I acknowledge the Traditional Owners on whose land I walk, I work and I live. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and future.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Side Show Alley

As the Show comes to town with its side show alley, still within the recall of memory – as late as the 1980s – are the tents lining Side Show Alley where human oddities could be viewed: the half man/half woman; dwarfs, the bearded woman and such like. This so called pleasure in the ‘freak show ’, now so repugnant, was a remnant of the European appetite for spectacle, fed in such venues as the side show alley of fairgrounds, circuses, exhibitions and museums and in earlier times sated by the performances by Aboriginal Australians and other indigenous performers. A particularly tragic episode in the story of the displacement of the Indigenous inhabitants of the Herbert River Valley which played itself out in the 1880s occurred within the context of America’s and Europe’s appetite for the spectacle. Indigenous Australians, displaced by frontier conflict, vulnerable to spurious offers of employment, were plucked from their homelands and toured and displayed as “savages”, the “lowest order of human kingdom.” Their physical appearance and performances contrasted satisfyingly with the onlookers’ perceptions of themselves as superior, morally, physically, intellectually and technologically.  Only as recently as 2004, was the very real, though totally ignored, “odyssey of sorrow” of the Aboriginal Australians’ experience finally acknowledged and recounted. Robert A. Cunningham, showman recruiter for the circus impresario Phineas T. Barnum toured a group of nine Aborigines taken from the Palm Islands and the Herbert River Valley in the 1883 circus season in America as part of Barnum’s Ethnological Congress of Strange Savage Tribes. Within a year, the first of the group, Tambo, died. That fact that he died on “a bitter winter’s day” is a revealing pointer to the emotional trauma, physical discomforts and privations these people endured. After Tambo’s death Cunningham moved the group on rapidly, reaching England in April 1884. He left behind the body of Tambo which was embalmed and displayed at various locations well into the twentieth century. Cunningham then toured the group independently, through Europe but by November 1885 only three of the original group had survived, the others all perishing as a result of the “brutal disregard for the welfare of these touring troupes of indigenous people.” It is salutary to note that this number included a family group with young child. It was observed at the time that his greatest pleasure, like any small child’s, was riding on his father’s shoulders.  This disregard for their welfare had at its core the idea that they were “expendable”. Cunningham then returned to North Queensland in 1892 to inveigle another group of Aboriginal people (six men, two of whom were accompanied by their wives) ostensibly to appear in the Columbian Fair in Chicago in 1893.
The majority of this last group was Nywaigi and mystifyingly, a number appear to have come from Mungalla Station owned by James Cassady. Mungalla is at the heartland of Nywaigi territory. After his purchase of the property in 1882, three important camps of Nywaigi people remained and continued to pursue their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They found a measure of safety on his properties and for this reason he was pejoratively described by a former officer of the Native Mounted Police, as a “black protector, for his own interests, and to the detriment of his neighbours’ property”. His neighbour, incidentally, at Mungalla, was Sub-Inspector Johnstone and his Native Mounted Police camp of Molonga. The mystery lies in how the Nywaigi people on Mungalla came to be in that 1892 touring group. It remains unclear, though the haste of their departure on a steamer bound for San Francisco indicates that it might have been achieved in Cassady’s absence or during a gathering at one of the Townsville fringe camps. That Cassady was expecting their return to the property is clear in his letter to A.S. Cowley, local Member of Parliament in which he asked him to investigate why they had not been returned.

During their time in America they were exploited, underfed, ill clothed, underpaid if not unpaid, and at the end of a tour left to their own devices. These were people who spoke English fluently, one of their number being attributed with articulating the sentiment that “We are not savages, although we are natives of a wild country”. Yet show after show they had to listen to a showman spruiking up their “ugliness”, their “cannibalism” and their “inferiority”. Only two of this second group were to return to Australia and when they did so they were met by the Townsville police, henceforth having their freedom curtailed by the Aboriginals Protection Act of 1897 . The “odyssey of sorrow” of these people has only finally had some closure when Tambo’s mummified body which was found in the basement of a closed funeral home in Cleveland, Ohio in 1993, was repatriated to Australia for burial on Palm Island after a ceremony to release his spirit was conducted by Indigenous American Indians in Cleveland. 
Quotes sourced from Poignant, R. Professional Savages, Captive Lives and Western Spectacle, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2004 and as quoted in 
Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. The Herbert River Story, Hinchinbrook Shire Council, Ingham, 2011 from which, post has been lifted substantially from. 
1883 group source: http://www.mungallaaboriginaltours.com.au/gallery/event/historical

Mungalla homestead source: http://www.mungallaaboriginaltours.com.au/gallery/event/historical

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