The Wild Australian Children

23 Apr

A few years back I wrote a couple of articles about ‘lost race romances’ set in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century. Largely written by boys’-own-adventure novelists such as Ernest Favenc and William Sylvester Walker (but also by the popular writer, Rosa Praed), these works imagined the discovery a race never before known to civilisation somewhere in the Australian interior.

The narratives of lost race romances such as George Firth Scott’s The Last Lemurian (1898) and Praed’s Fugitive Anne (1902) were obviously influenced by the English-born South African writer, Rider Haggard. He wrote about unknown races being discovered in Africa in She (1886-7) and Allan Quartermain (1887), bestsellers throughout the British Empire. Drawing on bizarre theories about the lost continent of Lemuria and its peoples, the lost race motif itself was obviously influenced by the late-Victorian fascination with social Darwinism and eugenic ideas. In some cases, the races discovered in these works were imagined as a once spectacularly ‘advanced’ people who had degenerated into a sad condition under the pressures of isolation in the Australian outback. Anxieties about racial degeneration and the like, in which the turn-of-the-century era was so lamentably rich, were thus evoked in these literary offerings.

What I didn’t realise when I became interested in The Lost Explorer (1890) and other novels was that the idea of a lost race in the Australian interior had roots in a mid-nineteenth century freak show. Indeed, from about the mid-1860s, two unfortunate kiddies from Circleville, Ohio, were billed as ‘the Wild Australian Children’ in a travelling American exhibit of freaks and ‘scientific’ curios. In the cruel argot of the business, these children were ‘pinheads’: that is, they were microcephalic, and had severe intellectual disabilities. Promotional pamphlets accompanying their exhibit described them as the members of a near-extinct cannibal tribe, plucked from the desert wilds of Australia by an explorer-adventurer, Captain Reid.

According to their publicity, “phrenologists and other scientific men” had come to the view that the Wild Australians “belonged to a distinct race hitherto unknown to civilisation”. My ignorance of this fact when I wrote my articles (and the absence of it in any other work on the Australian romances) demonstrates once again the extent to which popular theatricals are under the radar for most studies of nineteenth-century culture. I wonder whether there were other such exhibits of ‘lost Australian races’ on the sideshow circuit in the 1860s-70s, and whether Haggard had become aware of them before writing She? And what do the Wild Australian Children have to say about notions of race and Australianness in America during the 1860s and 70s?


Melissa Bellanta, “Mobilising Fictions, or, Romancing the Australian Desert, 1890-1908”, History Australia, 1.1 (2003): pp 15-29

                       , ‘Fabulating the Australian Desert: Australia’s Lost Race Romances, 1890-1908’, Philament 3 (April 2004): (References to all of the Australian lost race romances are outlined in the footnotes to this article).

Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 119-20. Bogdan includes a poster of the Wild Australian Children in this work, taken from the Harvard Theatre Collection.


7 Responses to “The Wild Australian Children”

  1. Brett 23 April 2008 at 1:58 am #

    On the British Library website, there’s a poster for an 1885 freakshow in London which shows two ‘Australians’ (they look like pinheads). They’re dressed in colourful and slightly exotic clothing, nothing like what real Australians (indigenous or settler) tended to wear. I wonder if they were meant to represent the degenerate descendents of a lost race?

  2. Melissa Bellanta 23 April 2008 at 2:37 am #

    Oh – surely they must be. The picture looks remarkably similar to the one of the children got up as Wild Australians in America. And some of the novels of later years describe the lost race in tunics not unlike the ones in the British image. Curious and curiouser…

    Many thanks for this.

  3. Lidian 23 April 2008 at 6:14 pm #

    Thank you, once again, for a wonderfully informative and interesting post –

  4. batavialegacy 31 December 2010 at 10:11 pm #

    A very intriguing post, which raises several interesting and important questions. I have pursued the topic a little further at

    […] Bellanta’s article suggested an interesting point concerning the potential influence of exhibits such as these ‘Wild Australian Children’ on this intriguing literary scene, which I think is worthy of being thought about a little more […]

  5. Lizzie 25 November 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    Amelia Bingham, (1869-1927) early Broadway actress from Hicksville, Ohio was billed as the “Australian Dancer”. []

    And another April 6, 1885 Daily Democratic Times, Lima Ohio reference to Australia as an exotic and wild land: […Mollie Silverhorn, better known here as the “Australian Girl” here at Celilna (Ohio)]


  1. Barista » Blog Archive » wild australian historian - 27 April 2008

    […] The Vapour Trail. […]

  2. The Wild Australian Children « The Batavia Legacy - 31 December 2010

    […] 1870s, were recently brought to everyone’s attention by Melissa Bellanta on her excellent blog, Vapour Trails. In an interesting entry, Bellanta discussed her recent research on ‘Lost Race’ literature, […]

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