Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture

By Nadja Durbach | Go to book overview

FOUR
Aztecs and Earthmen
Declining Civilizations and Dying Races

THE DISCOURSE OF CIVILIZATION THAT was so central to Krao’s exhibition also featured prominently in a variety of other performances in the late nineteenth century. When “the Last of the Mysterious Aztecs” were exhibited in London in the late 1880s and early 1890s, contemporaneously with Krao, their publicity materials emphasized that they were the only remaining members of a once great civilization that had over time become degenerate and thus died off. Although this act was on its last legs by the turn of the century, at midcentury it had been a smash success. This chapter argues that “the Aztecs” were exceptionally popular in the 1850s—a crucial and triumphant moment in Britain’s imperial self-fashioning—because they had helped to instruct the British public exactly how to imagine their place in the hierarchy of civilizations and empires. As the last specimens of a nowextinct nation, “the Aztecs” functioned as a warning of the decline and fall of even complex civilizations. At the height of Britain’s industrial and imperial ascendancy, however, this performance also encouraged spectators to construct themselves as members of a historically unparalleled and uniquely advanced culture that would not only survive, but expand, progress, and inevitably dominate the globe.

If the year 1851 was distinguished by the meeting of the “inhabitants of nearly all the civilised countries in the world,” who came to marvel at the Crystal Palace, then 1853 was, according to the Illustrated Magazine of Art,

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