Prize.

Finalist for the 2004 George Freedley Memorial Award given by the Theatre Library Association

ISBN: 9780300208474
Publication Date: January 14, 2014
320 pages, 7 1/2 x 9 1/4
86 b/w illus.

Sales Restrictions: World excluding Australia and New Zealand