R A Cunnigham's Australian Aboriginal international touring company
In 1882 Canadian theatrical agent Robert A Cunningham came to Queensland to secure 'wild' Aboriginal people as performers for touring in America and Europe in PT Barnum's show, 'Ethnological Congress of Strange and Savage Tribes', Six of the nine troupe members 'recruited' were from separate communities on Palm Island and three from Hinchinbrook Island.
They did not aII speak the same traditional languages. Only two spoke some English, and these were used to assert Cunningham's claims that they were not coerced. Their performance in Barnum's Congress began in 1883 and in the following year two members of the troupe, Tambo and Wangong, had died.
Cunningham left Barnum in 1884 and began a long tour across Europe despite the deaths of Bob, Toby senior, fussy anti Jimmy in 1885, Only Jenny, her son Toby and Billy returned to Australia in 1888. Their full and extraordinary story has been told by the Australian writer and anthropologist Roslyn Poignant in her 2004 book Professional savages: captive lives and western spectacle. Cunningham knew nothing of Aboriginal culture, so the members must have worked together as a group to develop a crowd-pleasing repertoire of dances, songs, boomerang throwing and mock fights in stage costumes (as they deeply resented requests to be photographed naked).
Cunningham soon realized the value of professional photography, and sales of images became a feature of all the European venues. Relatively few copies of the tour images are known to survive, Cunningham was undeterred by the death of the majority of his first troupe ant. returned to recruit a second group in 1892 in preparation for the living ethnological displays planned for the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago,
The National Gallery of Australia has also recently acquired photographs of troupe members from 'Meston's Wild Australia', which performed in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in 1892-93. This company was established by the Queensland journalist Archibald Meston who had formerly assisted Cunningham.
Senior Curator, Photography
National Gallery of Australia
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
William Robinson, photographer
H Negretti & Zambra printers and publishers
Members of RA Cunningham's Australian Aboriginal international touring company,
(left to right): Jenny, Toby her son, her husband Toby, Billy, Bob, Jlmmy and Sussy
(Crystal Palace, London, April 1884)
albumen silver carte de visite on Negretti & Zambra yellow mount
this text originally published in the NGA's Autumn 2006 Artonview
more Essays and Articles