Edwardian Britain's Forest Pygmies
Jeffrey Green describes the impact of a troupe of six 'dwarf savages' and what it reveals about social and racial attitudes of the time.
On June 10th, 1905, The Era reported a new act at the London Hippodrome:
The curtain rose upon a scene which represented a tropical forest, in the midst of which is an opening, containing four wigwams of small dimensions. Outside were the group of little people who will for some time be objects of curiosity to amusement-seeking Londoners ... the scene represented a fairly exact picture of the pigmies' homes in the Ituri Forest of Central Africa.
The six pygmies drew 'big business' to the Hippodrome for fourteen weeks and then toured provincial cities until Christmas. About a million people saw them before they left for the rain forests of the Congo in November 1907.
The 'dwarf savages', 'strange apelike people' who had been 'captured in Central Africa' were described in the British press in May-June 1905 as living in trees. The elder woman was 'the nearest thing to a human monkey Europe has ever seen' according to The Sphere. Yet The Era recommended on August 5th, 'everyone in London should see these little people, who are a revelation in strange humanity'. The personalities of the six pygmies became visible through fantasies and publicity to the extent that they were invited to aristocratic homes and, with their spears and bows and arrows, to mix with the nation's rulers at the House of Commons and Buckingham Palace.
When they were not touring the four men and two women lived at the home of Colonel James Jonathan Harrison in Brandesburton, South Yorkshire. The villagers found them to be unusual but pleasant neighbours, and had respect for them as people. Harrison, the local squire, educated at Harrow and Oxford, was an officer in an elitist yeomanry cavalry regiment but had seen no war service. His travels and big game hunting trips had taken him to Japan, India, Africa and America.