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  • Uncle Tom in the White Pacific: African-American performances of the “slave sublime” in late-colonial Australasia
  • Melissa Bellanta

In the late nineteenth century, a number of travelling African-American entertainment troupes gave performances evoking the suffering of slaves to audiences in the British settler colonies of Australia and New Zealand. These performances consisted chiefly of Uncle Tom’s Cabin plays and concerts of so-called jubilee songs. A significant portion of the Australian and New Zealand public responded sentimentally to these performances. In this article, I ask why and how this was possible given that the late 1800s was a period of hardening attitudes towards “Coloured” peoples in this part of the “White Pacific.” Why did so many Australasian settlers respond sentimentally to African-American performances of what Paul Gilroy would call the “slave sublime”? My answer is that sentimentality about African-American suffering in another place and time actually reinforced the hardening of settler attitudes towards Indigenous peoples close to home. In so arguing, I seek to relate the existing literature on “Black cultural forms” to new work on settler colonialism in late-colonial Australasia. I also take issue with those who suggest that sentimental cultural forms were no longer significant in the late 1800s, showing that they continued to play an important social and cultural role.

-Australia bids you welcome here And in her name I speak. Your wrongs, your songs have drawn a tear, And watered many a cheek. Yet, through our tears, our hearts to thee Feel tender, kind and true; Sweet Singers of the Jubilee, We breathe a prayer for you.

A Tribute to the Fisk Jubilee Singers1

For almost three and a half years in the late 1880s, Frederick J. Loudin’s Fisk Jubilee Singers, the famous African-American choir, toured Australia and New Zealand. Loudin’s group was named after an even more famous Black American choir from the 1870s, the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, from Nashville, Tennessee. As the name suggests, the main items in each of these groups’ repertoires were jubilee songs. A jubilee song was an example of Black American religious music, usually a spiritual, that had been altered to suit the conventions of the commercial concert stage.2 Loudin’s Singers’ performances of jubilee songs such as “Steal Away to Jesus” and “I’m Rolling Through An Unfriendly World” proved enormously popular in Britain’s Australasian colonies.3 They attracted crowds almost everywhere they went. They also garnered critical praise. Crucial to the warmth of their colonial reception were their connections to American slavery. In both their publicity and the press commentary, much was made of the fact that every member of the choir was a former slave or a direct descendant of slaves.4 It was also claimed that their best-known songs were “wild weird melodies and spirituels [sic] composed and sung by the captive slaves while in bondage.”5

Loudin’s Fisk Jubilee Singers were the first African-American group dedicated to the performance of Black religious music to visit Australia and New Zealand. Yet jubilee songs were already circulating in the colonies by the time they arrived. Nonconformist church choirs and White blackface minstrel troupes had performed jubilee songs such as “Go Down, Moses” in the early 1880s.6 More significantly, two touring groups of African-American vocalists had performed jubilee songs in the late 1870s. Both were minstrel troupes confusingly calling themselves the Georgia Minstrels; both, too, appeared in dramatisations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s renowned anti-slavery novel, in collaboration with local White theatre companies. In each case, the Georgia Minstrel troupes fielded performers to act as Uncle Tom and in other melodramas set in the slavery-era American South. Those not acting in these productions reprised their minstrel acts in plantation scenes; all, too, sang a mixture of hymns and jubilee songs at the plays’ most affecting moments.

Most music scholars make careful distinctions between jubilee songs performed in concerts by serious vocalists such as Loudin’s Singers and the “spurious” versions offered in minstrel shows and melodramas.7 One could indeed draw many distinctions between the two, not least because vocal concerts were considered...

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