Wednesday 17 November 2010

Somalis in Victorian London

The Somali population in London currently runs to 100,000 people (although that's a guess, pending another census) but when did the first Somalis arrive?

There may well, of course, have been odd Somali merchant seamen in the London docks, at various points in the 19th century, However, the first clearly attested trip is the 'African Exhibition' of 1895.

'Exhibitions' of people from different countries were a feature of Victorian London life. A 'Chinese family' was included in the Chinese Collection at Hyde Park Corner in 1851; a 'Japanese Village' was set up at Albert Gate in 1885; there are other examples. In 1895, however, an entrepreneur decided to bring a whole Somali village to the Crystal Palace. A special liner was hired; African animals and 'native' huts were included; and only a few props (rocks, mountain backdrop) were set up, to present an 'authentic' African scene to the curious public, although the 'natives' themselves were not from the same village, and seem to have been whomever the promoter could persuade to travel to England.

I've included some great contemporary reports below. I say 'great' because I find them fascinating. They are, naturally, riddled with the imperialist and racial prejudices of Victorian England. Africans are 'child-like' (ie. in need of British paternal governance); and the performance - for this was something of a 'theatrical' venture, as you'll discover - includes 'European hunters' who settle the disputes between 'warring tribes'. I know nothing about imperial history, so I'm not expert enough to comment on how often this actually happened, or whether it's just what the Victorian public wanted to hear. It's certainly interesting that this is the keynote: the British Empire providing a 'pax romana' for the 'quarrelsome' Africans (and - it's taken for granted, I think - making a healthy profit in the process, of course ... the exhibition also included an exhibit of African diamonds).

The Daily News piece ends with "They were not at all disconcerted by the attention they attracted, though the party of visitors invited to meet them on their arrival must have seemed quite as strange to their eyes as they appeared to the company who saw them at Tilbury preparing for their first railway journey." ... and, yes, wouldn't you just love to know what the Somali 'visitors' made of Sydenham and their bowler-hatted, waistcoat-wearing hosts?

AN AFRICAN EXHIBITION AT THE CRYSTAL PALACE. So much interest is felt in all that relates to Africa that the directors of the Crystal Palace Company have. been well advised in getting up the two-fold exhibition which is to be opened at Sydenham this day week. The presentation of a village in Somaliland, with its inhabitants in their manner as they live, is certain to prove very attractive to the public at large, while the loan exhibition will be of great practical interest for all who are concerned in the development of colonization and trade in the dark continent. The idea of transporting a whole Somali village from Berbera to the banks of the Thames was a very happy one, but it would have been impossible to find the necessary space for reconstructing it even in the large grounds at Sydeaham had not the Crystal Palace Company recently laid out, at a cost of something like £16,000, a sports arena where football and other games are to be played. This tract of ground has been set apart for the village encampment throughout the summer. In order to obtain, together with a contingent of natives, a representative collection of the wild animals indigenous to Somaliland, the Crystal Palace Company made arrangements with Herr Hagenbeck, the well-known collector and trainer of animals at Hamburg, and with Herr Josef Menges, who accompanied the late General Gordon in his expedition up the Nile, and who has been a scientific explorer in Africa for the last quarter of a century. Herr Menges had made so many excursions into the interior since permanent relations had been established with the tribes on the coast that he was in possession of the fullest information about the country, and he experienced little difficulty in obtaining the consent of some 70 Somalis of different tribes to undertake the voyage. They, together with the animals, were landed in England a week or two ago, and they are the first of their race who have been seen in Europe. As was pointed out in the article "An African Outpost of India-Somaliland," which appeared in The Times of February 16, the land which they inhabit, no longer to be designated, as it was by Speke 40 years ago, "the Unknown Horn of Africa," is " inhabited by a manly and tractable people, much addicted to the chase, both of wild animals and of each other, alternating trading journeys to the seaports with predatory forays and tribal feuds, and seeking in the alliance and under the protectorate of the British flag to find both an umpire in their intestine disputes and a refuge from the better-armed and more powerful neighbours, such as the Abyssinians, by whom their dearly-loved independence stands in danger of being impaired."
    These are the men who are now putting up their encampment in the gardens laid out by Sir Joseph Paxton, and they number 53 in all, with six women and as many children. Coming from the north of Somaliland, and belonging to different tribes, the men are for the most part tall and well-built, the great majority of them being of the Arab rather than of the negro type. The men have a habit of combing their hair all their leisure time, and some of them rub into it a yellow paste made of clay and lime, while they evidently take great pride in their teeth, which they are constantly rubbing with a small bit of wood. The few women in the detachment are not very attractive in features or dress, but while the unmarried owes wear their hair in curls like the men, the married women have theirs done up in shawls, men and women alike wearing long white robes called "tobe," though the chiefs are attired in coloured garments. The whole of them wore landed in England without mishap, and Herr Menges was scarcely less fortunate with the freight of animals, which included 25 native horses, 20 dromedaries, half a dozen lions, six ostriches, cheetahs, pumas, leopards, sheep, and birds. The cargo also included several antelopes but four of these were lost on the voyage while the taller antelope, which had reached Sydenham in safety, has also died.
    The Somalis themselves, though they have been provided with covered buildings for passing the night—the climate of this country being too cold to admit of their sleeping in their mat huts—will pass the day in these huts, which form a picturesque encampment upon the new sports enclosure, and which, like the animals, have been brought over with them from Somaliland. The process of putting up and taking down these huts, cooking their food, and engaging in mimic warfare will, undoubtedly, be watched with eager interest, especially by those who remember the vivid description which the writer of the article referred to above gave of "the excited, shouting, leaping crowds with the brandished spears, the fluttering white or tartan scarves, the gleaming black bodies, and the glittering white teeth, who performed before us at Berbera and at Zeyla." The national sports and dances, which will be performed two or three times each day, and attacks of one tribe upon another will be simulated, Europeans coming to the rescue, while the horse and dromedary races will be very genuine, because the area over which they are to take place is so extensive. The most effective feature, however, in the whole display will be the passing of an immense caravan made up of all the natives and animals in the encampment, and the sentiment of reality will be much heightened by the clever arrangement of the scenery representing Somaliland, which has been painted by Mr. Bartlett, and which has been placed round the encampment, some of the set pieces being 30ft. high. The loan exhibition, which will be held in the Grand Nave of the palace, is not limited to any one region of Africa, but will include articles of interest from every part of it. Mr. P. C. Salons has sent the whole of his valuable collection, which has never been shown, including, of course, his fine trophy of wild game, and Mr. H. M. Stanley has promised to lend several curiosities, among them being an original map by Livingstone. Messrs. White send 140 paintings by Thomas Barnes, which present a vivid panorama of South African life and scenery as they were 30 years ago, while Mr. Denny contributes, together with specimens of ivory, tusks, carved ivory, native weapons, articles of dress, and King Bonny's state umbrella, which is capable of sheltering 20 people. The De Beers Company exhibit diamonds in the rough and matrix, together with a model of their mine, while Mr. Horniman lends the whole of the African collection from his private museum, and the Imperial Institute a portion of its Cape section. Mr. Barney Barnato has lent the first diamond-washing machine used in the South African fields, and among the other exhibitors of curiosities are the Union and Castle lines (which show models of their steamers going to the Cape), Sir Donald Currie, Sir Frederick Young, M. Coctermans, of Antwerp (who lends the Star of Belgium, a stone of 200 carats weight), and a number of companies and corporations which are interested in the development of the mineral wealth of South Africa.
The Times, 1895

THE EAST AFRICAN EXHIBITION. Yesterday the directors of the Crystal Palace gave a private view of their East African Exhibition to a large company of invited guests. The chief feature of the show, a description of which appeared in The Times of Saturday last, is the presentation of a Somali village, and the display will not fail to attract, interest, and amuse large numbers of visitors during the coming season. Herr Hagenbeck and Herr Josef Menges, who have made the arrangements for the Crystal Palace Company, have certainly succeeded in bringing together a company of natives whose village life, with all its picturesque surroundings, affords an African scene of a novel and pleasing character. The troupe consists of 53 men, six women, and six children. With the exception of a few men of low caste—smiths and hunters—they belong to the tribes inhabiting the western part of the north coast of Somaliland and the interior. The new sports arena in the palace park forms an excellent ground for their operations. They have erected huts which have been brought over from their own country, and the nature of the ground enables any number of spectators to have an uninterrupted view of the village and everything that takes place around it. Unfortunately, the present weather is a discomfort to the natives. But, notwithstanding this, they braved the cold wind yesterday, and went through their performance in native costume. They evidently took much interest in the various contests, as well as in the method by which the spectators showed appreciation of their efforts. The scene opens in front of the village, where the natives are following their daily occupations. Dromedaries and other animals are grazing near to the huts. Some brigands appear and attempt to steal the dromedaries, and at once, amidst great excitement and much noise, the villagers, both men and women, attempt to beat off the thieves. There is a wild fight ; some European hunters arrive, and the brigands are driven away. Many of the latter, however, are captured and detained as hostages, and have to be ransomed by presents of sheep, goats, and ostriches, while the brigands receive one of the maidens as a guarantee of peace. Festivities follow—dances of love and war, throwing the spear, shooting with the bow and arrow, dromedary races, horse races, and the like. The European hunters arrange a zareba in the village to buy animals, illustrating how young animals, birds and reptiles, are nursed, trained, and bartered, after which most of the hunters leave for the hunting grounds. They return, bringing with them some large game. Then follows a striking scene. A great caravan is formed, in which all the natives and animals take part ; and, after parading the village, it finally disappears behind the mountain scenery. In addition to the native village there is an excellent African loan collection formed in the nave of the palace. The first public performance will be given to-day.
The Times, 1895

AFRICA IN LONDON. The company of Somali natives, with their belonging, who will reproduce at the Crystal Palace the life of an East African village, arrived in London late on  Wednesday night on board the Clan Rosa, and were landed yesterday morning, when they were taken on at once by special train from Tilbury to the Crystal Palace. The African Village will no doubt become the popular feature of the exhibition, which will bring together at the Crystal Palace one of the most interesting and instructive collections ever seen in England. Certainly we have had nothing like the African Village. It is intended not only to reproduce in all its details a Somali village, but the occupations and diversions of the natives will be represented in action. . . . They number sixty men and women, and a few young children. They have not been long in discovering the vagaries of the English climate, but in spite of the variable weather of yesterday, they did not seem to find their simple native costume insufficient. It is only fair to assume that we have here the picked men of their race, and the Somali is certainly a very handsome fellow, with fine features and handsomely proportioned. The type is that of a Arab, though they dress their hair in negro fashion. The dandies of the tribe devote a good deal of attention to their hair, which is not only curled, but is sometimes dyed a peculiar light shade of brown. The women wear their hair in tiny ringlets. They seem all highly intelligent, if one may judge from the expression of their faces, or the manner in which they went about their work, and exceedingly good-tempered. They were not at all disconcerted by the attention they attracted, though the party of visitors invited to meet them on their arrival must have seemed quite as strange to their eyes as they appeared to the company who saw them at Tilbury preparing for their first railway journey.
Daily News, 1895

 . . . Next comes a quaint and grotesque "love dance," which is followed by an exhibition of skill and strength in throwing the spear, an exercise at which the Somalis are very expert, sending their weapons flying through the air to long distances. A horse race on the wiry native ponies is spiritedly contested, and a war dance is done with much demonstrative energy of gesture and movement. A dromedary race is particularly interesting to those who have read about the difficulty of riding one of these "ships of the desert," which, however, the practised Somalis seem to do easily enough. The pace at which the dromedaries - which bear the same relation to the ordinary camel of burden as the cart horse does to the thoroughbred - move is fair, and their appearance at the gallop, though odd, is not unpicturesque. More horse-racing follows, and sham fights on foot and on horseback are gone through. The Somalis imitate a combat very dramatically, and some of them have a good idea of low comedy business. The European hunters then form a caravan, which starts off on a hunting expedition, presently returning in a long file with captured ostriches, elephants, lions, monkeys, and antelopes. This is a very pretty picture, the elephants of which there are more than a dozen, looking very fat and healthy. The encampment is then broken up and the departure of the cavalcade continues the show, which gives an excellent idea of the mode of life of the curious people, of whom Sir Richard Burton in his "Footsteps in East Africa," says, "They have all the levity and instability of the negroes, are light-minded as the Abyssinians, constant in nothing but inconstancy, soft, merry, affectionate souls, passing without apparent transition stages into a state of fury, in which they are capable of the most terrible atrocities." Fortunately our Somali visitors at Sydenham display only the good side of their characters, and do not pass into the "furious" stage. In addition to introducing to us the Somalis, Herr Hagenbeck is making a very interesting experiment at the Palace. He does not believe in isolating wild carnivorous animals by placing them in small separate dens. He has, therefore, brought to Sydenham a huge cage, in which he has placed twelve young lions, one tiger, three bears, three hyaenas, four cheetahs or hunting panthers, and one dog. Other animals will be added until the total reaches at least fifty, and Herr Hagenbeck intends that these animals, while enjoying comparative freedom by having a large playground, shall enjoy each other's company for a space of at least three years from the date of the opening of the East African village.
The Era, 1895

SOMALILAND AT SYDENHAM. Since the object of East Africa at the Crystal Palace is to display the manners and methods of the East African native at home, and to afford a glimpse of daily life in " a Peaceful Somali Village of Red Mat Huts," it follows that there cannot be much which properly remains "behind the scenes" in that region as fascinating to those who do not visit it as Alice found the world on the other side of the looking-glass. . However, there are a few properties and legitimate deceptions in the presentation of Somaliland at Sydenham, though they are confined to the landscape, and it is this land of mountain lath and valley plaster that our artist has called the interior of Africa. In other respects there is an agreeable lack of stage effects and dresses in the domestic drama of Somali life. The obvious delight of the natives in "play-acting," a delight apparently as natural to them as to children, is one of the chief charms of the display. At the same time life in what is described as a peaceful Somali village appears to be tolerably eventful. When the curtain goes up, that is to say when the spectators have taken their places, it is true that the outlook is calm and undisturbed. The women are tilling the ground, carding the wool, running through the light task of the weekly washing, preparing the meals ; the men are leaning up against the huts and discussing the prospects of the hunting season. Dromedaries and goats are peacefully browsing in the suburbs ; the Somali children are congratulating themselves that for the moment they have done nothing for which they require immediate correction. Upon this quiet scene a band of brigands suddenly intrudes and attempts to steal the camels. The inhabitants of the village, men and women, turn out to resist the outrage - the children express their dissatisfaction in the usual manner ; there is much sound of battle, but happily little bloodshed, and only one native is carried off the field. In the end the brigands are beaten off by the opportune re-inforcements of European hunters, and retire, leaving behind them some of their number as prisoners. The frugal villagers propose to exchange the prisoners for what are euphemistically called "presents " of sheep, goats, and ostriches, and the discussions which follows between villagers and brigands as to the exact equivalent of four prisoners of varying attractiveness are characteristically of considerable animation. Much of the barter is carried on by the wounded villager who was carried off the field, and who, now recovered, enforces his opinion of economic values by hitting the captives with a spear  whenever their opinions are called into dispute. At last, however, the bargain is clenched by the offer on the part of the villagers of a young maiden in marriage. At last, however, matters are settled, and the marriage dances begin. These, which are very long, are at last stopped by one of the "European hunters," who suggests that now they had better get to business and provide the European market with animals for Mr. Hagenbeck's menagerie. This accordingly is done. The bride goes back, metaphorically, to her "bees and her cows," and her husband goes out with the rest of his companions hunting. They return in a few minutes from the canvas mountains with a truly magnificent collection of elephants, dromedaries, zebras, ostriches, and antelopes; and the day's work and the day's entertainment conclude with some highly interesting dromedary racing, spear throwing, and "general rejoicings."
The Graphic, 1895

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