Strangers in a strange land : the 1868 Aborigines and other indigenous performers in mid-Victorian Britain

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Enshrined by cricket history, the 1868 Aboriginal cricket tour of England has become popularly established as a uniquely benign public transaction in the history of contact between Aborigines, pastoralist settlers and British colonialism. Embraced by two Australian Prime Ministers and celebrated by a commemorative Aboriginal tour, film documentaries, museum displays, poetry, creative fiction, sporting histories, special edition prints and a national advertising campaign for the centenary of Australian federation, the zeal for commemoration has overwhelmed critical enquiry. Incorporating some critical interpretations of the tour which are current in Aboriginal discourse, this re-examination subjects the tour to approaches commonly applied to other aspects of Aboriginal history and relations between colonialism and indigenous peoples. Although it is misleadingly understood simply as a cricket tour, the primitivist displays of Aboriginal weaponry during the 1868 Aboriginal tour of Britain were more appealing to spectators than their cricketing displays. Viewed solely within the prism of sport or against policies leading to extermination, dispersal and segregation of Aborigines, there is little basis for comparative analysis of the tour. But when it is considered in the context of displays of race and commodified exhibitions of primitive peoples and cultures, particularly those taken from peripheries to the centre of empire, it is no longer unique or inexplicable either as a form of cultural display, a set of inter-racial relations, or a complex of indigenous problems and opportunities. This study re-examines the tour as a part of European racial ideology and established practices of bringing exotic races to Britain for sporting, scientific and popular forms of display. It considers the options and actions of the Aboriginal performers in the light of power relations between colonial settlers and dispossessed indigenous peoples. Their lives are examined as a specific form of indentured labour subjected to time discipline, racial expectations of white audiences and managerial control by enterpreneuurs seeking to profit from the novelty of Aborigines in Britain. Comparative studies of Maori and Native American performers taken to Britain in the mid-Victorian era flesh out sparse documentation of the Aboriginal experience in an alien environment. Elements of James Scott's methodology of hidden and public transcripts are utilised to identify the sources of concealed tensions and discontents. A detailed study of the two best known 1868 tourists, Dick-a-Dick and Johnny Mullagh, considers two strategies by which Aborigines confronted by a situation of acute disadvantage used their developed performance skills and knowledge of European racial preconceptions in partially successful attempts to satisfy their emotional and material needs and further Aboriginal goals. Finally, the disjunctions between commemoration and critical history are resolved by suggesting that the 1868 tour and its performers deserve to be commemorated as pioneers in the practice of recontextualisng and popularising Aboriginal culture in the western metropolis.
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