The Georgia Minstrels in Queensland, 1878

16 Mar

Last Friday I was looking at Queensland’s reception of the Georgia Minstrels, an African-American minstrel troupe managed by the impresario, Charles B Hicks, who toured Australia in 1877-79. They were sensations for the first eighteenth months of their tour, performing to packed houses around the colonies (Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland) and attracting a certain celebrity.

When the Georgias arrived in Brisbane on the evening of 27 February 1878, a crowd gathered at the wharf to see them disembark. In their advance publicity, they had billed themselves as ‘The Great American Slave Troupe… Composed of Colored Men’. Evidently, then, there was a good degree of racial if not racist curiosity among the Brisbanites gawping at them as they hauled their belongings on-shore. (Perhaps people were interested in what the Georgias looked like sans make-up, as they blacked-up on stage in the same way that white minstrel performers did, covering their skin with burnt cork or greasepaint). And that curiosity of course played into their popularity in Brisbane, Toowomba, Warwick and Ipswich over the following weeks.


We are not a party of White Men with Blackened Faces.


are composed of




And are, therefore, the only exponents of the Native Humor of the Colored Man that have ever visited Australia.

The Georgias attracted a broad popular audience when they were in Queensland. They gave matinee performances towards the end of their tour, and entreated would-be patrons to bring along their children for a ‘thorough treat’. They also performed in the Botanic Gardens on a Saturday afternoon a couple of times. One of these occasions was for a celebration of St Patricks’ Day, however, which I imagine was a dog-whistle to the more rumbustious among their audiences, for an afternoon of al fresco revelry under the sign of Erin’s Isle green. And apropos of my previous post about larrikins’ attraction to blackface minstrelsy, there is an indication that a few larrikins were among their audiences in Ipswich:

‘Those in the back seats were unable [to hear] at times – through the noisy and disgraceful conduct of a number of ill-mannered youths – who seemed to have enteted the building for no other purpose than to make themselves obnoxious’.

Billy Kersands

(An image of famous African-American minstrel, Billy Kersands, who was managed by Charles B Hicks in the mid-1880s. He didn’t come to Australia with Hicks’ Georgia Minstrels, but a performer called Billy Wilson did, and the two seem to have had similar performance styles. Wilson’s Australian performances attracted a great deal of commentary about the way he used his mouth and its size, as did Kersands’ in America).


Brisbane Courier, 28 February and 4 March 1878.

Queensland Times (Ipswich), 16 April 1878.

Richard Waterhouse, ‘Antipodean Odyssey: Charles B Hicks and the New Georgia Minstrels in Australia, 1877-1880’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, v.72, no.1, June 1986: 19-39 (fabulous, closely-researched article).


7 Responses to “The Georgia Minstrels in Queensland, 1878”

  1. Paulene Ashmore 24 January 2009 at 4:09 pm #

    I came across this article whilst researching a diary that I have. The diary dates from 1878/79 and the English author details his 14 month round the world trip during which he leaves London for Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand and then home via America and Canada. He is obviously from the English middle-classes as he travel everywhere first class and only the wealthy would be able to afford to undertake this kind of trip for pleasure (although he is doing it for “health reasons”)! He lists his expenses at the end of the log and the entire trip cost nearly £330 in 1879. Which I think will equate to around £20,000 in todays money.

    I am putting the finishing touches to transcribing it with a view to getting it onto the internet, but at the same time am researching some of the places and names he mentions. He does indeed, go to see the Georgia Minstrels (although not mentioned by name) at the end of August in Melbourne 1878 and I’m afraid that he didn’t think much of them. His two word review was “awful bosh”!

    Your blogs are very useful for me because of my research – thank you for making them so interesting.

  2. Melissa Bellanta 24 January 2009 at 8:07 pm #

    Dear Paulene – v. interesting. The fact that an upper middle-class traveller went to see the Georgias while in Melbourne is testament to how much of a stir they caused there at the time. The Georgias performed a much more rambunctious style of minstrelsy than the kind featured in England at that time. English audiences tended to be largely Evangelical churchgoers, and the shows were full of jubilee songs (spirituals) and serenades rather than the mix of comic ditties, ballads and uproarious skits that the Georgias performed. So perhaps that’s why he thought it awful bosh!

    Would be very interested in reading this diary once you’ve finished transcribing it. Did your man go to other theatrical entertainments while in Australia?

  3. Paulene Ashmore 27 January 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    How fascinating Melissa – thank you for that insight. I’ve suddenly found myself thrust into the mid-Victorian world and learning about all sorts of interesting things that I never knew existed! I’m very much enjoying the journey.

    My man didn’t go to any other theatres whilst in Melbourne (or anywhere else for that matter) – he mainly moves around with his ‘letters of introduction’ and stays in reading, playing cards, dancing and music. He does come across as quite serious but can be drole on occasion. On the ship to Melbourne, he travels with a Mr & Mrs Towie or Towle (not sure which). Mrs T he describes as an actress. Once in Melbourne, Mrs T is engaged at a theatre and my man meets the theatre owner, a Mr Aaron.

    I would be very happy for you to read the diary as so far I am the only person to have done so! Just finishing spelling, grammar and name checks – am aiming to be done in a month or so. It is close to 80,000 words and I only hope that it will keep you interested!

    • Melissa Bellanta 8 February 2009 at 10:54 am #

      Dear Paulene – would love to read the diary when it’s ready. Please do let me know!
      Warm regards

  4. David Rae 17 October 2010 at 4:04 pm #

    Hello Paulene and Melissa,
    My wife Tracy’s GG/Grandfather was Samuel Keenan, a member of the Original Georgia Minstrels. We live in Melbourne. Just wanted to mention we have a picture of the This Troupe if you needed a copy. I can email this to you if you like?
    David & Tracy

    • Bev Douglas 11 February 2012 at 7:30 pm #

      Hi Tracy

      I have come across Sameul Keenan while looking up my grandfather Ernest Keenan and Samuel Keenan is also my great grandfather. I live in Nelson NZ – Smuels grandson WalterKeenan lives in Christchurch – he is my fater. He is away at present and cant wait to tell him what I ave found.

    • Bev Douglas 14 February 2012 at 5:42 pm #

      Hi David – I send a message on another site also and below – I am Samuel’s great grandaughter – my father is Walter John Keenan son of Ernest Keenan and Marian Collier. Would love to catch up and share info and receive a photo of the minstrails.


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