- Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle
Professional Savages began as an exhibition at the National Library of Australia that documented the return, in 1993, of the embalmed body of Tambo, an Australian Aborigine who died in 1884 while on display at a Cleveland dime museum. The book tells the tale and maps the movement of two different groups of Australian Aborigines who were exhibited at a variety of entertainment venues in Europe and the United States in the 1880s and 1890s. Thoroughly researched and elegantly written, Roslyn Poignant's study places Tambo and his companions within the larger narratives of colonialism, the emergence of mass entertainment, the rise of anthropology, and postcolonial attempts at reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
Poignant locates the exhibition of the "Australian Cannibal Boomerang Throwers" within the wider history of the display of non-western peoples at sideshows, world's fairs, and circuses. Originally contracted to be part of P. T. Barnum's 1883 "Ethnological Congress of Strange Savage Tribes," the Australians were displayed throughout the western world alongside other "exotic" peoples as a racial "type." These exhibitions established non-western peoples as primitive and savage and thus justified colonial interventions. It was a similar ethnological show that prompted Charles Dickens to insist that the so-called "noble savage" should be "civilised off the face of the earth" (qtd. on 112). These shows thus functioned not only as a form of popular amusement but also as sites for educating the European and American public about racial difference. Indeed, the emergence of anthropology as a discipline, Poignant demonstrates, was intimately bound up in the history of sideshow spectacle. Impresarios, such as the Aborigines' manager R. A. Cunningham, relied on anthropologists for testimonials that corroborated the authenticity of their acts. At the same time, anthropologists, who in the late nineteenth century were seeking to establish themselves as experts on racial classification, used these types of exhibitions to gain access to ethnological "specimens." These shows cannot therefore be dismissed merely as Victorian voyeurism, but rather must be understood as central to the production of racial discourses in the age of European imperialism.
But Poignant's book is not a simplistic story of exploitation. While she argues that the Australians were essentially "abducted" (1) and always underpaid for their labor, her account is much more nuanced, and refuses to cast the Aborigines as merely victims of an avaricious showman. Instead she reveals the indigenous Australians' own investment in their identities as performers, their refusal to be probed by anthropologists, and their strategies for maintaining their own culture's integrity even while it was being exploited for profit. She convincingly establishes that while they should not be interpreted as complicit in their own exploitation, the Australian performers were not entirely without agency. At the same time, while Cunningham was primarily interested in deriving profit from his "cannibals," Poignant maintains that he may also have become attached to them, revealing that this relationship was much more "subtle" than the "victim and villain," or "master/slave," narrative allows (14).
The strength of Professional Savages, but also perhaps its greatest weakness, lies in its detail. Poignant has chosen to document the movement of only two groups of performers because she is committed to telling the story of individuals. Poignant critiques previous work that often unwittingly recapitulates the nineteenth-century discourse of [End Page 327] racial types and instead focuses on "particular lives and events," seeking to recover "the details of the actual lives and experiences" of Tambo and his companions (8). Painstaking research in a variety of libraries, archives, cemeteries, and institutions across Europe, Australia, and North America has resulted in an extraordinarily comprehensive account of the movement of the Australians from Queensland to Cleveland to Constantinople and back again. The details force the reader to focus on the stories of particular individuals who have been written out of the master narratives of history. While this attention to detail is part of the politics of the book, some of the material...