Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture

By Nadja Durbach | Go to book overview

FIVE
When the Cannibal King
Began to Talk”
Performing Race, Class, and Ethnicity

WHEN THE AZTECS WERE EXHIBITED in London in 1853, the Dublin Medical Press proclaimed that the “owners of these small people might better perhaps have exhibited them in England as a variety of the wild Irish, for by so doing they might have tickled John Bull’s pride as well as his curiosity.”1 Ireland’s premier medical journal was here alluding to the widespread propensity in Britain for reading all ethnographic acts in relation to the archetypal Celtic “primitive.” The Barnum and Bailey Circus, which generally featured ethnographic acts, responded to this tendency by including a ditty in their 1899 British songbook that made the connection between the “wild Irish” and their own “wild man” exhibit explicit. The song, “The Barnum and Bailey Show,” contained the following verse: “When the cannibal king began to talk, / You could tell by his accent he’d been in Cork / With the Barnum and Bailey Show.”2 The song played on the widely held belief that the “cannibal king” not only had been to Cork but was just as likely to have been born there. Indeed, it was relatively common knowledge in the late nineteenth century that freak show entrepreneurs who could not afford to import troupes of exotic foreigners regularly employed locals, often working-class Irishmen, to play the role of African “savages.” While scholars have examined the exhibition of nonWestern peoples at freak shows and noted that many of the “cannibals” and “savages” on display were actually fakes, none have explored in earnest

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