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The naming of the ‘Hottentots’

4 Mar

In a recent post on Sara Baartman, the ‘Venus Hottentot’, I noted that she was regarded as neither black nor sexy by the European crowds who saw her exhibited in 1810.

As art historian Z. S. Strother shows, the key reason that Baartman was so fascinating to Europeans was not the fact that she was a hyper-voluptuous black woman, but rather because she was assumed to be a ‘creature without language or culture, without memory or consciousness’.

For centuries before Baartman was brought to London, her people, then called Hottentots, occupied a special place in the European imagination. Now known as the Khoikoi, they were then a nomadic nation who ranged across the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa. Given how many ships stopped to water at the Cape, her people had more contact with Europeans than any other African population during the age of exploration by sea.

Composed of a lush series of popping and clicking sounds, the Khoikoi’s language was a matter of astonishment to the Europeans who encountered them. Most of the latter assumed that the click sounds were jabber, and that the people who spoke them were bereft of true language. The fact that they were given the name ‘Hottentot’ reflected this. The word is thought to have emerged from a compound of the Dutch verbs hateren (to stammer) and tateren (to stutter). The term hottentotism still apparently appears in English and French medical dictionaries to describe extreme stuttering. Hottentot is thus a highly pejorative label, conveying the once-popular European notion that the Khoikoi could not speak properly, or indeed really speak at all.

As Strother puts it, ‘language was central in 16th and 17th-century [European] thought because it marked the common frontier separating humanity from the beasts’. Given that the ‘Hottentots’ were regarded as without language, they were thus widely represented in Europe as ‘more like beasts than men’, and were distinguished from other native Africans.

When Baartman was brought to London in the early 18th-century, then, she was not seen as a representative of African or black womanhood, but rather of this specific race of not-quite-humans: the proverbial missing link between the human and animal realms.


Z. S. Strother, ‘Display of the Body Hottentot’, in Bernth Lidnfors (ed.), Africans On Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business (Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1999), 1-61.


The story of the stage-struck thief

10 Jan

The opening night of the former convict Robert Sidaway’s Sydney theatre was 16 January 1796. Edward Young’s The Revenge (1733) was performed that evening, with a gallery audience who paid in meat and flour rather than coin. The lead role of Zanga, the Moorish villain, was played by a convict actor, his face entirely smeared with burnt cork. Most likely Zanga’s costume was in the Elizabethan style, with a starched ruff at the neck and a great plumed hat and breeches. The evening’s costumes were supplemented by ‘some veteran articles from the York theatre’, a patron observed.

The items worn by the convict actors in the The Revenge had probably been stolen from the York theatre and brought over in one of the early convict ships. According to theatre historian, Robert Jordan, a one-eyed caster of plaster ornaments called William Richards was serving a sentence in Sydney for the theft of costumes from precisely that theatre. This roguish Richards was listed as a member of Sidaway’s theatre company staff in early 1897, and as an actor there a few years later. Back in England, he had been convicted for the theft of ‘sundry articles’ of theatrical attire, but was rumoured to have stolen much more:- to wit, a pair of scarlet morocco leather buskins, a pair of linen ruffles, three black feathers, a pair of paste knee buckles, and a fat silk sash.  Since convicts brought trunks of their belongings with them when they were transported, it is possible that Richards smuggled some of these items to the Antipodes.

An artful pair of buskins

William Richards appears to have become obsessed with stealing theatrical costumes well before the heist at the York theatre which caused his removal to Sydney. An announcement in the English Newcastle Covenant in 1890 declared that he was wanted for stealing items from the Manchester, Margate and Derby theatres as well as the one at York.  He was also found hiding in the Newcastle theatre with obviously suspicious intent.

As Robert Jordan says, it is unlikely that a fellow would steal theatrical costumes for their re-sale value. There were surely more profitable enterprises.  Richard’s thefts seem instead to have been motivated by a fascination with the stage. Here, then, was a man whose very transportation was caused by a passion for the theatre, and who likely took the proceeds of his theft to the colonies in the hope of pursuing that obsession anew. And here, too, was a fitting opening for a theatre built by a former convict: a play led by a convict actor decked out in hot items cunningly spirited across the seas from York.

Source: Robert Jordan, The Convict Theatres of Early Australia, 1788-1840 (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2003), 40-3, 247-50.

PS: Incidentally, Hazel Waters singles out The Revenge as a singular example of racism on the English stage in her book on that subject. A heavily-robed Zanga appears on its cover looking down viciously at his white foe:

Paying for the theatre in caper sauce

4 Jan

The first known theatre in Australia was in a converted tile shed in Brickfields, Parramatta, not far from the infant penal settlement of Sydney in 1793-4.

The best known of Australia’s early theatres, however, was built by the former convict baker, Robert Sidaway, and appears to have been located near a windmill at the Rocks, in view of the expanse of Sydney harbour  and the clutter of convict dwellings nearby. Sidaway’s theatre opened for business on 16 January 1796. It allowed patrons to pay for a ticket to the gallery not in one shilling coins, but an equivalent quantity of flour, or spirits, or meat. The English press had a hearty laugh at this when it found out:

‘According to a French journalist, admissions to the Theatre at Botany Bay are paid for either in money or eatables. For a leg of mutton you have free access to any place before the curtain, and if you add Caper Sauce you may take in a friend’ (Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, 24.9.1798).

In spite of the sarcasm, this practice was sometimes to be found in England’s smaller country theatres, including one in which the manager was paid in nothing but fish. Can you just imagine the brouhaha of bartering, the earnest pleas, the clouds of flour and stink of fish scales, and the frustrated crowds milling at the gallery door?

A playbill from Sidaway’s theatre dated June 1796, held at the National Library of Australia and displayed in larger format at Wikipedia.

Source: Robert Jordan, The Convict Theatres of Early Australia, 1788-1840 (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2003), 37

Off the blogging wagon

4 Jan

Well, now I know what it is like to well and truly fall off the blogging wagon. I have been writing the first few chapters of my manuscript on larrikins, and somehow it has made the blogging impulse go down the tube. Before I use another silly metaphor, I will say only that  one of my new year’s resolutions is to start posting again. Have just sent a review of Kath Leahy’s Lords and Larrikins (2009) to Theatre Review International and have been reading Robert Jordan’s The Convict Theatres of Early Australia (2002), both wonderful publications from Currency Press, and am itching to write about some of the characters who strut their pages.

Happy New Year, all.

A World of Popular Entertainments (A conference @ the University of Newcastle)

12 Jun

With the ushering in of winter comes conference season in Oz. Thus, I have been at Carole Ferrier’s Women Writers/Artists and Travelling Modernisms conference at UQ, and the University of Newcastle School of Drama’s A World of Popular Entertainments, this past week and more. Both were small, with no parallel sessions: by far the best sort of conference so far as conviviality and intellectual engagement is concerned.


At the World of Popular Entertainments conference in particular, we were taken by bus to the University campus, some distance from the clapped-out boarded-up civic centre of Newcastle, and everyone there spent two long days toegther, as if on a ship cut off from land, with Victor Emiljanow and the lovely circus historian, Gillian Arrighi, at the helm. It is a discipline, to listen to each other speak at such long stretches. But in this case, I think, something special emerged by the end of it, which is, of course – the possibility of that happening – why one subjects oneself to the discipline at all.

I collected a swag of emails from people to follow up, and whose work I hope to read more of in future. Among them were Kath Leahy, whose book on high and low performance styles on the Australian stage across most of the 19th and 20th centuries (aptly called Lords and Larrikins), is soon to appear with Currency Press. Also John Bennett, from Liverpool Hope University in the UK, who gave a  quietly inspirational paper on the hopeful political project in which he thinks popular theatre should be engaged. And Kirsten Wright, a Melbourne-based independent researcher, who gave a paper on the ‘tattooed Greek prince’, Captain Costentenus, who was shown in freak shows around America and Europe at the end of the nineteenth century (you can read more about him@ The Human Marvels, if so inclined).

I am still trying to get my land legs now, having returned from that time at sea.

An 1880 art-and-obscenity trial: Ingres comes to Pitt St, Sydney

24 May

Hopefully, the Bill Henson imbroglio of 2008 is behind us in Australia now (for those who missed it: Australian police shut down the renowned artist’s shows at the rosylnoxley9 gallery last year, claiming that his photographs of teens sans clothes were child pornography).

I don’t have anything to say about that brouhaha that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. But I thought I would note an incident in Sydney in early November 1880, in which police once again stormed an establishment selling art, and in that case charged the dealer with obscenity.

The prosecution was for the exhibition of Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres’ La Source, a reproduction of which hung in the window of the dealer’s shop in Pitt Street, Sydney.

ingres_sourceThe Source (1856)

This painting had a ‘demoralising influence’, the prosecuting constable told the court, because ‘it represented the naked form of a woman’, and because it attracted large crowds of ‘the larrikin class’ – not only boys and young men, but ‘low, abandoned women and girls’ as well – who gathered to gaze at it on the Pitt Street footpath. This was, of course, the nub of the matter so far as he was concerned. The danger in 1880 lay with the inflammatory effects of female nudity on the lower orders, who would allow it to further demoralise themselves.

The charge in this case was roundly dismissed, you may be happy to know. Evidence in support of the dealer was given by a judge in the Art Section of the Sydney International Exhibition, who gave the usual testimony in such circumstances. He declared that ‘the indecency lay more in the mind of the critic’ than the painting itself, and that paintings of as much explicitness were available for view in the Art Gallery any day of the year. In spite of the contemporary panic about paedophilia and the very 1880s one about larrikinism, one is tempted to say, has really all that much changed?

Her ‘lily-white thighs’: Bawdy verses by the Cockatoo Island girls, 1873

21 May

One of the most striking documents I’ve found in my search for 19th-century larrikin girls thus far is a series of interviews with the bawdy inmates of Biloela, the Industrial School for Girls on Cockatoo Island, a site formerly worked by convicts in Sydney harbour.


Ruins of Biloela Industrial School today (taken from Arthur and Jenny’s photographic blog)

The interviews were conducted by a Royal Commission into Public Charities in 1873, and for all sorts of reasons they make for compelling reading. For a start, the girls had rioted just before the interviews took place. Most appeared with bruises and lacerations on their bodies (hips, breasts, faces, back) where they had been beaten by the Biloela superintendent, Mr Lucas – a man whom they had provoked by drawing filthy pictures in which he featured, er, prominently on the wall.

One of the things that struck me among the rest, reading these interviews, was the significance of singing to these girls. The girls ‘are constantly singing’, one of the matrons told the Commission. They used singing for emotional endurance and cultural sustenance; to kill time and entertain themselves. They also used it as a form of rebellion against the despised superintendent and his staff.

During the day, under the watchful eye of their superiors, the Biloela girls sang hymns as they went about their work. They also sang the kind of romantic songs taken up around the piano in family parlours and at concert recitals: songs such as the Scotch ballad, ‘Annie Laurie’, or the puff-piece, ‘Love Among the Roses’ (‘I felt the smart of Cupid’s dart; / Twas love among the roses’).

At night, however, when they were locked up in their dormitories at 6pm, the girls sang the latest songs they knew from the stage. Whenever a new girl came, the others begged her for all the latest hits, and then learned them as best they could. According to a policeman staged on Cockatoo Island, they also sang ‘blackguard verses’ – ‘beastly dirty songs’ which would never have been performed in a late-Victorian theatre. One of the girls’ verses had something in it about ‘lily-white thighs’, he said, and another was ‘The Rolling Magazine’.

I haven’t been able to track down the lyrics for ‘The Rolling Magazine’ (if anyone knows them, I would love to know). But there are a number of old English broadsides containing the phrase ‘lily-white thighs’, and stridently unedifying they are too.

I can’t be sure that the song ‘The Cat’ was the one sung at Biloela, whose lyrics I include below. Still, one can well imagine this song (contained in an anon. broadside at the Bodleian Library) being sung by drunken seaman on the wharves near Cockatoo Island, or else in pubs or in brothels around Sydney, and learned by the girls that way:

By the light of a candle I happened to spy
A pretty young couple together did lie
Said Nelly to John if you'll pull up my smock
You'll find a young hen full as good as your cock.
Then Johnny kissed her and pleased her awhile
When he pulled up her smock it made him to smile
Instead of a hen it appeared like a cat
For there was her beard and her rough hairy back. 
Then Nelly she opened her lily-white thighs
John played with the cat till the bristle did rise
He stroked down the hair as black as a coal
She catched his finger right snap in her hole.
...Then Nelly she held him so fast by the back
While she wriggled her ass & cried push it in Jack
He pushed in with courage so stout and so strong
She smiled in his face crying, well done John.
I burst in to laughter and spoiled the fun
But Nelly kept crying push it in John
Then John fell a laughing at Nell on her back
And swore he'd no more be plagued with a cat.


Annie Laurie, Scotch Ballad: Music (1865): see it on the National Library Australia site here. (There are any no. of advertisements for recitals in 1840-60s Australia in which ‘Annie Laurie’ was performed, appearing in papers such as the Brisbane Courier, the Hobart Mercury, the West Australian, &c).

Love Among the Roses (c. 1871): also on the NLA website.

The Cat, lyrics on

Report of the Royal Commission on Public Charities. Report No. 2, (1873-4) NSW Legislative Assembly.

I came across the above report in Noelene Williamson, ‘”Hymns, songs, and blackguard verses”: Life in the Industrial and Reformatory School for Girls in NSW, Part I, 1867 to 1887’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 67.4 (1982): 375-87 – an article which unfortunately doesn’t say anything much about the songs, in spite of the promise in its title.

Cathy Preston says that another old English ballad, ‘The Tying of the Garter’ was sometimes called ‘Lily-White Thighs’. The version she gives doesn’t actually contain the phrase, however – although it does refer to a maiden spreading her thighs: see Cathy Lynn Preston, ‘”The Tying of the Garter”: Representations of the female rural laborer in 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century English bawdy songs’, Journal of American Folklore 105.417 (Summer 1992: 315-41; Cathy Lynn Preston, ed., Folklore, Literature and Cultural Theory: Collected Essays (Taylor and Francis, 1995), 69-70.

For another song with the phrase ‘lily-white thighs’, see ‘The Monk of Great Renown’ on this folkore site.

More info about NSW State Archives Records on Biloela can be found on the Archives website, here.